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Her focus throughout is on the O’Hara household, in which just a few white characters live in close proximity, day in and day out, with black characters, and it is within this context that the novel’s narrative voice shows that bonds of affection and feelings of respect and endearment can grow between people of diverse origins despite what “the law of the land” might say about such things.
Central to Mitchell’s Irish identity was the couple represented by her grandfather, Irish-born John Stephens (1833-1896), and his wife Annie Fitzgerald (1844-1934), whom he married in 1864 in Atlanta’s Immaculate Conception Church as Sherman’s troops were heading south toward Atlanta.
It is widely believed that the cantankerous and headstrong Annie Fitzgerald Stephens was the principal model for Scarlett, although Mitchell would deny that there was any connection between her work and her family. Annie’s father, Philip Fitzgerald, who was born in Tipperary, owned the family plantation located about twenty miles south of Atlanta. They called it “Rural Home” or “Home Place,” and it would later become the Tara of Gone With the Wind.
According to Mitchell’s biographer, Darden Asbury Pyron, “These two Irishmen [Stephens and Fitzgerald] helped shaped the most fundamental stuff of Margaret Mitchell’s imagination.” Of her grandfather and great-grandfather Mitchell said: “They were both Irishmen born and proud of it and prouder still of being Southerners, and would have withered any relative who tried to put on the dog. I’m afraid they were so proud of what they were that they’d have thought putting on the dog was gilding the lily, and anyway, they left that to the post-war nouveau riche who had to carry a lot of dog because they had nothing else to carry.”
As a child, Mitchell made many visits to the Fitzgerald family home where her mother’s two maiden aunts Mary Ellen or “Mamie” (1840-1926), and Sarah Jane, or “Aunt Sis” (1849-1928) still lived. These two women, quite intelligent and very well read, never married. One reason for this was that in the aftermath of the Civil War, the number of eligible Southern men had been severely reduced by the tragic losses incurred in that conflict. After 1865, Mary Ellen and Sarah Jane transformed their maternal instincts, and channeled both their youthful energies and love of learning into the creation of a school. There, in the guest quarters that every antebellum plantation had possessed and that were scattered about the main house (and that, miraculously, had survived the war), they created several little schoolrooms for youngsters from the surrounding area. It was here that innumerable black boys and girls, over the course of the next several decades, attended classes and learned to read, write and do math with the Fitzgerald sisters.
Sarah Jane left a diary that Mitchell would use in the creation of her novel. Unfortunately, Mitchell’s husband, John Marsh, and her brother, attorney Stephens Mitchell, destroyed the diary after her death in an effort to silence various Fitzgerald and Stephens relatives who were claiming that Mitchell’s success and fame were unmerited because she had plagiarized her great aunt’s recollections.
The family’s ire was unjustified. According to Darden Asbury Pyron, the fallout was based partly on jealousy and partly on their negative perception of Mitchell as a lapsed Catholic, Smith College dropout, and divorcee. Whatever that diary contained, it was merely an inspirational text, a stepping-stone of sorts, for Mitchell. She filtered its contents through her own personal genius, and added elements created in her own imagination. Most of all, she used it to transform her family’s self-consciously Irish oral history of itself into a mythic and iconic text.
Within six months of its publication in May 1936, Gone With the Wind sold a million copies, an incredible achievement during the Depression era. Mitchell was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
In 1939, the novel was made into a much beloved movie starring Vivien Leigh (the English actress who, like Scarlett, was of Irish and French heritage), and Clark Gable. The movie received 10 Academy Awards (eight competitive and two honorary), and has been dubbed one the greatest American films of all time.
Mitchell was struck by a speeding car in downtown Atlanta and died on August 11, 1949, not long before her 48th birthday. She is remembered for creating one of the most famous heroines of all time, and a book whose appeal transcends ethnic, regional and religious boundaries.
Gone With the Wind has found a truly worldwide audience all these years for one simple reason: Margaret Mitchell was able to take an Irish story and make it speak the universal language of the human heart and mind, one that stands, seventy-five years after its birth, as a towering masterpiece of American literature for people of every imaginable background.