Atlanta, GEORGIA – They call themselves “Windies”, fans so inspired by just one book that they wear re-created costumes, quote whole scenes verbatim and name their children Bonnie Blue or Scarlett.
Gone With The Wind, published 75 years ago this year, has devoted readers around the world who have read the book in dozens of different languages.
Some of these readers are so committed that they visit Atlanta annually to make the Windies pilgrimage from where author Margaret Mitchell wrote her book to the spot where she died just a few blocks away and finally the trek to the cemetery where she is buried.
Alas, the story that the most ardent of these Windies once even staged a mock burning of a replica Atlanta remains unconfirmed.
Although he may not characterize himself as a Windy, official business brought Zhou Qiang, the governor of one of China’s largest province, to Atlanta earlier this year but it was an off-hour passion that drove him to make his sole request as a tourist to this southern city.
With only four hours of free time before his departure, Zhou asked to visit the site where Gone With The Wind was created.
The appeal of GWTW makes sense for anyone who, I suppose, believes that adversity can be overcome. Whatever lessons the governor from Hunan took away from the book is universal. How else to explain how a high-ranking official from China would find the same solace and connection in a work of fiction that I first read when I was 12 years old? Every young girl who has read GWTW believes there is a bit of Scarlett O’Hara in them and longs to prove their worth if ever tested.
Few of us will ever have to toil in cotton fields or shoot a looting Union soldier. But what has kept Gone With The Wind, a much-loved piece of fiction, the second most popular book in America, according to a recent poll, behind the Bible, is the hope that we could, under similar circumstances, endure what Scarlett endured.
Gone With The Wind was published 75 years after the start of the American Civil War, in an era when veteran Confederate soldiers were still alive and families from the South three generations after the war continued to bore the scars of the devastating conflict.
“I wrote about the people who had gumption and the people who didn’t,” Mitchell said about her book. Mitchell’s mother had taken her to see the ruins of the old mansions from the South which had not survived the Civil War and told her that the world exploded beneath the wealthy owners of these former plantations and the world would one day explode under her unless she learned how to use her own brains and gumption to survive.
When the book first came out on June 30, 1936, America was still in its Great Depression and Mitchell’s tale of war and survival became an instant bestseller. Overseas, as a real war threatened Asia and Europe, Gone With The Wind also quickly became popular as a parable for the aftermath of war.
Staff at the historical building where Mitchell lived while writing Gone With The Wind discovered that the governor from China was not only was a fan of the book but believed younger generations could benefit from reading it.
“The governor knew the book very well,” says Brandi Wigley, senior manager of community initiatives for the Atlanta History Center and Margaret Mitchell House. “He told me that he wished that more younger people would read the novel. He said that he has always loved the story and really appreciated it.”
With his car waiting to take him to the airport, Zhou lingered at the Mitchell house, reluctant to leave, says Wigley. At the building’s museum and gift shop, where the Chinese delegation spent $1,500 in a few minutes buying souvenirs to take home, Governor Zhou was given a tour.
The Margaret Mitchell house is dedicated to the author’s life from her upbringing as a pampered child of an old Southern family in Georgia to her wild days when she was kicked out of the Junior League for performing a version of a dance that recreated a street fight between a prostitute and her pimp.
One section of the Mitchell house details her time as a feature writer for an Atlanta newspaper where she interviewed everyone from silent screen star Rudolph Valentino to prisoners and workers inside jails. The ground floor apartment where she secretly wrote her book over a period of a decade has been preserved and restored to imitate the era in the late 1920s and mid-1930s when she lived there.
Organized events are planned at the Margaret Mitchell House and at the Gone With The Wind Museum in the nearby town of Marietta where exhibits include recreations of the plantation Tara made out of various materials and the actual costumes worn by the actors in the movie.
Atlanta today has grown upwards and around to a city of half a million residents. Its downtown district, Five Points, is all business-like but just a few kilometres east is Little Five Points where the funk factor is easily found for those seeking trendy restaurants and off-beat retailers.
Peachtree Street where Mitchell lived and just a few blocks away at the intersection on 13th Street where she died after being hit by a car is anchored by the century-old Georgian Terrace Hotel. With its marble ballroom and towering atrium, the hotel is where Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, the actors who played Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara, stayed during the movie’s premiere in Atlanta in 1939.
In nearby Oakland Cemetery, where her gravesite attracts thousands of fans more than any other burial spot in the city, events are held throughout the year such as elaborate costume picnics in Victorian dress and musical concerts.
Cotton plantations no longer exist but if they did, they would be in Buckhead, the tony neighbourhood where massive estates of cream and sand-coloured exteriors boldly jut out from a background of subtle green hills and forests.
All this is to say, Atlanta bears no trace of its early turbulent rise in the buildup towards the Civil War nor any signs of the burnt ruins when Union troops took over, setting the city on fire near the end of the war. Born the same year, 1847, as Scarlett O’Hara herself, Atlanta was an early symbol of the South’s shift from agrarian roots to a major transportation hub.
The world Mitchell knew in the first half of the 20th century still struggled from racial disparity just a few decades away from the Civil War and years before the Civil Rights movement. Mitchell herself stayed true to her beliefs of survival and that inner courage she and people in the South called gumption.
Quietly, after she made her fortune, she donated generously to charities and provided funding to Morehouse College, a traditional black institution where Mitchell’s contributions helped pay for the schooling of Atlanta’s first black paediatrician.
Mitchell and Scarlett O’Hara’s enduring imprint on Atlanta 75 years after the book first appeared is a reminder that wars can swipe away an entire generation like the wind but survivors, like places, remain behind to tell their stories.