Jun. 30, 2012

The Poet Visits the Museum of Fine Arts

by Mary Oliver

The text of this poem is no longer available.

"The Poet Visits the Museum of Fine Arts" by Mary Oliver, from Thirst. © Beacon Press, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of poet and dramatist John Gay (books by this author), born in Barnstaple, England (1685), best known for his play The Beggar's Opera, which was first performed in 1728.

It's the birthday of Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz (books by this author), born in Szetejnie, Lithuania (1911).

It was on this day in 1936 that Margaret Mitchell's novel Gone With the Wind was published (books by this author).

Mitchell was from a prominent Atlanta family — she was a fourth-generation Atlantan on her father's side, and came from a big Irish Catholic family on her mother's side. She grew up hearing grandiose stories of the Civil War. She was 10 years old before she found out — from some black farm workers — that the South had actually lost the war.

She wanted to be a journalist, and she went off to Smith College; but her mother died after her first year of college, and she came home to run the household for her father. By this time, it was the 1920s, and Mitchell enjoyed the freedom that came with it. She cut her hair short, smoked cigarettes and drank corn liquor, and read scandalous literature like Lady Chatterley's Lover. She shocked her family's social circle when she performed a provocative Parisian street dance with a male partner at a charity ball — after the dance, she was banned from the Junior League.

She might have shocked polite society, but she attracted plenty of admirers. Just 4 feet 11 inches, she was charming and energetic. An Atlanta gossip columnist wrote in 1922: "She has in her brief life, perhaps, had more men really, truly 'dead in love' with her [...] than almost any other girl in Atlanta." For a while she was encouraging five suitors at the same time. She married a handsome young man, Red Upshaw, who made his money bootlegging liquor in the Georgia mountains. Their marriage lasted just a few months. Mitchell needed some income, so she got a job as a reporter for The Atlanta Journal. A few years later, she married John Marsh, who had been the best man at her first wedding.

In 1926, a recurring ankle injury got so bad that a doctor ordered her to stay in bed and rest. She quit her job at the newspaper and began writing fiction. She started work on a novel about a headstrong teenage flapper named Pansy Hamilton, but it didn't come together. So she renamed her heroine Pansy O'Hara and started writing a novel set during the Civil War. She wrote most of it in three years, but didn't do anything with the manuscript, and continued to fuss with it for almost 10 years, eventually writing more than 1,000 pages. She wrote on a Remington typewriter set up on her sewing table, and she wouldn't tell anyone about it — whenever people came over, she covered her work with a towel. But all her friends knew she was writing it, and jokingly called it "the Great American Novel."

In the spring of 1935, an editor for Macmillan named Harold Latham was scouting for manuscripts in the South. He got a tip that there was a reporter from Atlanta who had written a book. Latham found Mitchell; she refused to let him see it, even after he spent the afternoon touring Atlanta's flowering dogwood trees and other local scenery with her. After he left, an acquaintance said she was surprised that Mitchell had written anything good enough for an editor to consider. Furious, she returned home, and rounded up all the pieces of her manuscript, which were in various envelopes under her bed and in a closet. They didn't all fit together quite right, and she didn't even have a first chapter, so she just grabbed the envelopes and went to Latham's hotel. She described her appearance on arrival: "Hatless, hair flying, dust and dirt all over my face and arms and worse luck, my hastily rolled up stockings coming down about my ankles." She handed over her manuscript but soon doubted her decision and asked for it back. Instead, Macmillan offered her an advance, and she spent the next year reworking the novel. She changed the name of the heroine from Pansy to Scarlett, and she gave her book a title, Gone With the Wind.

It came out on this day in 1936, and sold a million copies in its first six months, going on to sell more than 30 million copies. Mitchell won the Pulitzer Prize, and three years after its publication, Gone With the Wind (1939) was made into a movie that quickly became the highest-earning film of all time — adjusted for inflation, it may still hold that title. She died in 1949 when she was hit by a car while crossing the street.

Mitchell wrote to a friend in 1936: "Being a product of the Jazz Age, being one of those short-haired, short-skirted, hard-boiled women who preachers said would go to hell or be hanged before they were 30, I am naturally a little embarrassed at finding myself the incarnated spirit of the old South!"

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