Atlanta has a troubled connection to “Gone with the Wind.”
Though the city is wedded to the story that helped put Atlanta on the map, it hasn’t always been a love relationship.
Exhibit No. 1: the Midtown museum called the Margaret Mitchell House, a temple to the book’s author, which was burned twice.
After arsonists torched it the second time, not everyone mourned. Writer Pearl Cleage declared she was “delighted,” putting into words the thoughts of many African-Americans, who saw the book as a celebration of a poisonous antebellum era.
The title of a new book, “A Tough Little Patch of History,” is used by author Jennifer W. Dickey to describe both that tenacious Midtown property, which, indeed, sprang back to life and the bumpy marriage between story and city.
Coordinator of the public history program at Kennesaw State University, Dickey will speak about her book Wednesday at the Georgia Center for the Book in the Decatur branch of the DeKalb County Public Library.
Dickey shows that the fight over the Margaret Mitchell House reflects the larger fight over control of the message of history, which is part of what public history is all about.
When Atlanta leaders were preparing their bid for the 1996 Olympic Games, they planned to include a clip from the David O. Selznick movie version of Mitchell’s book in the video presentation, since it was the most universally recognized face of Atlanta. That clip was cut from the final bid package, writes Dickey, quoting the bid team who wanted to avoid an association with this “ode to the majesty of the Old South and slavery.”
While historians parse the accuracy of Mitchell’s representations, the rest of the world is entrained by her mastery of action and characterization. Thus, writes Dickey, scholarship is no match for a ripping-good yarn.
“The scholars talk among themselves, but rarely engage the public,” she said in a recent interview. “These narratives that engage are put forth by people like Margaret Mitchell.”
In the book, Dickey looks at three institutions that have tried to tell the story of “Gone with the Wind” — the Clayton County Gone with the Wind Museum, the Atlanta History Center and the Margaret Mitchell House.
All three participate in what she calls the “marketplace for ‘Gone with the Wind’ memory.” All have capitalized on the popular thirst for Tara-themed exhibits and all have dealt, to a greater or lesser degree, with the liabilities of the story.
But the most iconic tale is that of the little Midtown apartment where Mitchell wrote most of the book while recovering from a broken leg. A former one-family residence, the building had been turned into apartments, including Mitchell’s first floor residence, which she cordially called The Dump.
The Margaret Mitchell House’s Phoenix-like resurrection from the flames parallels the arc of Atlanta itself, not to mention the path of the indestructible Scarlett O’Hara. Dickey sheds light on the museum’s tortuous beginnings, with great attention to Scarlett’s modern-day counterpart, Mary Rose Taylor, who largely brought the Margaret Mitchell House into being through force of will.
After the second fire, there was doubt that the project would continue, but “folks underestimated just how determined Mary Rose Taylor was,” said Dickey.
Those who blamed the fires on a shadow anti-Lost Cause group also failed, she said, to assess a more powerful force and a more likely culprit: commercial developers with an eye on a valuable Midtown property.
“It was essentially more about real estate than it was about race,” said Dickey.
The Margaret Mitchell House has been acquired by the Atlanta History Center and Dickey says the programming there has been reduced from previous years.
Is she worried about its future?
“As someone who has watched this place come back from certain death twice and became a vibrant institution, I try to be optimistic about it,” said Dickey.
It may be a marriage of convenience, but Atlanta needs “Gone with the Wind” just like Scarlett needed Frank Kennedy: to pay the bills and keep the lumber mills spinning.
In her book, Dickey writes: “Whether it is good history or bad history, ‘Gone with the Wind’ remains a part of the Southern historical landscape — a tough little patch of history from which the city of Atlanta has found it difficult to disassociate.”
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