Gone With The Wind:

The Literary Legal Complexities of a Bestselling Novel

By Donna Bausch

“There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South... Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow... Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair... Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered. A Civilization gone with the wind...”

Author Ellen Brown assured her VLA audience that she went to law school because she wanted to become a law librarian. Music to my ears. After graduating from the University of Richmond, and faced with significant law school loans, she practiced law at Hunton & Williams, Dominion Virginia Power and the Attorney General’s Office. Her passion for books eventually led her to open a rare book business and write for the publication Fine Books and Collections. On a visit to interview John Wiley, the world’s foremost collector of Gone With the Wind memorabilia, she recognized a gap in the scholarship, realizing that she would like to read a book that would tell the story of GWTW, the book itself.

Brown and Wiley decided to chronicle the legal history of the novel. Not an easy task. Mitchell’s papers, though housed at the University of Georgia, remain tightly controlled by the powerful Mitchell Estate. Mitchell has but a single living heir, an unmarried nephew in his 70’s. However, the Estate boasts a full panoply of lawyers to protect the interests of the Mitchell legacy. Brown and Wiley were the first authors granted permission to access Mitchell’s business papers. In addition, they traveled to archives and libraries all over the country in their quest to create an accurate chronology of the legal history of the book.

Margaret Mitchell’s masterpiece continues to elude the respect it deserves. It won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award and lost the Nobel Prize only to Pearl S. Buck.

How did lowly Margaret Mitchell land a book deal? There is the apocryphal fairy tale version of the story and then there is the truth. In the fairy tale, Harold Latham, prominent MacMillan editor discovers unknown housewife Mitchell’s manuscript. Latham was happy to let this version be believed, but in reality a young female Macmillan editor named Lois Cole was responsible. Mitchell’s publishers were disdainful and disrespectful of her. Mitchell garnered only $50,000 from the movie rights to the book.

An interesting aspect of the history of GWTW is the role of Stevens Mitchell, Margaret Mitchell’s brother, an estate and trust attorney with no experience in publishing, but the only attorney Margaret was willing to trust. From the time of her book deal forward, Mitchell’s life was completely overtaken by the book’s success and others attempting to capitalize on it. She felt exploited and was one of the earliest authors to assert rights to her intellectual property. The positions she took, though unsubstantiated when made, eventually became the law.

One example is the sequel. There was a rumor that a reader could send $1 to Macmillan and the “real” final chapter of GWTW would be sent to you. This was at a time when the price of the entire book was $3. Everyone wanted to know what had happened to Scarlett and Rhett. Unauthorized sequels abounded. There were contests to write a sequel and the winning entry posited an absurd kidnapping plot. Stevens Mitchell stood firm and the law of copyright eventually followed. No unauthorized sequels.

An even bigger issue was international copyright. GWTW was even more popular abroad than in the U.S. It was translated into countless languages. Technically, Macmillan owned the foreign rights, but decided to return them to Mitchell. This was a complex, burdensome mess. The U.S. was not then a signatory to the Berne Convention on Copyright. There had not been great demand for American authors’ works abroad, but conversely, our publishers could pirate foreign works with impunity. Mitchell ended up spending almost all her profit from the book on this fight. Her efforts eventually led to the 1950 move of the U.S. to join the Berne Convention.

Mitchell died childless in 1949. Her book was her child. Her litigious estate continued her fiercely protective maternal stance. Most books about Mitchell have been less than sympathetic. Brown urges us to view Mitchell as a strong southern woman who stood up for her rights at a time in history when this was not appreciated by the powerful. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the book and the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. It’s time we give Margaret Mitchell and GWTW their due.

The words of Scarlett’s father about his beloved Tara can be applied to the book itself:

“Land is the only thing in the world that amounts to anything, for ’tis the only thing in this world that lasts.”

If you were not able to hear Ellen Brown, “As God is My Witness”…you missed a wonderful program! Thanks to Gail Zwirner for proposing this fascinating program.

And, if you love GWTW as much as I do, run, don’t walk to your local bookstore and purchase:
Brown, Ellen F. and John Wiley. Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind: A Bestseller's Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood. Lanham: Taylor Trade, 2011.

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