First Read of a Literary Blockbuster


Great Depression bread line

The worst years of the Great Depression were 1932 and 1933. In 1932, the Gross National Product fell a record 13.4%  and unemployment rose to 23.6%.

FDR was elected in 1932, and took office in March 1933. He worked feverishly to jam through programs to get the country back to work through the rest of 1933, and did manage to slow the flood of red ink and bread lines down to a trickle. By the end of 1933, the free fall of the GNP was significantly slowed to a loss of  2.1%, while unemployment rose by 1.3% to 24.9% .

By 1936, the economic recovery was underway. The GNP grew a record 14.1% and unemployment fell to 16.9%…

But that 16.9% unemployment rate represented millions of workers.The future was still uncertain. People who did have jobs counted their blessings.

So a book about a woman from a wealthy family which had fallen on hard times, who ruthlessly schemes to hold on to what was left, and even restores the family fortune, was likely to have popular appeal.

Add two men she feels drawn to, one a saintly gentleman and the other a charming scoundrel, set the whole thing against an idealized fantasy of the South before the Civil War, where slaves are part of the big happy family, then plunge the characters into a Southerner’s version of the War and Reconstruction, and you get a literary blockbuster of epic proportions – Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind.

gone-with-the-wind-1st edition book-cover

In the first four weeks after Gone With the Wind was released, 200,000 copies were sold, an unheard-of record for the time. They couldn’t print the books fast enough – the publishers had to contract with an additional printing company just to keep up with the demand.

But Ralph Thompson, critic for the New York Times “Books of the Times,” said in his review of Margaret Mitchell’s hefty tome:

“Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (Macmillan $3) is an outsized novel of Civil War and Reconstruction days in Georgia. It is, in all probability, the biggest book of the year: 1,037 pages. I found it–well, it is best to delay the verdict for a few paragraphs. Only the most unnatural of reviewers, will give away his secret at the outset.”

“…their scores of Negro slaves are lovable and happy. Yams drip with butter; plates overflow with golden-brown fried chicken… Young men who come to call… bear such given names as Stuart and Brent and Ashley and Boyd.”

“Of course there is a war; Stuart and Brent and Ashley and Boyd rush off, and Scarlett weeps.”

He describes the style of the novel:

“Gone With the Wind is a historical romance. The happy ante-bellum days as light-opera, in tone, packed with gallant and conventional dialog (“they’ll have to fight or stand branded as cowards before the whole world”) and conventional characters (darkies hummin’, banjos strummin’, hard-riding colonels, sallow, Yankee overseers). The years of actual fighting, followed from behind the lines, are more realistically described, and the Reconstruction period is portrayed in terms that seem, at first sight, to be definitely unromantic. But the whole is really not far removed from the moving picture called The Birth of a Nation.”

And damns with faint praise Mitchell’s literary effort:

“But any kind of first novel of over 1,000 pages is an achievement, and for the research that was involved, and for the writing Itself, the author of Gone With the Wind deserves due recognition. I happen to feel that the book would have been infinitely better had it been edited down to, say, 500 pages–but there speaks the harassed daily reviewer as well as the would-be judicious critic. Very nearly every reader will agree, no doubt, that a more disciplined and less prodigal piece of work would have more nearly done justice to the subject-matter.”

Judging by the continuing popularity of Gone With the Wind, Mr. Thompson’s prediction of reader reaction to the epic size of Mitchell’s book, reinforced by its legendary motion picture, was far off the mark.

Rhett and Scarlett


About wordcloud9

Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for over 50 years, spending much of that time commuting on the 405 Freeway. After Hollywood failed to appreciate her genius for acting and directing, she began a second career managing non-profits, from which she has retired. Nona has now resumed writing whatever comes into her head, instead of reports and pleas for funding. She lives in a small house overrun by books with her wonderful husband.
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5 Responses to First Read of a Literary Blockbuster

  1. Not the first, and certainly won’t be the last, reviewer or critic who missed the mark. Sometimes narrowly, and sometimes by a country mile. I am reminded of the critique Emperor Joseph II gave Mozart’s The Abduction From The Seraglio:

    “My dear Mozart . . . there are far too many notes in it.”

    Mozart, ever the quick wit, responded:

    “Only as many notes as necessary, Your Majesty.”

    Most creations of critics are far more ephemeral than the works they critique. We make exceptions for Ralph Thompson and Joseph II. History has preserved their critical gaffes as examples of how to miss the mark.

  2. wordcloud9 says:

    Male critics always underestimate the attraction of Romance Novels!

    While the readership is overwhelmingly female for the straight genre work, there’s a much more mixed audience for the fusion books, like Historical Romance, Partners-in-Crime Mysteries, and especially Romantic Suspense.

    Rhett Butler is enormously appealing to both male and female readers – GWTW wouldn’t work without him.

    Some interesting stats:

    Results of Romance Writers of America’s research on the romance fiction industry. These statistics offer insights to help you understand this billion-dollar-a-year industry.

    Estimated annual total sales value of romance in 2013: $1.08 billion (source: BookStats)
    Romance unit share of adult fiction: 13% (source: Nielsen Books & Consumer Tracker, BISAC Romance)
    In what format are romance books being purchased? (source: Nielsen US Romance Landscape Q1 2014)
    E-books: 39%
    Mass-market paperback: 32%
    Trade paperback: 18%
    Hardcover: 9%
    Audio: 1%
    Other: 1%
    Who is the romance book buyer? (source: Nielsen Books & Consumer Tracker)
    Female: 84%
    Male: 16%
    Age of the romance book buyer: 30–54 years old (41%; source: Nielsen Romance Buyer Survey for RWA)

  3. ann summers says:

    there are classic studies of the communities of romance stories, but it does seem to simply be the Other for spy novel readers and SciFi

  4. Given the interest in the subject of that era, I need to do a review of the storytelling music album, White Mansions. It is really a pop opera that covers the 1861-65 era from the viewpoint of a number of characters. Curiously it was conceived by an Englishman.

    The most interesting character is “The Drifter” whose part is sung by Waylon Jennings. He acts as a narrator, his name never known, but is a keen observer of the truth of the war. His wife, Jesse Coulter, sings the part of a privileged southern belle whose life is turned upside down, ending up working as a nurse, taking care of horribly wounded soldiers. Her performances on “White Mansions” are considered her best vocal work.

    Most music critics say the album could not be produced today because too many people will misinterpret it. It is a view of the war from the perspective of a number of southerners from different walks of life. However, it is not a paean to the southern cause, but to the horror of war. Especially that war.

    Here is a teaser. This is Waylon Jennings singing the final song of the album, Oh Dixie, Now You’re Done.” The Drifter recognizes and acknowledges the truth of the war’s outcome with its waste of property and lives. It is a metaphor for all wars.

  5. wordcloud9 says:

    Thanks Chuck – Hadn’t come across this before – interesting idea!

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