Not So Far Gone: Margaret Mitchell and Smith
Published: Thursday, November 1, 2012
Updated: Thursday, November 1, 2012 23:11
On Thursday, Oct. 25, in the Neilson Browsing Room, President Carol T. Christ and Professor Susan Van Dyne gave a lecture entitled “Margaret Mitchell: Culture and Context,” which they originally gave at Mitchell’s home in Atlanta, Ga. Christ announced the lecture’s agenda: first Van Dyne would present archived materials from Mitchell’s year at Smith and then Christ would interview her on these findings “in the style of Terry Gross.”
Mitchell entered Smith in 1918, arriving at a critical point in the college’s history. World War I had just ended and influenza swept the campus, killing two Smith students in October of that year. There were houses designated for students in various stages of the illness – Baldwin house for the mildly sick, 36 Belmont for serious quarantine and 7 Paradise for recuperating students. Mitchell lived off-campus at 10 Henshaw with 16 other first-years. Students were prohibited from participating in, among other things, sports, eating out, talking with students in other houses and kissing. Mitchell’s and her friends’ signatures on the Hen House Register quarantine log attest to how the illness affected them.
With the war’s conclusion near, President William Allan Neilson was keen to keep an international focus and encourage involvement with the Red Cross. Students’ involvement with the war effort stretched beyond student nursing at Cooley Dickinson Hospital to include volunteer farm work. Van Dyne displayed photographs of girls haying on local farms and stripping tobacco and hanging it to cure. One photograph, captioned “Farmerettes” in the potato fields, led Van Dyne to remark how students of the era learned a different kind of self-sufficiency and how women as a group entered new spheres. The damp grays and blacks of the photographs, depicting labor under a brooding sky, led Van Dyne to compare the Pioneer Valley to protagonist Scarlett O’Hara’s plantation home: “Tara … it seemed so stark.”
“When Mother untied the apron strings and I came to Yankeeland,” wrote Mitchell, she “stretched and awakened” into her own. But Mitchell’s mother’s death of influenza in January of her first year at college prevented Mitchell’s return to Smith for her sophomore year, and led to her assuming her mother’s role as head female of the house. In Mitchell’s letters to her Amherst boyfriend Alan Eaty, she writes that she “never found her own level” and wanted to return to Smith. “I feel like a dynamo going to waste,” she wrote, describing how she missed the “comradeship and the mischief” of her Smith classmates.
Her mother’s death was not the only death Mitchell experienced her first year at Smith. Engaged to a Harvard man, Clifford Henry, before her matriculation, Mitchell attended Smith partly from her parents’ hopes for the dissolution of this engagement. Clifford’s death in the war during her first semester at Smith, combined with her mother’s death, made the year as arduous emotionally as it was physically.
A transcript of Ds and Cs testifies to the difficulty of the year, which led Mitchell to fear for her sanity. Through the haze of conflict and death, Mitchell did find some certainty. Her roommate said Mitchell told everyone of her ambition to be a writer.
Van Dyne suggested that Peg, as Mitchell was nicknamed, received most of her Smith education from her classmates. In one black-and-white photo captioned “post-curfew fun,” Peg and several friends sit up late – from anecdotes such as these, classmates came to know Mitchell as a prankster and a storyteller.
Sharing a photograph of Mitchell at her 20th reunion in 1942, Van Dyne described how Mitchell always considered herself part of the class of ’22 and suggested that Smith was “a try-out for some of the experiences Scarlett goes through in Gone with the Wind.”
Mitchell’s fascination with the past led her, in the course of her journalistic career, to interview Civil War widows, collecting “gritty” details regarding, for example, whether the debutantes of the old South kissed their beaus on the sly or not.
But Mitchell’s concern with the role of women stretched from her early youth throughout her life. Van Dyne theorized that Gone with the Wind, despite its Victorian context, discusses contemporary issues of the Jazz Age. As evidence, Christ cited protagonist Scarlett O’Hara’s ambitions in the lumber business and prioritizing of money and home before romantic love. Likewise, her mother’s view that “the strength of women’s hands isn’t worth anything” – that the strength of their brains mattered most – was reinforced not only through Mitchell’s time at Smith, but through her marriage and separation from her alcoholic first husband, Brett Bradshaw. This led her to pursue journalism, a decision which, coupled with her timeless novel, has resulted in her lasting legacy at Smith College.