Margaret Mitchell

Harper Lee, 1961.

Both of them grew up in the South and transformed their experiences into best-selling novels that grappled with the traditions of Southern culture (albeit in very different ways). Both were forceful and independent; both, cross-dressed tomboys and avid readers. Each won a Pulitzer for her only book—and both Gone With the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird were made into Academy Award–winning movies.  So PBS’s pairing of Margaret Mitchell and Harper Lee in two American Masters specials tomorrow evening, April 2, is a natural.

All her life, Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949) was a writer. She began when she was 3, and her plays, books, letters, and journals have furnished abundant material to scholars and biographers. Director Pamela Roberts exploits these sources in  ”Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel,” to be broadcast Monday night on PBS. The program—readings from her works and interviews with people who knew her—turns out to be lively telling of her eventful life.

Unlike Mitchell, however, the reclusive Lee (b.1926) scorned celebrity and public life. She hasn’t granted an interview since 1964. Though she has consented to accept awards at public ceremonies, she always stipulates that she will give no acceptance speech, nor will she answer any questions. Even her friends know better than to mention “The Book,” as they call it. Perhaps as a result, Mary Murphy’s film “Harper Lee: Hey, Boo”  is not nearly as satisfying as “American Rebel.”

Conversely, Mitchell had no aversion to either celebrity or notoriety. As Roberts’s film slowly reveals, Mitchell was a rebel who consistently tore the envelope of Southern respectability. From her mother, a suffragist, Mitchell absorbed the feminism that set her apart from the rest of Atlanta’s upper crust. The Junior League blackballed her after she danced a sultry tango at a debutante ball, bells jingling on her garter. At a time when no respectable lady would consider working outside her home, Mitchell wangled a job in a practically all-male field: She became an intrepid newspaper reporter who interviewed prisoners on Death Row and ventured into the diciest parts of town.

 

Watch Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel on PBS. See more from American Masters.

It was inevitable, in some ways, that race relations would figure prominently in the works of these women born and bred in the Deep South. Lee’s TKAM was published in 1960, when the civil rights movement was gearing up and segregation and the unjust treatment of blacks were exacerbating tensions between the races. The book centers on the false accusation, trial, conviction, and murder of a black man and the white lawyer who puts his and his family’s lives at risk when he undertakes the defense. After 50 years, the book still sells almost a million copies each year and remains  on the required reading lists of American high-schoolers.

Watch Harper Lee: Hey, Boo on PBS. See more from American Masters.

 

Mitchell wrote GWTW in the thirties. Back then, the evils of segregation and the injustices perpetrated against blacks were barely on the radar for many whites—except, of course, the white supremacists, who were responsible for the hate crimes. When her book came out, Mitchell’s depiction of the hopelessness of the Southern cause in the Civil War didn’t incite the backlash she had anticipated. Instead, the black press denounced her romanticization of the Southern past and of slavery in particular. Mitchell was shocked by the charge, because “most of the Negro characters were people of worth, dignity and rectitude,” she wrote. She was a child of her times.

 

Mitchell wondered at the record-breaking popularity of GWTW, which sold 1 million copies in its first half-year. Because of its length (over 1,000 pages), it was more expensive than other books—it sold for $3.  Mitchell thought it remarkable that people would spend that much money for a book during the height of the Great Depression. In fact, Scarlett’s successful struggle to survive inspired readers and gave them hope. For the same reason, the book was later banned by the Nazis. They feared Scarlett’s survival would encourage the French to resist the German occupation.

Mitchell’s attitudes toward racial issues evolved as she grew older. She was profiting greatly from the proceeds of GWTW when she received a letter from the president of a black college. He asked her to donate $80 to pay a student’s tuition for the year. Mitchell sent him the check. So began a secret correspondence that continued for the rest of her life. Mitchell regularly contributed funds anonymously and financed the education of many black doctors. The college president and the philanthropist never met. They knew their lives would be in jeopardy if it became known that a white woman was donating money to further black education.

Re-enacted scenes from Mitchell’s letters animate Mitchell’s profile for PBS. They are augmented with dozens of photographs intercut with interviews and scenes from the movie GWTW. Unfortunately, the dearth of Lee’s primary material limits her PBS profile to interviews with friends and family, allowing for only the sketchiest outline of her life. Illustrations for Lee’s story are for the most part stills from TKAM. The resulting program barely rates as a biography; it is rather a celebration of TKAM on its 50th anniversary. The author interviewees discuss To Kill a Mockingbird, its reception, and its social and historical influence. The longer length of Harper Lee’s profile (1.5 hours vs. Mitchell’s hour) may be an attempt to make up for the paucity of biographical material; if so, it falls flat, especially coming after the richly detailed portrait of Margaret Mitchell.

Consider the effective ending of  “Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel.” A hand-written paper scrolls slowly by as the voice-over reads Mitchell’s words: “If the novel has a theme, it is that of survival. What qualities are in those who survive that are lacking in those who go under? I only know that survivors used to call that quality ‘gumption,’ so I wrote about people who had gumption and people who didn’t.”