“YOU HAVE BEEN MORE THAN KIND, MORE THAN GENEROUS IN THIS MATTER…”: EXTRAORDINARY 1936 TYPED LETTER INSCRIBED AND SIGNED BY MARGARET MITCHELL TO HER EDITOR WITH MUCH MATERIAL ON GONE WITH THE WIND
MITCHELL, Margaret. Typed letter signed. Atlanta, June 1, 1936. Three leaves (7 by 11 inch) of personal stationery, typing on rectos only. $12,500.
Typed letter signed and inscribed by Margaret Mitchell to her editor with exceptional content, written one month before publication of Gone With the Wind, including material on royalties, travel to New York, speaking engagements, the process of writing, and the possibility of selling the movie rights.
This exceptional and lengthy letter offers great insight into Mitchell’s relationship with her publisher and glimpses of her strong personality and vibrant sense of humor. The recipient, Harold Latham, an editor at Macmillan, had famously pried the manuscript of Gone With the Wind away from Mitchell the year before on a visit to Atlanta. On a tour of the South to find new writers, Latham received reports that Mitchell had a manuscript, a fact she repeatedly denied. Then she admitted that although there was a manuscript, it was unfinished. Finally, on the eve of Latham’s departure, Mitchell showed up at his hotel with the entire manuscript—a pile of papers so large Latham needed to buy an extra suitcase just for it. Although she regretted the action immediately and wrote to Latham asking him to return the manuscript, Latham refused, saying that he was certain that with revisions it would be not only publishable but popular. The story of Latham’s “discovery” of Mitchell almost instantly passed into legend and became almost as well known as the book itself.
Macmillan initially offered Mitchell a $500 advance, with 10% royalties on the first 10,000 copies and 15% royalties thereafter. After seeing the length of the final revised manuscript that Mitchell sent them—over 400,000 words—Macmillan realized that they would either have to raise the price on the book (a difficult proposition during the Depression) or cut the material down drastically. They offered Mitchell a choice: cut the book or accept a downward revision of all royalties to 10%. Mitchell opted for a lengthier tome with the lighter royalties. But after intense pre-publication publicity and the fortuitous selection of Gone With the Wind as a Book of the Month Club selection, it became clear that the book was going to be a best-seller, and Macmillan generously offered to reinstate the original terms of the contract with Mitchell (Macmillan’s generosity extended to its own employees later that year when they gave all their employees an 18% bonus based solely on the success of the book).
The letter, dated a month before official publication of the book, opens with an acknowledgement of the new terms: “Dear Mr. Latham; When Lois Cole’s letter arrived, telling me of the revision of the royalties, I wired her immediately—well, not exactly immediately for I had to wait to get my breath—and asked her to thank every one concerned in the matter. And now I want to thank you personally because I know you were very much concerned about it. Your letter of May 27 has just arrived and at the end of it you speak of this rearrangement of royalties as being one more evidence of your desire to deal fairly with me. I really do not need further evidence of that now! I am firmly convinced that even Jurgen himself never dealt more fairly with a woman than Macmillan has with me! You have been more than kind, more than generous in this matter, as in others. Really, I had put the whole matter of the cut in royalties out of my mind, for so much had happened since then. Besides, at the time when the matter first came up, when you were in Europe, I thought, ‘They are putting a lot of money behind my book for advertising purposes. A lot more money than they usually put for a new and unknown author. And the advertising probably more than makes up for the cut in royalties.… So, you see, I wasn’t sucking my thumb and pouting all this time and when the good news arrived it was just as exciting and delightful as when the Easter Rabbit used to pay his annual visit when I was a child.”
After a long discussion of possible travel plans to New York, Mitchell give a humorous account of a speaking engagement in Atlanta where she employed unusual tactics to insure that it would be “my swan song as a speaker”: “I elected to speak on reference works… if I do say it myself, Carlysle’s ‘Essay on Burns’ couldn’t have been duller.” (Yet Mitchell goes on to describe a talk that sounds wry and witty, telling a story about a conversation with a backwoods farmer: “He answered my questions and then, curious about writers, asked a plenty. I told him with deep feeling that writing was a dreary, dull job. You sweated, and groaned and itched and broke out in rashes and then felt like you smelled bad. And he said with sympathy, ‘When you come right down to it, writing a book ain’t so very different from spreading manure, is it?”) She goes on to discuss Latham’s home, comment on possible movie rights (“I was very interested in your remarks about the movie rights and shall wait with even more interest for developments”), and to request that he forward a letter to a critic in New York. Her signature is followed by a typed post-script, which is followed by a hand-written one: “P.S.S. I was interrupted and the day has passed with out this being mailed and without my letter to Mr. Jackson being finished. I want this to get you before you go away so will not enclose the letter to him. I hope you have a fine time.”
Mitchell remained close friends with Latham for the rest of her life. He was with her in Atlanta when she was awarded the Pulitzer prize for literature, more confident she would win it than Mitchell herself was. At the Atlanta premiere for the movie in 1939, Latham was an honored guest, along with Mitchell and the stars of the film.
An extraordinary Margaret Mitchell item with exceptional content.