Atlanta’s First Gift to the World (And To Itself)

(Another entry celebrating our city’s 7 Gifts to the World.)

Atlanta’s most famous address never existed. Its headstrong occupant, arguably Atlanta’s most celebrated woman, is entirely fictional. And yet, it cannot be denied that the home and heroine of Margaret Mitchell‘s Gone With The Wind serve as cultural ambassadors for our city the world around. Because really, who doesn’t know about Scarlett O’Hara? And just how many visitors flock to Atlanta, hoping to catch a glimpse of Tara?

I spent the afternoon in Roswell, Atlanta’s North Fulton County suburb. In addition to the riverside parks and quaint downtown shops that stretch in either direction from the town square, Roswell is home to several Greek Revival style homes. Most of them were built in the mid-1800s. At least three of them were designed by architect Wallis Ball, including Barrington Hall. Barrington Hall served as the residence of the King family. The city itself is named after the family patriarch, Roswell King. His son, Barrington, ran the Roswell Mill nearby. All that remains of the mill are ruins and more than a few ghosts, but the Hall is in remarkably good shape, having remained a functioning home for only three families for 162 years. In 2005, the property was purchased by the city and opened to the public for tours. It was there that I was volunteering, as they needed additional staff for a holiday festival.

So what does Barrington Hall have to do with Tara?

I asked a curious question of a docent at Barrington Hall. Do tourists walk into this historic home with Gone With The Wind on their minds? It turns out that most of them do. Almost all. While I was there today, a woman walked through the door and was sorely disappointed at the lack of a massive spiral staircase climbing from the foyer. “Why didn’t they build this place more like Tara?” However, the patron was assured, the front parlor did have green velvet curtains at one time. “Well, at least there’s that,” she sighed.

Because everyone’s looking for Tara.

The Civil War is a difficult chunk of history for modern Americans to swallow, but it must be moreso for the rest of the world. We present ourselves as the land of the free, the home of the brave, a place where opportunity awaits all. And yet, from 1861 to 1865, the hard work of our Founding Fathers was put in dire jeopardy. Our union was not even a century old, and already she was falling apart.

In its own way, Gone With The Wind places this bleak period of our history in a context that can be understood worldwide. Whether or not that context is the least bit accurate or factual, well, that’s a different issue entirely. I mean, think about it … why would the United States of America ever split into warring halves? Gone With The Wind provides one answer, even if that answer reduces the conflict to the sensationalized struggle of one imaginary Ante Bellum daughter to maintain her fictional home.

And when we talk about Gone With The Wind, we don’t just mean the novel alone. Margaret Mitchell’s book was powerful enough and very popular, but after the spectacle of producer David O. Selznick’s film of 1939, her imagined Atlanta of massive mansions and crinolined hoop-skirts took on a depth of reality that only Technicolor could provide. Scarlett O’Hara became Vivian Leigh became Scarlett O’Hara. And though the necklines of Leigh’s gowns showed inches more flesh than any self-respecting lady of the actual era would dare, costume designer Walter Plunkett‘s updating of plantation fashion overtook reality.

The same can be said of everything related to GWTW. It overtook reality, almost entirely. It still does. Southern Gentlemen are almost always imagined as twins to Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler, though some might be more partial to Leslie Howard’s more genteel Ashley Wilkes. Atlanta is still burning, albeit on a Hollywood backlot. And any centuries-old home within Georgia’s state-lines with more than a few massive doric columns simply must be Tara.

So to my mind, Gone With The Wind is one of the greatest gifts that Atlanta has presented to the world. This is a unique gift, one that benefits the giver. The alternate history (or fictional reality) provided via Margaret Mitchell’s pen (and Victor Fleming’s direction) is the ultimate in glamorous backstories for a city with a lot of history to account for and explain, but no time or patience to do so.

And so they come, curious visitors from all around the world, still looking for Tara. And though they will never find it, we’re always happy to let them look. And to let them believe.

3 Comments so far

  1. Annie (unregistered) on December 3rd, 2006 @ 9:15 am

    Good job – undoubtedly inextricably intertwined with the world perception of Atlanta, but probably not representative of the city, GWTW is not easy to write about. Interesting take on it.

  2. spencer (unregistered) on December 3rd, 2006 @ 6:52 pm

    i see movies at tara every weekend.

  3. Seth (unregistered) on December 4th, 2006 @ 10:22 am

    Best. Metblog. Post. Ever.

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