Margaret Mitchell produced the most popular novel in American history at the age of 36, spent the remaining 13 years of her life answering fan mail, and died in 1949, having requested that all her writings and personal papers be destroyed. They weren’t. Last year, after 70-year-old Henry Angel Jr. found photos, letters, and the manuscript of an unpublished novella given by the author of Gone With the Wind to her old beau, Angel’s late father. He sold those treasures on his own to the Road to Tara Museum in Atlanta for $60,000. And he then watched without legal recourse as the for-profit repository of all things Scarlett — with the beady blessing of the bottom-line-oriented Mitchell estate — turned around and sold the lot to Scribner for over a million bucks.
That’s how, 60 years after the publication of GWTW, we have Lost Laysen, a fanciful 57-page story written when the author was 16. Plumped up with letters and photos of Mitchell, Angel, and their friends, and cleverly designed into a pretty little volume, the book — more of a booklet — makes a literary event out of immature, unexceptional writings (replete with many of the stock racial and cultural stereotypes of her time and class) the author would probably blush furious to know now are seeing the light of print.
For all that, Lost Laysen — the title refers to a fantastical South Pacific island swallowed up by volcanic ash — is fascinating, and the specifics of the girlish fairy-tale romance comprise the least of it. What’s far more interesting than the actual story of swain magnet Courtenay Ross and the men who swoon over her — one a brawny sailor, the other a gentleman — is the parallels to be drawn between these rough sketches and the subsequent, more masterful portraits of Scarlett O’Hara, Rhett Butler, and Ashley Wilkes. And what’s most valuable of all is the light this literary novelty act sheds on the extraordinary artistic process whereby the stuff of biographical circumstance and temperament, mixed with talent and ambition, produces art — and a pert little flirt called Peggy reinvents herself to become the revered Margaret Mitchell. B