This week, we set out to unearth the mystery of famed southern author Margaret Mitchell’s porn collection. This episode was inspired by a trip Kelly took to the Margaret Mitchell House a few years ago. There, she and a friend spotted what appeared to be a pornographic photo of a woman behind one of the doors. Not to be hypocrites, we were concerned about the ethics of S-Town’ing Margaret Mitchell, that is, attempting to dive into someone’s sexual life post-mortem — and getting hit with a lawsuit. So we called Andy Crank, an English professor and gender and sexuality scholar at the University of Alabama who has researched and written about Margaret Mitchell, for some insight into the rumours and to see if they were worth investigating. Did Peggy collect porn? What might that say about her relationship with sex? Does any of this matter? We had so many questions.
Andy let us in on Mitchell’s proclivity for writing erotic letters to friends, and he notes how the heightened anxiety around heterosexual sex in Mitchell’s writing and the theme of unity among women suggests Mitchell was ahead of her time in sexuality writing.
Gina took to the internet to see what’s already out there, and found that Mitchell was known to make trips to “dirty” bookstores, collected French postcards featuring nude models as well as other “erotic,” which Gina translates to mean things that acknowledged women as sexual beings in the early 20th century. In his extensively-sourced Margaret Mitchell biography, Southern Daughter, Darden Asbury Pyron quotes a friend of the late author as saying Mitchell collected erotic books, such as Fanny Hill, and postcards because she thought the models’ facial expressions were funny.
As cute as the question of Margaret Mitchell’s apparent penchant for erotic materials may be, Gina and Kelly note that it’s not all that fun. Mitchell’s first husband, Barrien “Red” Upshaw, was an alcoholic who abused her physically and sexually and made Mitchell fear for her safety until his own death. In her essay “Tara and Other Lies: Margaret Mitchell and the Real Rhett Butler?”, Carolyn Gage suggests Red is the real life version of Rhett Butler, accounting for Rhett’s violence toward Scarlet. But Gina and Kelly say we can’t just speculate about the details of Mitchell’s sex life and draw one-to-one comparisons from real-life people and fictional characters; we have to ask ourselves how it may (or may not) have been influenced by the sexual trauma she endured in her first marriage, and how it may (or may not) have influenced her writing, including Gone With the Wind.
On a search for even more information about the elusive pornographic collections of Margaret Mitchell, Kelly and Gina took a trip back to the Margaret Mitchell House. With the help of the engaging storyteller/guide, Linda, Gina and Kelly conclude that Margaret Mitchell had a collection of erotica. She may or may not have enjoyed the physical act of sex, but she was definitely interested in it.
Everyone wants their own Margaret Mitchell, but we can’t know if or how much Mitchell’s erotic writing and items speaks to her own sexual fluidity or sexual desires. Kelly says it’s irrelevant. Margaret Mitchell is too often used to make arguments about the perfect woman, the perfect picture of femininity, the perfect feminist, and so on. But we choose to see her as the full, complicated human being she was without tying her to men in her life.
We can tell you that the pornographic image that inspired this episode is in fact still on display at the Margaret Mitchell House (for now). And rather than some illicit piece created at Mitchell's behest, it’s actually a flyer that she liked so much that she framed it and hung it in her living room as a conversation piece.