17 December 2009

Atlanta, Georgia: Margaret Mitchell: Literary Landmarks of the Southern United States, #32

Our last literary stop in the four full weeks of our tour, which involved visiting Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana (well, just!), Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. We had visited many literary landmarks, and 14 literary museums. This was the 15th, and by far the worst. To begin with, an unhelpful leaflet had suggested that the small museum car park would probably be full – yes, this is where we felt like tourists for the first time, and it wasn't a pleasant experience at all – so it would be better to park near Piedmont Park. Beyond Piedmont Park, we parked in the paying car park outside the Botanical Gardens: at $15 to see extensive gardens as opposed to the $12 at the small Margaret Mitchell House, the gardens would have been by far the better option to anyone remotely interested in cultivated plants – which we aren't, and would far prefer to look at rampant kudzu. The one-mile walk to the house in Midtown Atlanta from the Botanical Gardens is a pleasant one though, and Piedmont Park is worth a view.

When we arrived at the museum car park we found it nearly empty, although quite a number of people were waiting to enter the house, where we were overcharged by an indifferent member of staff who didn't seem too clear about what he was doing on his computer. The guide to the flat – Mitchell didn't live in the whole house, but only in a small part of it – autopiloted us through a few rooms and then left us to look at a few interpretation panels. After that, there's a small building with a television across a lawn, and that's it.

Clearly, we were encountering something we hadn't been used to in the whole of our stay: staff with a lack of any enthusiasm, and tourists (in silly broad-brimmed hats) who were 'doing the sights': it felt a bit like the San Francisco cable cars, where people clutch small booklets permitting them to see multiple sights they're probably not interested in anyway. The calm of our tour was shattered, and the wonderful friendliness of the many helpful, genuinely interested Americans – very often working in museums on a voluntary basis – had been replaced by tourist-hardened automatons.

But back to the television. In the 2009's Southern Literature issue of the University of Central Arkansas's Oxford American, the book Gone with the Wind is listed as an 'underrated' publication. Initially, this may seem a bizarre thing to say about such a huge-selling book, but the author of the very brief piece – Michael Kreyling – states that 'I think she wrote a much more complex second half of the novel than she knew'. That may well be true, but isn't it also true that the huge tome Gone With the Wind, though much bought, is very little read? Don't many more people know the story through the film rather than the book? This is why much of the emphasis in the museum is on the film, and why the television in the building at the side shows an old, 90-minute film of the making of the film.

To be fair, interpretation panels do deal, for instance, with the differences between book and film, and it's interesting to learn about the toning down of racist matters on transition from paper to celluloid.

All the same, this was one museum tour we could have forgone, although it would have been a bitter disappontment if we had gone to Midtown Atlanta during our first day, as opposed to – it also has to be said – the rather disappointing Downtown Atlanta. Just to end this long rant on a plus note: another leaflet strongly criticised the streets in central Atlanta, claiming that it was very difficult to find your way around. Happily, I found very few problems, and also the drive from Buckhead in the north right through the centre of Atlanta via the interstate, to the airport in the south, went like a dream.

The front entrance to the house. Margaret Mitchell's flat was on the ground (first in American English) floor on the left.

Plaque on the front of the house.

The south elevation of the house seen from the, er, audio-visual center.

And the back of the house.

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