When I was in college, I interned at Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta. I grew up in Jonesboro, the inspiration for Gone with the Wind‘s Tara, a city where GWTW murals are plastered on the sides of buildings and where an actor in costume takes bus-loads of tourists around the small city, pointing out historical and literary landmarks. I drove the hour into the big city and worked at the house where Margaret Mitchell wrote the famed novel, the house that has caught fire twice and has now been preserved as a museum to the writer. It is also the house where I had my only brush – if we can call it that – with a literary ghost story.
What is it about literary ghosts that appeals to me? I find something terribly romantic in the idea of a spectral Emily Dickinson roaming the halls in her white dress, or in a ghostly Thoreau clomping around Walden Pond. Whenever I visit a historic home where an author has lived, I find myself warring between two equally strong feelings: the hope that there is a ghostly presence, and the fear that there might be a ghostly presence.
The actual house, which Mitchell called “The Dump,” has been burned down twice. It was built back up, in replica, and Mitchell’s apartment was recreated to look like the original; the only feature you’ll see that’s original to the house is the tile outside of her apartment on the first floor.
During the summer, I worked as an assistant at the creative writing camps. Area children came to take field trips and do writing exercises and hone their skills as poets, story-writers, and essayists. They sat around large tables and scribbled in their notebooks and shared their work aloud. As a camp assistant, the bulk of my job was to transcribe their stories into an anthology that would be distributed at week’s end, at the reading they would do for their parents. Camp took place on the third floor of the house, a space usually rented out for events.
I had always heard stories about the house. Janitors said that after locking all the doors that led onto the balconies of the house, they would check again to find those doors standing open. Objects would have been relocated. Someone once told me that a reading had been done on the house and the conclusion was that Ms. Mitchell was indeed still there, and she did not like that people talked about her as if she were dead.
On camp mornings, I was the first in the house. I came in through a side yard, and I could take the stairs up to the third floor – the stairs that began right outside Ms. Mitchell’s apartment – or I could take the elevator, which was separated from the apartment by a door.
Even though I was able-bodied, I almost always took the elevator. Did I want to see her? Was I scared to see her? And did I even really believe that there was anything to see? I wanted to have a jovial mortal-ghost relationship. I wanted to wish her a good morning, skip up the steps, pat the muzzle of the lion’s head newel post cap, an action she herself had repeated everyday, for good luck. But I couldn’t make myself do it. I stood on the other side of the closed door, protected from her apartment, and silently thought to myself, “I don’t want to see you. I don’t want to see you. I don’t want to see you.”
One hot afternoon, as I sat in the hallway on the third floor, transcribing the children’s work onto my computer, I smelled something burning. I looked around. I saw nothing. No smoke from the kitchen. It had to be a ghost, I thought. The house had been burned twice, I rationalized, so maybe her ghostly presence smelled like burning. I got up from the floor where I sat and I looked in the two front rooms, which were empty. I went into the room where the kids sat. The burning smell was stronger. I mentioned it casually to the teacher.
(I did not delineate for her my logic of a ghostly presence smelling liked the charred remains of a house that has twice been burnt down.)
One of the kids had lit a piece of paper on fire. She pointed to the tea lights she had burning on the table. “Writer’s ambience,” she told me by way of explanation.
I had felt fear. I had felt hope. What was it I feared? And what was it I hoped for? A good story for cocktail parties? Some imprint of literary talent, passed from her to me? Or do we sometimes wish for that presence of writers who have left us because we feel a part of their essence still wanders the halls of an old house? Do we wish for their continued existence the way we wish for good books never to end?
Whatever the reason, and whatever my hopes or fears, I did the only thing that I thought I could truly gain from my experiences with Margaret Mitchell: I sat down and began to write again.