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Archive for Monday, May 7, 2001

Judge misses book’s point

May 7, 2001

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— I've just finished a book that you can't read. I'm not bragging about my literary prowess. The book wasn't "Finnegan's Wake" in the original Joyce or "The Odyssey" in ancient Greek. The problem isn't a language barrier but a legal barrier.

A judge in Atlanta has stopped publication of Alice Randall's "The Wind Done Gone" on the grounds that it violates the copyright of the book that it mocks, "Gone With the Wind." Her new novel can't be sold in bookstores, it can't be sold on eBay, indeed, the publisher has actually been asked to round up advance reading copies like the one in my hands.

But I intend to send my copy to Judge Charles Pannell. I can't imagine that anyone could read this fictional memoir of Scarlett O'Hara's mulatto half-sister Cynara and believe that it "merely summarizes most of the earlier work without commentary or fresh ideas that challenge the reader's understanding of the earlier work." I can't imagine anyone would read it and believe that the author wrote a sequel rather than a parody.

Ashley is gay and Melanie is a serial killer and Belle is running a whorehouse filled with lesbians and this is not a parody? It may not be a comedy, but Randall has written a story turning the world of Tara into Tata, creating and re-creating leading roles for former slaves.

Nevertheless, the judge ruled that only Margaret Mitchell's heirs had the right to what he called listen closely her "beloved characters and their romantic, but tragic, world."

Whose beloved characters? Whose tragic world? "Gone With the Wind" rewrote antebellum and Reconstruction history into a myth of epic and classic proportions. Mitchell's South was a place of happy slaves and white plantation owners struggling nobly to maintain their way of life.

It was so powerful a story that novelist Pat Conroy, whose mother modeled her life on Scarlett, says: "GWTW suffused the world of my childhood like no other book with the possible exception of the Bible."

This Confederate flag of a story was so compelling on stage and screen that even African Americans could be as shamefully seduced by it as Jews could be in watching "The Merchant of Venice." Indeed, Randall herself admits, "When I was 12 I read 'Gone With the Wind' and fell in love with the novel."

But it was, she adds, "a troubled love from the beginning. I had to overlook racist stereotyping and Klan whitewashing to appreciate the ambitious, resilient, hard-working, hard-loving character who is Scarlett." And at some point, Randall, a song and screenwriter whose father had told her "to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves" began to imagine a half-sister, and her life and her version of history.

It's surprising that no revisionist "Gone With the Wind" was tried before. But maybe others were warned off by the Mitchells' litigious nephews, who not only regard "Tara" as their own plantation and cash cow, but protect the myth as property.

When Conroy himself was once asked by the Mitchell estate to write an official sequel, he says he was told of two conditions: no miscegenation and no homosexuality. He rejected signing any pledge and wrote back in high dudgeon with this first line to 'his' sequel: "After Rhett Butler made love to Ashley Wilkes, he lit a cigarette and said, 'Ashley did I ever tell you my grandmother was black?"'

Now, maybe if Randall's humor had been that broad, the judge would have gotten it. But in fact her novel is less a farce than a political correction. Using Cynara Mammy's daughter as well as Scarlett's half-sister Randall mines the complex love triangle between a black caregiver, the girl she gave birth to and the girl she raised. Her South is not black and white but gray in every sense of the word.

This book you cannot read is fictional commentary, at times clever, at times obvious, at times arresting, at times flat, but always pointed like a cannon at the original. The 25,000 copies slated for print might have circulated from one anti-antebellum hand to another or been used as a deconstruction tip sheet in literary classrooms.

But Mitchell heirs have declared that the fantasy behind "Gone With the Wind" is their protectorate and anything that mocks "the romantic but tragic world" devalues it. So, on May 25, the case goes to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. If the right to make a mockery isn't protected there, then neither is any critical essay or political satire.

In a perverse acknowledgement, Randall writes, "Margaret Mitchell's novel inspired me to think." Now Mitchell's heirs are making us think. I hope they don't take this as a compliment.




Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe.

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