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Frankly, My Dear, the Literati Give a Damn

A judge has halted release of 'The Wind Done Gone,' as those in the publishing world hotly debate whether the novel is parody or sequel.

April 24, 2001|PATRICK T. REARDON | CHICAGO TRIBUNE

I was born May 25, 1845, at half-past seven in the morning into slavery on a cotton farm a day's ride from Atlanta. My father, Planter, was the master of the place; my mother was the Mammy. My half-sister, Other, was the belle of five counties. She was not beautiful, but men seldom recognized this, caught up in the cloud of commotion and scent in which she moved.

From Page 1 of "The Wind Done Gone"

*

Words have power, like the words in Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind" that helped shape the way generations of Americans think of slavery, plantation life and the Civil War South.

Like the words, also, in Alice Randall's retelling of the story from an African American perspective, "The Wind Done Gone," which has been hailed by many as a needed cultural corrective.

No surprise then that words are at the heart of the legal battle being waged in the Atlanta courtroom of U.S. District Judge Charles Pannell, who last Friday granted a preliminary injunction that prohibits Houghton Mifflin from publishing Randall's book.

Is it a sequel to Mitchell's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1936 novel and therefore a violation of the copyright held by Mitchell's estate? Or is it a parody and thus a legitimate, legally protected commentary on the work?

Lawyers for Mitchell's estate plan argue that "The Wind Done Gone" is a sequel because it uses, thinly veiled, the same characters (and a few of the same scenes) as Mitchell's book, and projects the story into the future. As one attorney noted, the estate is in the business of authorizing sequels, and Randall's book threatens the profits of that business. Indeed, St. Martin's Press recently paid more than $1 million for the right to publish a second sequel to "Gone With the Wind" (following Alexandra Ripley's "Scarlett").

But "The Wind Done Gone" isn't a sequel, argues the legal team representing Houghton Mifflin, which had planned to publish the book in June. The work is a parody, they say, because Randall's goal is to criticize--and stand on its ear, according to one lawyer--a work that has risen to mythic status within American culture.

Pannell ruled that Randall's novel borrows too liberally from the classic and infringes on the copyright of "Gone With the Wind." Houghton Mifflin plans to appeal the ruling.

Yet, this is one of those instances when the way the law uses words doesn't seem to match the way the rest of us use them.

If Randall's book is a parody, it's not the sort of light, jokey, ha-ha entertainment that the term usually brings to mind. And, if it's a sequel, it's definitely not a sequel that Mitchell would have written or that her estate would have authorized.

"One of the biggest problems is: They killed off Miss Scarlett," says Maura Wogan, a lawyer for the Mitchell estate. Sure enough, there on pages 95 and 96 of the galley proof sent out to reviewers, the Scarlett character (called "Other" in "Wind Done Gone") falls down a flight of stairs and dies. So much for more sequels.

The whole idea of a sequel is to mine the same audience as the original work. But there is much in Randall's book likely to anger or dismay fans of Mitchell's saga. For one thing, the narrator and central character, Cynara, is Scarlett's mulatto half-sister, the product of a master-slave union between Scarlett's father and Mammy, the plantation's black cook.

While keeping within the outlines of the story that Mitchell laid out, Randall puts a completely different spin on things: Well before he ever meets Scarlett, the Rhett Butler character (known as R. or, on occasion, Debt Chauffeur) takes up with Cynara, establishing her as his mistress in a house of her own. Later, graying and middle-aged, R. marries Cynara. And he gives Cynara the big house known in Mitchell's book as Tara after inheriting it from Scarlett.

Beyond such specifics, Randall's work entirely lacks the sort of reverential tone toward the original work that a sequel is expected to have. Here, the blacks, even in their servitude, are clever, richly feeling and in charge, if only indirectly at times. The whites come off as blundering and weak. And, as Randall tells it, many of the whites have black ancestors.

This, to put it mildly, is not the world as Mitchell saw it.

But, if "The Wind Done Gone" is unsequel-like in its recounting of Mitchell's story, as a parody, it's not very funny--nor is it meant to be. True, the names of some characters--Mealy Mouth, Dreamy Gentleman and Debt Chauffeur--hint at the silliness and exaggeration usually expected when a work is satirized. Yet her aim and writing are deadly serious.

Since the lawsuit was filed, Randall has declined interviews. In a statement released by her publishing house, she said: " 'Gone With the Wind" has enshrined a limited version of American history that continues to exert its power over the popular imagination . . . I felt I had to take on Mitchell's novel directly. My book is an antidote to a text that has hurt generations of African Americans."

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