Real Gone for a Change 

If Margaret Mitchell borrowed plot elements, why can’t Nashville author Alice Randall?

If Margaret Mitchell borrowed plot elements, why can’t Nashville author Alice Randall?

There is a story Margaret Mitchell tells about herself when she was 15 or 16. It was 1915, and D.W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation—the first movie shown in the White House—had just been released, with the Klan riding to the rescue of Western civilization. Mitchell produced her own backyard version, with “the small-fry of the neighborhood” costumed in their fathers’ white shirts instead of sheets. Margaret had adapted the script from a novel by Thomas Dixon, the same author whose books Griffith had used for Birth. The parents in Mitchell’s Atlanta neighborhood loved it, and Margaret could not wait to be praised by her attorney father. Instead, she got a lecture on copyright law and what could happen to violators. “I expected Mr. Thomas Dixon to sue me for a million dollars,” Mitchell remembered, “and I have had a great respect for copy-right ever since then.”

This story tells two things about Margaret Mitchell: “Great respect for copy-right” is the 11th commandment; and she is blissfully oblivious to the ways her story—and she had only one story her whole life—preserves, protects, and defends the racist myth of the Old South.

So Nashville-based author Alice Randall and her publisher, Houghton Mifflin, should have known they were stirring up a hornet’s nest with The Wind Done Gone. They call book, scheduled for release in June, a “parody” of Gone With the Wind; the Mitchell Trusts call it an “unauthorized sequel” and have sued in federal court in Atlanta to block publication. Last week, Judge Charles Pannell Jr. upheld a preliminary injunction to prevent publication of the book. Houghton Mifflin will appeal the decision.

The Wind Done Gone has triggered the sex and race hysteria that periodically breaks out when defenders of the Old South return from the grave. We have seen controversies over whether Thomas Jefferson—or, if you prefer, his younger brother Randolph—sired a child or children with his slave, Sally Hemings. There was a similar, but smaller, squall over alleged biracial offspring of George Washington. Here, Randall imagines a “silenced” story in which Scarlett has a mulatto half-sister, Cynara, who serves as narrator. The novel takes place in the 1870s and 1880s, about the same time period occupied by Scarlett, the official—and wretched—1991 sequel by Alexandra Ripley.

Other than Cynara, the major characters in The Wind Done Gone have function names rather than personal names—Planter, Congressman, Lady, Garlic. A sensuous woman, Cynara revels in being R’s preferred lover over Other, who is her half-sister, Planter’s “legitimate” daughter, and the owner of a plantation called, borrowing not so slyly from Southern slang, Tata. R was once married to Other but always kept Cynara as his mistress; Other eventually departs the plot, and R marries Cynara. Cynara leaves him for Congressman but at the 11th hour lets another woman marry Congressman. Nevertheless, she succeeds in contributing to the DNA of contemporary African American political leadership. You’ll have to read the novel to find out how.

The “borrowing” from or “parody” of GWTW comes into the plot of The Wind Done Gone almost exclusively as flashback. Cynara remembers being present at or being told about events recognizable in the plot of Mitchell’s novel. If you were to add up all such passages, the total would not be more than 10 to 15 percent of Randall’s book: a lot less than Mitchell herself lifted from precursor Old South novels like Dixon’s The Clansman or Augusta Jane Evans’ St. Elmo (1866). The latter book, which returned to great popularity in the South in the 1890s, was the 19th-century equivalent of GWTW. A spunky young Southern girl falls in love with a darkly handsome rake when she is in her teens and he’s twice her age. The hero is a demon-lover: moody, violent, wealthy by virtue of mysterious overseas ventures. Just the sort of guy to sweep the heroine up a massive staircase and perform unmentionable—but enjoyable—sexual feats offstage. There is a picturesque plantation in St. Elmo and a Mammy—all the basic elements of GWTW.

Which raises the question of just what the Mitchell Trusts think they own. I have a facsimile edition of the “Gone With the Wind” Cook Book, a merchandising souvenir of the movie release in 1939. The copyright declaration forbids anyone from reproducing in any form the “character names and elements” of GWTW. “Character names” seems pretty clear. But “elements”? Mitchell borrowed lots of “elements” from Old South stories like St. Elmo, and all the way back to Captain John Smith and Pocahontas, another adventurer-lover and teen. Just because, admittedly, she made the standard “elements” more popular than anyone else, does that justify a claim of ownership? Just because The Colonel has a popular recipe for fried chicken, does that mean the rest of us must cease and desist?

Gone With the Wind is not the only Southern literary account Randall has “borrowed” from. She uses Toni Morrison’s habit of naming characters by role or function. Cynara seems to be gifted with literary clairvoyance too; writing in her diary in the 1870s, she seems to foresee that a white Southern novelist will use the phrase “light in August” for a title, and will need a little help explaining what it means. That’s not the only William Faulkner recycling in The Wind Done Gone: The plot of Absalom, Absalom! is abridged to about three pages at one point. At another point, Cynara anticipates Langston Hughes’ poem “The Negro Dreams of Rivers.” Flannery O’Connor, the next-most-popular Southern writer after Faulkner, died of lupus, and lupus appears in The Wind Done Gone. There might be other quilt-like patches of homage to Southern writers I didn’t pick up.

All of which takes us back to the question: Why do the Mitchell Trusts rage? To paraphrase Gerald O’Hara’s famous advice to his green-eyed daughter: “Royalties are the only thing in the world that amount to anything...the only thing in this world that last, and don’t you be forgetting it! ‘Tis the only thing worth working for, worth fighting for—worth dying for.” And worth suing for.

Obsessive, even paranoid, protection of copyright has been the leitmotif of the Mitchells and GWTW from the start in the 1930s. Mitchell and “the family” (her father, husband, descendants) made it their mission in life to retaliate against anyone suspected of trespassing on Tara. Margaret never forgave Macmillan (her publisher) and its law firm for what she suspected was bad faith in contract negotiations with David O. Selznick for the movie rights. She and the family pursued a Dutch pirate publisher through Dutch courts and the Nazi occupation of Holland until, after the war, she got back-royalties and a cash settlement. She even attacked an apple-pie publication like Reader’s Digest for printing a squib in 1949 erroneously, or humorously, claiming that Ashley and Melanie’s son Beau was born 14 months after Ashley was killed at the battle of Gettysburg. Mitchell went on the warpath and insisted on a full apology and printed retraction.

Such obsessive insistence on ownership of the characters and situations of GWTW covers up more than Mitchell’s kleptomania in the discount store of The Old South. Gone With the Wind’s popular roots go deeply into a Caucasian myth. Like the Confederate flag or the shibboleth that The War was fought to protect the homeland and not slavery, GWTW is where (white) people go to indulge fantasies: romantic, regional, historical, racial. More than anything, Randall’s book makes these fantasies into guilty pleasures.

The fantasy that black- and brown-skinned human beings acquiesced in their enslavement, and that they had no creditable ideas about this historical situation and their part in it, is a guilty indulgence that GWTW encourages. Alice Randall enters here. Her black characters know precisely how they have been exploited—sexually, economically, psychologically—so that the whitefolks in the big-house can uphold their cavalier and lady images of themselves. Her novel is like Prissy slapping Scarlett in retaliation. Randall is not really a parodist, and if I were advising Houghton Mifflin, my two cents’ worth of advice would be to ditch the argument that The Wind Done Gone is parody and therefore a legitimate use of the GWTW myth. Carol Burnett walking down the plantation house staircase with six feet of curtain rod is parody.

The Wind Done Gone invents characters who never took part in the original and places them in some relation to fictional and real characters who did “exist” and events that did “happen.” There have been lots of such works: Jean Rhys’ The Wide Sargasso Sea, which spins off of Wuthering Heights; William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness, an ambitious rewrite of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, penned while the great writer was still alive and his novel under copyright. By tagging GWTW, Randall makes us all realize how much amnesia it takes to read the book or watch the movie or even to hum a few bars of the score.

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