Long-awaited 'Scarlett' due tomorrow

September 24, 1991|By Dennis Love | Dennis Love,Arizona Republic

BY THE FLUID, practiced way the story flows forth in his refined Southern drawl, you immediately know it's one of Franklin Garrett's favorite -- and most often told -- anecdotes.

"I remember so well," Garrett says, "Margaret Mitchell telling me a few months before 'Gone With the Wind' came out in 1936 that she would be happy if it sold a thousand copies."

Garrett, 84, Atlanta's official historian and a pallbearer at Mitchell's funeral in 1949, pauses for dramatic effect, then adds: "I'd say it did a little better than that."

Did it ever.

"Gone With the Wind" became one of the biggest success stories in publishing history. To date, 28 million copies have been sold; the book continues to fly off the shelves at a clip of 250,000 per year. It won the 1937 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and, in 1939, spawned an epic movie that won a then-record 10 Academy Awards.

On Wednesday, a much-anticipated offspring will appear in bookstores. In "Scarlett: The Sequel to Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind," Southern historical novelist Alexandra Ripley has attempted to finish what Mitchell started -- the story of Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler, figures that loom as large as any in popular fiction.

It seems a fait accompli that the sequel will be a can't-miss commercial smash. "Gone With the Wind" remains one of the most beloved novels ever; a built-in and eager audience awaits "Scarlett" so it can forge beyond the original conclusion, in which our flawed but irresistible heroine was deserted by the frankly-my-dear-I-don't-give-a-damning Rhett.

Yet while "Scarlett" is certain to be a runaway best seller, its prospects for staking a "Gone With the Wind"-like claim on the hearts of its readers are far less encouraging, no matter how faithful an effort Ripley (already a best-selling author in her own right) turns in.

What was the magic ingredient that made "Gone With the Wind" such an enduring work? Why was it able to transcend its regional parameters (it is, after all, wholly sympathetic to the Confederate cause and the Southern way of life now "gone with the wind") and become an American institution?

Part of the answer lies with the national literary sentiment regarding the South that had been evolving since the time in which Mitchell's book was cast.

The harsh perceptions Northerners held toward the South in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War had already softened a brief generation later. That change was reflected in the literature of the day. By the 1880s, Southern writers such as Joel Chandler Harris were gaining a wide readership with rose-colored stories about plantation life in the Old South.

Bill Barnard, professor of history at the University of Alabama, says that while the South lost the Civil War, it "in some ways won the peace for a time.

"By the 1890s, as Northerners were struggling with ethnic problems, with the influx of Poles and Slavs and Italians and the rest, many began to adopt or reassert the same kind of racial views that Southerners held."

It was in 1896, for example, that Plessy vs. Ferguson, the Supreme Court decision that upheld state-imposed segregation, was handed down; that highly politic ruling established the "separate but equal" doctrine that was the legal basis for segregation in America for a half-century.

"The racial attitudes of the South became fairly general throughout the country," Barnard says. "That led to a reassessment in a sense of the North's attitude toward the South. It was distinctly friendlier."

By the time "Gone With the Wind" was published during the Great Depression, the nation was ripe for an acceptance of a Southern view of the events of the Civil War, with slavery depicted as benign and the Reconstruction era as dark and corrupt.

"Margaret Mitchell both reflected and contributed to this growing 'genial vision' of the South," Barnard says.

Yet good timing alone does not a classic make. "Gone With the Wind" was 1,000-plus pages of powerful storytelling, slow going at times but, for countless readers, ultimately worth the effort. Scarlett's unyielding resolve to rise from the ashes of the war makes for a globally appealing tale with a universal theme.

"The Japanese, for example, are absolutely crazy about 'Gone With the Wind,' " Barnard says. "Part of it lies in the sheer characterization of Scarlett. Here is an absolutely determined woman; that scene where she holds up the turnip and vows that she'll never go hungry again is a testament to human endurance and persistence that Southerners, Japanese or any culture that has gone through that type of devastation could appreciate."

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