Separate but sequel

Allen Tullos & Candace Waid

October 21, 1991|By Allen Tullos & Candace Waid

Atlanta -- HEREABOUTS, lately, time and patience are wearing thin. Thin as the patina on Ashley Wilkes' last good pair of Sunday pants. Ashley is mostly dead now since Alexandra Ripley, that "Scarlett" woman, finished with him. At least she left him tan and married off to a spare English widow.

It was when we were lined up and reading our way to the cash register in the book section at Rich's Department Store at Perimeter Mall that we began to feel something had gone terribly wrong. "She's killed Mammy!" someone ahead of us shouted. We read on. Sure enough, that "Scarlett" woman had Mammy dead and buried with nearly 800 pages left to go.

That's just what we mean when we say time and patience have been running out for all sorts of people around here. Take Otis Nixon. He was asked by the commissioner of baseball's office if he would kindly stop playing when the season still had several weeks to run. "One minute, urine. The next, you're out," said the commissioner, sending palpitations through the whole team of Braves. (With their fans waving tomahawks, they got into the World Series anyway.)

And there's the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games. With the Olympics only a half-decade away and drawing closer every minute, the committee worries if there will be world enough and time for its $700 million marketing program to unload all of the official sweat pants and coffee mugs for each year between now and 1996.

But it was for Margaret Mitchell's heirs that we knew the serious time was playing out. The expiration date for the copyright of "Gone With the Wind" was rising like a bad moon over Charleston's Battery. Soon Scarlett and Rhett and Miss Mellie and Aunt Pittypat would belong to the millions. However, if the family acted fast, there were still millions that could belong to them and to Warner Books and to their chosen "Scarlett" woman.

It was something Mitchell herself had been adamant about. Once, on the streets of Atlanta, a woman had held her in something like a half-nelson, wanting to know what happened after the ending. Even under such pressure, Margaret Mitchell announced to her potentially violent reading public that there'd be no sequel. But as readers of the new, big book know, even the dead with their buried jewels are vulnerable.

Among the rules the Mitchell heirs insisted upon in the mid-1980s when they commissioned the sequel was a law against miscegenation in the book. Just like Southerners and other good Americans of a century ago. But that "Scarlett" woman went them one better. She did away with race altogether. Just denied it. Like some people nowadays wish they could do.

Then she moved the whole shebang clean on back to Ireland. This time there are ample white minions a body could learn to show natural feelings for. The result is like going back in time for whites only -- to that special place where the transplanted and sacred heart of Dixie can still beat a path up the best-seller list.

You probably recall that America's first best-seller, the one that Harriet Beecher Stowe published way back in 1852, went a little out of its way to mention race. At least that's what the most recent Scarlett thinks. In fact, if you aren't careful you might mistake her words for the voice of that "Scarlett" woman in the sequel:

"Look at all those fat-faced Yankees and they're just lapping this up. Cruel slave owners, indeed! Sold down the river, my foot! 'Uncle Tom's Cabin.' Fiddle-dee-dee! No decent person would read that kind of trash."

Ultimately it was this clear air of integrity to the sequel that you had to stop and whistle over. That and the way that "Scarlett" woman could sashay into the Southeastern Booksellers luncheon the other day and sermonize. "Books," she intoned, "have become products like cereal or perfume or deodorant . . . And writers have to fight tooth and nail to hold onto as much as possible of the work they've done."

After all, tomorrow is another payday.

Allen Tullos teaches American studies at Emory University. Candace Waid teaches Southern literature at Yale.

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