SCARLETT: The Sequel to Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind. By Alexandra Ripley. New York: Warner Books. 823 pages. $24.95.
FOR US older readers of Southern extraction, this new sequel to "Gone With the Wind" can only stir memories of images in Dixieland. For example, on Page 13 (of 823 in "Scarlett"), the heroine, "Scarlett O'Hara Butler," played by Vivian Leigh, rushes to the death bed of "Mammy," played by Hattie McDaniel, and cries out:
" 'Mammy!' Scarlett fell to her knees beside the bed. 'Mammy!' "
And what is the memory of yesteryear stirred here? What else but Al Jolson in black face and on his knees, singing "Mammy!"
Here's another -- on Page 637:
"Rhett bowed once again . . . He put his hat on and turned away. His thumb tilted the hat to the back of his head."
Which reminds us, of course, of the he-man who played Rhett Butler in the 1939 movie of GWTW, does it not? I had apparently remembered it wrong, though, because I thought it was Clark Gable. But when I read in "Scarlett" how Rhett thumbed his hat back on his head, I realized it must have been John Wayne.
Clark Gable could make his ears wiggle without touching them, but only Duke Wayne could move his hat back with his thumb in memorable style. But seriously, folks: "Scarlett," the sequel, is fully as popular, and fully as bad, as you may have read elsewhere. The author of the new one, Alexandra Ripley, has VTC admitted she isn't as good a writer as Margaret Mitchell, the author of GWTW. She isn't. Keep in mind, though, that not a few people thought GWTW was fairly awful.
Mitchell, of Atlanta, Ga., was a professional feature writer, and Ripley, of Charleston, S.C., is a graduate of one of the "Seven Sisters" colleges for proper young women. Which proves, it turns out, that good breeding and upscale education and being a Southern belle do not guarantee that a person has much talent as a writer.
So why, then, was GWTW -- still in print over 50 years later -- one of the biggest best-sellers of all time? And why is "Scarlett," for which Ripley was paid something like $4.5 million in advance, already at the top of the charts?
I don't know why. Why do people think the Dr. Seuss books of mediocre cartoons and worse verse are masterpieces? Why do people watch "Roseanne" on TV? As H.L. Mencken once asked, "Why do men go to zoos?" He also said that no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.
I don't quite agree with that last remark. The American reading public has embraced some real masterpieces -- "Huckleberry Finn," for example, and "The Sun Also Rises," for another. All of the critics didn't approve of those. Still, I feel compelled by duty to join the herd of book reviewers who have concluded, after careful reading and consideration, that "Scarlett" stinks.
I know, of course, that frankly, the reading public doesn't give a damn about what book reviewers think. But fiddle-dee-dee, friends. We insist it's awful.
The story in it -- episodic and endless -- has Scarlett constantly lusting after Rhett, who usually but not always spurns her from 1873 to about 1880. And, contrary to what Margaret Mitchell said in the first paragraph of GWTW, Scarlett is repeatedly described as beautiful.
She is also repeatedly described as a charmer of people, mostly men. She charms just about everyone on Earth of north European ancestry, including Rhett's wonderful Southern mother in Charleston, her own nasty grandfather in Savannah and assorted Irish Fenian rebels and British aristocrats in Ireland.
Ripley keeps insisting that Scarlett is charming. She does not seem charming to me, as, indeed, she has never seemed charming to most men, Yankee or Confederate, Mick or Limey. A woman who says "Fiddle-dee-dee" 11 times in one novel? Who says, "We loved our darkies just like family, and some of them owned us more than we owned them."?
If that's enough to justify an expenditure of $24.95, help yourself.
You'll have plenty of company.
John Goodspeed writes from Easton.