The Birth Of A Novel

  • Thank the gods that copyright law was not discovered in the Iron Age. If it had been, and if Homer had been succeeded by some litigious heirs, the vast trove of Western literature derived or extrapolated from the Iliad and Odyssey--including Vergil's Aeneid, Dante's Inferno, Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, Tennyson's Ulysses, Joyce's Ulysses--might not exist. And what damages would today's judges award Christopher Marlowe? He wrote a wildly popular poem called The Passionate Shepherd to His Love that was answered, in identical verse form, by Sir Walter Raleigh in his The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd. Then John Donne piped up with The Bait, a bawdy variation that opened with the same line ("Come live with me and be my love") as Marlowe's poem. "Immature poets imitate," T.S. Eliot wrote some centuries later. "Mature poets steal."

    That was a fair description of old-fashioned literary inbreeding, of how books once grew out of other books. But authors who try such a stunt these days may find their work unpublishable. Such was the clear message delivered by Charles Pannell Jr., a U.S. District Court judge in Atlanta, when he issued an injunction barring the scheduled June publication of a novel by Alice Randall called The Wind Done Gone. The ruling was a victory for the Margaret Mitchell estate, which claimed that Randall's novel infringes on the copyright of Gone With the Wind.

    The Wind Done Gone indisputably uses characters, events and settings from GWTW. Randall changes names--Scarlett O'Hara becomes "Other," Rhett Butler "R," Ashley Wilkes "Dreamy Gentleman" --but these draw whatever substance they have in this version from the people fleshed out in Mitchell's novel. Randall's invention is the character Cinnamon/Cynara, the slave Mammy's mulatto daughter and the half sister of Scarlett, er, Other. Cynara's diary forms the basis of The Wind Done Gone. She writes of her childhood at Cotton Farm and Tata (Tara) and then of events after the period covered in GWTW: her freedom and her life in Atlanta as R's mistress and eventual wife. Along the way, she reports on the news back at Tata, including the death of Other from a fall down the stairs.

    Cynara's voice and character are, in fits and starts, inspired and inspiring. Newly emancipated and literate, she acquires, by virtue of what she calls her "crazy quilt" education, an arresting fictional presence. She can be blunt, circa the 1870s--"There is a lot of Indian in her nigger"--and sometimes poetic: "Mothers grow flaccid, rich in babylove, each baby taking some of the mother's beauty as if the baby knows it needs to protect its babyself by making Mama less kiss-daddy pretty." Why shouldn't the loyal slaves enshrined in the magnolia myth of GWTW, novel and film, be given their say? "Alice Randall has an absolute right to criticize Gone With the Wind," says Martin Garbus, the Mitchell estate lawyer. "But she can't do what she has done, namely take 15 characters and basically recycle the material."

    Randall's thwarted publisher, Houghton Mifflin, vigorously disagrees. "We always knew that we were publishing a parody," says executive vice president Wendy Strothman. "Parody is protected. It's something different, because it is meant to ridicule the original. So it's in another class." She cites the naming of characters as part of the parody: "African Americans are often viewed in this country as 'the other,' so to call the analog to Scarlett 'Other' is funny. It's a twist on normal perceptions."

    Unfortunately, this reasoning is a twist on the normal meaning of parody. Randall makes no attempt to lampoon Mitchell's prose or the narrative devices of GWTW. In fact, she sometimes echoes the romantic swells of the original: "How is it that the South, the world of chivalry and slavery and great white houses and red land and white cotton, is gone, forever gone, in the dust, blown off and away... ?"

    Yet for all its faults--and it is weakest where it relies most heavily on GWTW--The Wind Done Gone deserves a better fate than suppression. The notion that this slim, intense book will deplete the reservoir of readers being served periodic sequels by the Mitchell estate seems ludicrous. Houghton Mifflin has appealed, and the clash between the rights of property and speech will continue in the courts well beyond the disposition of this case. But readers everywhere should be uneasy when a book, for whatever reasons, is banned.