Few novels have captured the popular American imagination more strongly than Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 book, Gone With the Wind. Its sweeping, romantic story of the South and the Civil War (1861-65) has entranced readers since the day of its publication. Many readers, however, especially African Americans, have complained that the novel is one-sided; that it demeans the role of Black people; and that its portrayals of such characters as Mammy and Prissy are racist stereotypes. For them, Gone With the Wind has little to tell us about the real experiences of African Americans in the South during and after the Civil War.
In 2001 Alice Randall, a Harvard literature graduate and Nashville, Tennessee, writer of songs and scripts, set out to put the record straight. Her novel The Wind Done Gone tells the story of Gone With the Wind from the perspective of the daughter of Mammy and Gerald O’Hara and thus the half sister of Scarlett O’Hara. Her name is Cynara (taken from the same Ernest Dowson poem that gave Mitchell her title), and she narrates the novel through diary entries about her life.
Randall loosely based her characters on Mitchell’s, though she gave them different names and to some extent redefined them. Gerald O’Hara is Planter, his wife is Lady, Scarlett is Other, and Rhett Butler is R. The plantation Tara becomes Tata. Some of the enslaved have altered names as well: Pork becomes Garlic, for instance. Planter is a drunk easily manipulated by Garlic, who in fact runs the plantation. Because his wife is sexually cold, Planter takes Mammy as his mistress. Rhett Butler, in Mitchell’s novel a swaggering, virile figure, in Randall’s is aging and gray-haired. Scarlett, the strongest character in Mitchell’s novel, is weak and given to hysteria in Randall’s.
Parody or Appropriation?
Alice Randall has described her book as a parody, a novel that stands in a long tradition of writing that makes fun of other literary works. Parody is especially important in African American literature. But the estate of Margaret Mitchell and its lawyers interpreted The Wind Done Gone differently. They saw it as appropriating without permission the characters and situations of Gone With the Wind. Tom Selz, an attorney for the Mitchell estate, argued that Randall’s novel commits “wholesale theft” by borrowing characters, scenes, and situations from the Mitchell novel. Mitchell’s lawyers sought to suppress publication of the novel on these grounds, and the first court ruling granted their request. Judge Charles Pannell issued the ruling: “When the reader of Gone With the Wind turns over the last page, he may well wonder what becomes of Ms. Mitchell’s beloved characters and their romantic, but tragic, world. Ms. Randall has offered her vision of how to answer those unanswered questions. . . . The right to answer those questions and to write a sequel or other derivative work, however, legally belong to Ms. Mitchell’s heirs, not Ms. Randall.”
Randall appealed, and with the support of such well-known writers as Arthur Schlesinger, Harper Lee, Pat Conroy, Charles Johnson, James Alan McPherson, Larry McMurtry, Shelby Foote, and Toni Morrison, she argued that as a parody her book offered a time-honored literary response to another novel. “My book is a parody of Gone With the Wind. Gone With the Wind in certain ways divides the nation into white and black. My book unites the nation. Ultimately, most of the characters in my book turn out to be black, which is a way to make that line invisible. So, my book is a critique of Gone With the Wind in the form of a parody.” Randall compared her book to the eighteenth-century English novel Shamela by Henry Fielding, which makes light of Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela.
On May 25, 2001, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta agreed with Randall’s argument and ruled in her favor. The Wind Done Gone was published shortly thereafter and quickly became a best-seller, remaining on the New York Times list for many weeks. The Mitchell Foundation again appealed, but the Eleventh Circuit Court upheld its decision in October 2001. Randall and the Mitchell Trusts reached an out-of-court settlement in May 2002 that ended the dispute.
A Different Point of View
The Wind Done Gone recounts many of the events in Gone With the Wind, but from a different point of view and with numerous satiric twists. Behind the fumbling white inhabitants of the plantation are the enslaved and formerly-enslaved people who keep things going and manage to get what they need to survive and prosper by manipulating their owners. Randall shows a deep understanding of Mitchell’s novel, and her book is not without compassion for the white characters, whom she sees as victims of their own foibles and weaknesses. At the same time, she demonstrates that Gone With the Wind did not accurately portray the historical world of the nineteenth-century South and that Mitchell misunderstood the enslaved African Americans on whom the white plantation owners depended to run their plantations, pick their cotton, work in their homes, and make their lives comfortable.
An important theme in The Wind Done Gone is African American self-determination. Many of the Black characters actively work to protect themselves and their loved ones, to improve their positions, and to provide for the future. While Mitchell presents Mammy as a selfless and devoted servant, Randall presents her as capable of any act that protects the welfare of herself and her loved ones. To maintain control over the household, for example, she has stealthily murdered at birth each of Planter’s sons: she wants to remove any male heir who in the future might challenge her authority. Moreover, while Mitchell’s novel does not acknowledge the possibility of love in the lives of enslaved men and women at the O’Hara plantation, Randall gives Cynara a full romantic existence, especially in the novel’s second half.
In many ways The Wind Done Gone moves well beyond the novel it parodies. Rather than surviving to live another day, like Scarlett in Mitchell’s story, the Scarlett figure dies. Cynara then follows R to Washington, D.C., where she meets important figures of the Reconstruction era, including Frederick Douglass, author of the famous slave narratives, as well as an African American congressman with whom she falls in love. As the novel concludes, with the end of Reconstruction and the days of Jim Crow laws looming, she takes steps to provide for the future welfare of her own descendants. She thus manages, in the pages of this novel written in the form of her diary, to chart the course of her own history.
The Wind Done Gone as Literature
As an African American response to Gone With the Wind, The Wind Done Gone is interesting and sometimes entertaining; however, it is not great literature. Cynthia Tucker, editorial page editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, puts it best: “Though clever in places, Randall’s book is not that funny. Some reviewers say it does not meet the literary definition of parody, either. (That’s probably OK since Gone With the Wind doesn’t meet the definition of literature.)” Randall leaves too many plot lines undeveloped or incomplete, and most of the characters, including Planter, Other, and Cynara, are hazily indistinct. Randall’s own intentions seem unclear—is she writing a parody, as she seems to be doing in the book’s first half, or is she writing about a young woman’s discovery of her life’s purpose? The novel shows the mark of numerous influences, including Alice Walker, Margaret Walker, Frederick Douglass, Toni Morrison, and even William Faulkner, and it never develops its own style and identity. In some ways it substitutes for the myths of Mitchell’s Old South another mythology all its own. But as a statement embodying African American reaction to the myths underlying Gone With the Wind, it is an important literary and historical document.