Literary tempest brews in Old South

Lawsuit challenges black version of 'Gone with the Wind'

Thursday, March 29, 2001

— Author Margaret Mitchell's estate has filed suit here to block publication of a novel that tells the late writer's "Gone with the Wind" story from the perspective of a former slave who is an illegitimate half-sister of Mitchell's heroine, Scarlett O'Hara.

A hearing will be conducted today in Atlanta on the estate's argument that "The Wind Done Gone" by Alice Randall, set to be published in June by Houghton Mifflin, is technically a sequel to Mitchell's classic 1936 novel of the Old South and thus a violation of U.S. copyright law.

The case raises thorny legal questions about how far a writer can go in referring to another author's work. Even more, it threatens to open old scars for U.S. blacks.

For 65 years, African-Americans have chafed at the stereotypical representations of lazy, childlike, easily frightened black slaves in Mitchell's perennial best seller, as well as in the 1939 Oscar-winning movie based on it. Randall's book promised to go a long way toward counterbalancing those insensitive views by envisioning the O'Hara family's Tara plantation and the people who lived there from a slave's point of view.

Now, even though the book has been endorsed by such major African-American literary voices as Ismael Reed and Claude Brown, it may never reach the stores.

Rectifying past mistakes

Randall, an African American who lives in Nashville who co-wrote a No. 1 country song� "XXXs and OOOs," recorded by Trisha Yearwood�didn't return phone calls Tuesday.

But in a statement released by her publisher she said, "Once upon a time in America, African-Americans were forbidden by law to learn to read and write. It saddens me and breaks my heart (that) there are those who would try to set up obstacles for a black woman to tell her story, and the story of her people, with words in writing."

Michael Eric Dyson, a DePaul University professor and an expert on black culture and U.S. race relations, said Randall's book represents an important step toward rectifying the slanted portrayal of blacks in Mitchell's book. "We've had the slavery story by proxy from Margaret Mitchell, and now we want black people to speak for themselves," he said.

This different point of view won't benefit just blacks, Dyson said, but also will give white readers a fuller insight into life in the South in the era of slavery leading up to the Civil War. "You get a sense of the complexity of black life," he said. "These people had passion and interests. They had ruminations; they had conflicts. They were human."

Copyright issues

Although "The Wind Done Gone" is not scheduled for publication until June 6, advance reviewer copies have been distributed by Houghton Mifflin, and promotional material from the publisher portrays the book as "the story that's been missing" from the Mitchell book.

Margaret Wogan, one of several attorneys representing the Mitchell estate in the lawsuit, which was filed March 16, cited such language as proof that the book is a sequel and "an authorized derivative work that incorporates wholesale fully developed characters from 'Gone with the Wind.'"

Wogan noted that the Mitchell trust "is in the business of authorizing sequels" in return for a cut of the profits. The first sequel, "Scarlett" by Alexandra Ripley, was published in 1991. A second one is being written and will be published by St. Martin's Press.

In the lawsuit, the Mitchell estate contends that all of the major characters in Randall's novel�with the exception of its narrator, Cynara, said by the novel to have been sired by Scarlett's father and therefore her half-sister but who was never suggested in Mitchell's book�are "readily identifiable as the core Mitchell characters." In addition, the suit claims Randall's book makes clear reference to key incidents described in "Gone with the Wind."

'Right to comment'

Houghton Mifflin took a hard line Tuesday, promising to vigorously battle the Mitchell estate on the issue. "It is unconscionable to deny anyone the right to comment on a book that has taken on such mythic status in American culture," said Wendy Strothman, executive vice president of the company's trade and reference division, in the statement. "'The Wind Done Gone' is an inspired act of literary invention that gives voice to those whom history and culture have silenced."

Legal experts said Houghton Mifflin's best defense would be to argue that Randall's book is a legitimate form of literary comment on "Gone with the Wind."

Roberta Kwall, director of the DePaul University Center for Intellectual Property Law, noted that those who own the copyright on a book often fight attempts to satirize or parody the work. But parodies and satires are protected under an exception to the copyright law. "You're allowed to take enough of the underlying work to conjure up the original," Kwall said.