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Almost a Gentleman

Published on: November 4, 2007

Midway through Donald McCaig’s unexpectedly diverting novel, “Rhett Butler’s People,” a black man about to be lynched in the post-bellum South asks Rhett to please shoot him dead before the mob breaks into the jail and does worse. Rhett obliges. Thus does McCaig correct the record. In Margaret Mitchell’s telling — that is, in “Gone With the Wind” — we learn that Rhett has been arrested for killing “this darky who had insulted a white woman.” A few chapters later, Rhett confesses his guilt to Scarlett O’Hara, the other half of Mitchell’s famous romantic pair. “What else could a Southern gentleman do?” he asks.

Mitchell means this admission as a demonstration of Rhett’s sterling character. If one is to rescue Rhett for the modern reader, one must explain away this and several other details that Hollywood conveniently left out of the film. McCaig, the author of two other novels set during the Civil War period, was chosen by the Mitchell estate to write this sequel. He works hard to cleanse Rhett of the stains on his reputation that Mitchell considered compliments. That McCaig so admirably succeeds is both the strength and weakness of his tale and helps illustrate the risk of attempting a sequel to one of the most popular novels in history.

“Gone With the Wind” was published in 1936, and despite heroic efforts over the last seven decades to transform it into something else, the novel stands as an apologia for the Old South — the South of gallant white plantation owners and darkies too foolish for anything but slavery, a civilization ruined by a vengeful North that subsequently flooded that idyllic world with rapacious Union soldiers, greedy carpetbaggers and the despotic power of the Freedmen’s Bureau. That Mitchell was able to defend this vision in a novel of such power, beauty and depth is a tribute to her literary genius. But the vision is no less terrifying for having been brilliantly presented.

In 1939, the film was released to near-universal acclaim. Adjusting the box office figures for inflation, “Gone With the Wind” remains the highest-grossing film of all time. Even now, the movie plays remarkably well. In scope, direction and especially acting, the film compares favorably with most of the best Hollywood products of recent years.

But the film’s vision was not Mitchell’s. The text emblazoned across the screen during the opening theme, referring to “a civilization gone with the wind,” appears nowhere in the novel. Mitchell buries the title phrase in Scarlett’s worries about the plantation where she grew up: “Was Tara also gone with the wind which had swept through Georgia?” The wind was Sherman’s army. Mitchell’s novel is obsessed with categorizing the supposed misdeeds of the Union forces.

The Hollywood version almost feels obsessed with race. With the notable exception of Hattie McDaniel’s Academy Award-winning portrayal of Mammy, the black characters in the film are even more offensive than those of the novel, particularly Prissy, portrayed in the film by Butterfly McQueen, whose panicked wail “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ babies” has become a famous laugh line — although Prissy seems, in the equivalent scene in the novel, less panicky than sly. The film’s slaves are, for the most part, stupid but loyal. In the postwar scenes, the freedmen are fat and arrogant.

And yet for all that, the filmmakers were in fact trying to sanitize Mitchell’s novel. So began a process that is still under way. The Rhett Butler who lives in our collective imagination is not Mitchell’s Rhett but Hollywood’s, ably brought to life by Clark Gable. Mitchell’s Rhett has been largely forgotten.

In the novel, the noble Ashley Wilkes, along with Scarlett’s second husband, Frank Kennedy, and every other able-bodied white man in Atlanta, is a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and unapologetically so. One night they ride into a trap (those perfidious Yankees!), and Rhett rescues them. Mitchell does not make entirely clear whether Rhett was a member of the Klan or simply a fellow traveler. The evidence favors the second interpretation. Either way, Hollywood wanted no part of the Klan and left it out of the film.

We also learn in the original that Rhett dishonored a woman back in Charleston and killed her brother in a duel. Except for a brief early hint of scandal, this tale, too, does not make it into the Hollywood version. We further learn in Mitchell’s novel that the unmarried Rhett may have a son in New Orleans. The film leaves out this detail.

Hollywood wanted a Rhett without blemish, a man who never had to explain himself, who showed his foresight in predicting that the South would be clobbered in the war and his patriotism by finally volunteering. The film thus omits Rhett’s explanation to a puzzled Scarlett that the Civil War was not really over “the darkies,” that there will “always be wars because men love wars.”

Sequels to great novels are iffy propositions, especially when the great novels are also famous movies. The first authorized sequel to “Gone With the Wind,” Alexandra Ripley’s “Scarlett,” was published in 1991 to enormous commercial success and largely negative reviews. The unauthorized sequel, the parody “The Wind Done Gone,” by Alice Randall, became a best seller after the Mitchell estate sued to stop its publication and lost. The slaves were ubiquitous in Mitchell’s original, the supporting structure of the civilization she was defending and, in her view, largely happy with their lot. Randall had the clever idea of telling the story from the slaves’ point of view. Ripley, perhaps worried about giving offense, largely removed them from the story by moving a good chunk of the action to Ireland. When she had to mention them — for example, in scenes in Charleston and Atlanta — she referred to them, ahistorically, as “black,” which at the time would have been considered an insult.

McCaig avoids these pitfalls. His story stays in the South, beginning a few years before the war and ending a few years after it. The slaves are not happy. When the Union troops march through, nearly all the slaves run off — and none return later to beg their former masters to take them back, as they do in Mitchell’s telling. McCaig is perfectly willing to say “colored” and “nigger,” even when writing in the third person, and so lends his tale a verisimilitude that Ripley’s, in this respect, lacked.

Ripley saw “Gone With the Wind” as fundamentally a love story and assumed that our interest in Rhett and Scarlett would be sufficient to carry the tale. McCaig’s prose captures something of the charm and smoothness of the original. He understands that the power of Mitchell’s narrative arose because she set the romance against momentous events. He sensibly places the postwar struggle over white supremacy at the heart of his story.

But mostly his goal is to rehabilitate Rhett. The Klan question, the woman he dishonored, the rumors of a bastard in New Orleans, the money supposedly pilfered from the Confederate treasury — all of this McCaig explains away while keeping the story moving at a nice clip, faster even than the original.

Or perhaps one should say the “stories,” because McCaig’s novel, as the title suggests, weaves interlocking tales of different people whose lives and Rhett’s were intertwined. We meet, among others, his beloved sister, Rosemary; his boyhood Negro friend Tunis; and his schoolmate Andrew, who becomes a Confederate war hero. We learn more about Archie, the frightening, violent, racist ex-con who works for the sainted Melanie in Mitchell’s novel and does not exist in the film: he, too, turns out to have a past connection to Rhett. Perhaps his ending is a bit predictable, but the power of Mitchell’s climax would be difficult to match.

McCaig pierces the mystery in which Mitchell shrouded Rhett Butler. He gives Rhett a life. We begin to understand where he came from, and why he was the way he was and did the things he did. McCaig discards Ripley’s cumbersome tale and invents fresh lives even for the characters necessarily common to both sequels. The new story has its own integrity. It makes sense.

And yet McCaig’s Rhett, for all that he becomes a plausible character, is perhaps not an entirely plausible Rhett. Or rather, even if plausible, he may not be the Rhett we need. Rhett’s charm in the original novel (and in the film) stems precisely from his dashing mystery. Neither we nor Scarlett ever quite know what is going on behind that mocking grin, and our inability to define him draws us to him. He surprises and impresses us because we never can guess what he is going to do next.

McCaig’s Rhett worries. He aches for Scarlett, is wounded by her tantrums and her indifference, and confides his fears to his sister. By stripping away the veneer, McCaig transforms Rhett into a version of the angst-ridden, on-the-make, love-struck antihero of modern fiction: Rhett Butler as channeled by Rabbit Angstrom or T. S. Garp. Is this really the Rhett we want?

Donald McCaig’s fine novel is not an hommage. In reducing Rhett to a perplexed and worrying Everyman, McCaig reduces the power of Mitchell’s original. Readers adore the enigma that is Rhett — because he is an enigma. Probably that was Mitchell’s intention: to persuade us to love the world that would produce a man like Rhett. McCaig insists that Rhett is actually a lot like everyone else. That’s why, after finishing “Rhett Butler’s People,” it may be impossible to read “Gone With the Wind” in quite the same way.

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