Rhett is no gentleman, and frankly, my dear, I DO give a damn!

When I was a kid before the advent of VCRs (aka "when dinosaurs roamed the earth") Gone With the Wind came round to the movie theaters once a year, and every year, I begged to go. The first year I remember seeing the newspaper advertisement -- a glorious full color quarter page featuring the famous image of Scarlet shaking her fist at God -- only my oldest sister Linda got to go. The following year, my sister Diana joined her. The next year, I turned ten. My sister Janis was going to go with Linda and Diana, leaving me behind like a stupid little kid all by myself. As God was my witness, I was not going to let that happen! I started begging and wheedling months in advance and my mother (so wise, Mom, so wise!) told me, "If you read the book, you'll show me that you're mature enough to go to the movie."

I commandeered Diana's well-worn copy and devoured it like a wood chipper. Then Diana, who had the tome practically memorized, quizzed me in front of our mother, and I won my place in the center of row three. The movie swept me away, of course, but right away I noticed that it was very different from the book...

Stephen Carter's review of Donald McCraig's Rhett Butler's People in this morning's NY Times provides an excellent commentary on how the movie sanitized the racism and not-cool-for-enlightened-modern-audiences-ness of the book in general and Rhett Butler in particular.
"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."

Now, obviously, I think it's extremely uncool to hold up shooting darkies as proof of high moral character, but Margaret Mitchell was a product of the time and place in which she lived, and Gone With the Wind is her work. The hijacking of her characters decades after her death -- whether it's for the benign purpose of masking her racism with lemony freshness or with the more pragmatic goal of cranking out an instant bestseller -- is almost as offensive to me as Mitchell's flattering portrayal of the KKK as gallant gentlemen defending their Heaven-blessed way of life. I think there's great historical and literary value in a book that demonstrates how deeply ingrained that thinking was (and still is for some) in Southern culture. The mamby-pambification of Rhett Butler in these sappy sequels, no matter how well written, is the rape of a great book.

"You, sir, are no gentleman," Scarlet tells Rhett, and truer words were never spoken. More power to him. The volatile love between an ungentlemanly profiteer and an unscrupulous golddigger -- c'mon! That's a great story! The book doesn't have a happy ending because these two shitheels do not deserve it. Mitchell had it exactly right. She paints a lovely picture of the hoop-skirted plantation caste system, but she makes no attempt to disguise the greed and pomposity that built it or the bad end to which it deservedly came.

The conundrum arises from the fact that, as Rhett and Scarlet grow to love each other, we grow to love them. We can't bear it when they embarrass themselves with blackhearted business deals and rampant political incorrectness. For my taste the answer is to forgive and learn from their faults and love the book for what it is: Mitchell's great and only novel, a beautifully told story that deserves to stand for all time as she told it.

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