Rhett Butler’s People

On a crisp November night in New York City, Donald McCaig — ad copywriter turned sheep farmer turned author — stood reading in his ten-gallon hat from Rhett Butler’s People, his sequel, prequel, and companion to Gone with the Wind. He’d reached the scene in which Rhett, having declared the slim chances of a Southern victory, retires to Twelve Oaks’ library and accidentally overhears Scarlett’s ill-fated declarations of love to Ashley Wilkes. Rhett’s cynical assessment: “Irish immigrant’s daughter and the aristocrat. She’s good enough to toy with but not to marry.” He then watches Scarlett give Ashley the resounding slap that stings his cheeks and sears his soul just about the time guns fire on Fort Sumter. The scene, here shown in reverse angle from Rhett’s perspective, shows that Rhett has already been taken by Scarlett. ” ‘My God.’ Rhett moistened dry lips. ‘She’s just like me!’ “

The work McCaig read to an audience of Upper East Side book lovers is the product of 4 years of his own life and 12 years of work between the publisher St. Martin’s and the Margaret Mitchell Estate on an authorized sequel to Mitchell’s 1936 work of spitfire, nostalgia, and a South swept away by Sherman’s army. It’s the literary equivalent of a modern wing added to an old plantation: the commission from the estate demanded that McCaig enter and renovate something sensitive, time-bound, and ultimately political. His zoning board was made up of somewhat persnickety preservationists: the Mitchell Estate preemptively balked at interracial or same-sex relationships in the text, and at use of the n-word. A shocking update akin to Alice Randall’s 2001 novel The Wind Done Gone, which parodies the novel from the point of view of slaves, was out of the question. This sequel had to emerge within conscripted notions of propriety, and play nice in its historic neighborhood.

The issue, then, is what McCaig proposes to add and what to remodel. And those aren’t small questions when you consider the book’s target audience: the official launch of the book took place not in Manhattan but at the Center for Southern Literature, located (where else?) in the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta. The event was a lavish one, including a tour of Mitchell’s own version of Tara. The scale of this celebration points up the status of Gone with the Wind as something of a national heirloom that must be treated with appropriate reverence. And yet that additional wing has been seen by many as necessary. According to spokespeople for the Margaret Mitchell Estate: “The public itself wanted another sequel.” McCaig himself brings a perhaps less burdened perspective to the task. He admits that he’d never read the novel before the publisher approached him, but was moved by the book once he did, and intrigued by the enigma of Rhett, a character he noted was “almost more an attitude than a man.”

But what kind of attitude? And whose? What, we might ask, does the public want from Rhett? It might seem at first gander that we’re simply hungry to revisit Rhett and Scarlett, the star-crossed lovers who embrace as Atlanta burns but never seem able to love each other at the same time. The book does resolve that cliffhanger, but it treats other anxieties as well — and not as Alexandra Ripley’s book Scarlett did, by transporting the action to Ireland. McCaig instead transposes the issues at play to a change within the character of Rhett himself. The man still has a swagger, it’s just a question of what the swaggering means. The earlier alpha-male Rhett was a renegade mostly because he seemed dangerously willing to transgress sexual mores: we hear that he wasn’t received in Charleston. He fled often to Belle Watling’s house of ill repute. His past perhaps involves an illegitimate child. And he was a blockade runner, which showed that his primary allegiance in the divided world was to himself. In this way, he’s perfect for Scarlett. Together they’re a captivating — if difficult — analogue for the capitalist self-interest that, it seems, will get the fallen South back on its feet after the visionary “Cause” is defeated.

McCaig’s updated Rhett goes on being self-interested, but he’s not much of a sexual rogue. He visits brothels in his salad days (he is Rhett Butler!), but he’s actually quite respectable. Damn it, he’s loved Scarlett from the moment he set eyes on her — and once assured of her love, he settles happily into a life that might be downright suburban. If he were living today, he might even buy them both an SUV. As for Scarlett, once she makes up her mind to love Rhett, she ends up beaming while she pours cream in his coffee. So what’s a rebel to do? Herein lies the transposition: in this story, it’s Rhett’s position on race that securely positions him as a renegade. The real way that we know that this Rhett doesn’t give a damn is that he is willing to be friends with black people, to work beside them and to be in business as equals with them. He’s even — as the book shows — willing to kill his black friends in acts of friendship designed to keep other white people from lynching them. Some reviewers have called this moving. I have to admit it made me squirm.

So, while the book purports to be here resolving the unfinished question of whatever happened to Scarlett and Rhett, it can’t avoid engaging with the stage on which their encounter takes place: the memory of the Civil War, and America’s racial legacy. It sets out to scratch one itch and ends up having to apply balm to a wound, and to re-forge the mold its characters are poured in. But the result is a book that rewrites a great deal without actually discussing much; McCaig’s renovation of Rhett’s world is ultimately incomplete. It’s convenient that Rhett is friends with the black man he eventually has to kill, but there are still quite a few Porks and Prissies in McCaig’s telling, equally convenient — dumb for comic mileage, or literally dying to save their white mistresses. While slavery was a horror for those who fled in the wind of Sherman’s passage, the house slaves of Tara linger. Slavery was awful, goes the subtext, but our heroes were so likable that their people hung around just to make cornbread. There’s no miscegenation onstage, but Scarlett and Rhett toss up their heels at an octoroon ball. Times being what they were, there are limits to Rhett’s activism: he can promise a black preacher to help raise funds for black schools, and even invite him to a party — providing the preacher doesn’t stay too long.

We live in a literary moment plush with retellings — recently including March, Geraldine Brooks’s Pulitzer Prize?winning revisitation of the characters of Little Women, or Finn, Jon Clinch’s dark and lyric look at the politics of love and race that swirl through the universe of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Indeed, the question of how to make sense of our troubled 19th-century American inheritance is fertile ground for authors of the early 21st. It will be interesting to see how a book like Gone with the Wind (albeit an early-20th-century work that looks back with longing at the antebellum period) keeps being reimagined — unless McCaig’s book is really an answer to whatever longings provoke a book like this into being in the first place. I suspect that our longing to make sense of history — especially difficult histories — runs deeper than this, and that part of the reason that we need such books is that we are a country that is ambivalent about memory and constantly wishes to remake its own myths.

As for McCaig: he’s offered an engaging read, albeit with wooden bits here and there. And, for all its flaws, the original still can dole out its great intoxications. Scarlett, with her combination of corsets and entrepreneurial moxie, is the steel magnolia who looms above them all — broken, unbreakable, and transcendent. As for our hero: lest we rest too much on the laurels of our newly renegade Rhett, I’d like to think that the way he’s been rewritten is only the best remaking McCaig could provide the Rhett he was given. I’d certainly hope it’s not the best that can be imagined for our gallant — or renegade — heroes now.