Thirty-one years in the business, and Faith Brunson had never seen anything like Sept. 28. That was the Saturday Alexandra Ripley, author of Scarlett: The Sequel to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, came to Rich’s department store in Atlanta. People started lining up four hours before the store opened. Once inside, they dashed up the down escalator to secure a favorable position. They brought ice chests, lawn chairs, baby strollers — ”everything necessary to set up housekeeping for a few hours,” says Brunson, the retired Rich’s book buyer who was called back to handle Scarlett.
When Ripley arrived at 12:30 p.m., the crowd clapped and screamed. ”A few reached out and touched her like she was Vivien Leigh,” Brunson says. ”They didn’t care if she had written a good book or not. She had become a part of the legend” — the legend of Gone With the Wind.
For the next seven hours, Ripley signed 5,000 books. Twice she rested briefly, and once she went to the ladies’ room. A small group of imploring women followed her. ”If you’ll just hand your books over the wall,” Ripley said graciously, ”I’ll sign them in here.”
Before Brunson left that night, she counted the unsold copies of Scarlett. The grand total: 11. Even the cardboard cartons the books had arrived in were gone. ”People were carrying those boxes out like books had arrived in were gone. ”People were carrying those boxes out like they were gold,” says Brunson. ”They also stole our signs announcing that Ripley was coming.”
Scarlett had only been on sale four days but it was already a phenomenon. Two million copies later, people are still arguing the merits of what will probably be the fastest-selling novel in American history, still trying to figure out how and why it has become a national obsession. ”I was amazed that people cared that much,” says Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Celestine Sibley, who reports that the half-dozen local folks she has consulted didn’t enjoy the book.
While not quite willing to take up arms in disagreement, Atlanta retiree Grace Pike asserts that Scarlett was ”great, fantastic.” Anyone who enjoyed GWTW as much as she did, Pike concludes, echoing the sentiments of many, ”could not fail to want to read Scarlett.”
So too for Dot Hayes, a librarian in nearby Peachtree City. Like some other fans of the original, she didn’t plan to read Scarlett. But it came into the library, she took it home, ”and all of a sudden I looked up and it was 1:30 a.m. I was enjoying it so much I didn’t realize it was so late.”
Detractors of the project enjoy pointing out that Mitchell, who died in 1949, had never wanted a sequel, and argue that for her estate to authorize one was a matter of greed not art. ”The cynicism behind the whole endeavor is antithetical to the spirit of literature,” says Allan Gurganus, author of the 1989 best-seller Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. His explanation for Scarlett‘s appeal: ”People are nostalgic for 1936, as well as 1856.”
Although he is a fan of the sequel, John Wiley Jr., editor of ”The Gone With the Wind Collector’s Newsletter,” reports that ”the real Gone With the Wind fanatics were disappointed. At a convention we had here in Richmond in November, everyone disliked it, although with varying degrees of intensity.”
Florence King is one of those buffs. The author of 1986’s Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady, she has read the original 30 times. ”I started to look through Scarlett and it was so horrible I gave it to a lady down the street.” Her explanation of all those satisfied customers: ”American people are a nation of sheep — they’ll buy anything they’re told to buy. They have no literary taste.”
But Darden Asbury Pyron, whose biography of Mitchell appeared simultaneously with Scarlett, argues that taste is beside the point. The only thing that counted was the word sequel. ”It was apparent from the very first readers of Gone With the Wind, even those who read it in manuscript, that this was something that just turned people around,” Pyron says. ”They don’t want to admit it’s fiction, and one way to do that is by having the story continue.”
At the film’s 1939 Atlanta premiere, Margaret Mitchell declared the story was no longer hers but belonged to the people of Atlanta. Ripley’s novel, undoubtedly only the first of many sequels, shows that Mitchell was right. ”Scarlett and Rhett are like the Arthurian legends, Tarzan, and Sherlock Holmes,” says Pyron. ”They live in the public imagination, and are not to be confined to just one book.”