Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Designs against Tara: Frances Gaither's the Red Cock Crows and Other Counternarratives to Gone with the Wind

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Designs against Tara: Frances Gaither's the Red Cock Crows and Other Counternarratives to Gone with the Wind

Article excerpt

IN 2001, ALICE RANDALL'S THE WIND DONE GONE--A PARODIC rejoinder to Margaret Mitchell's perennially popular 1936 melodrama, Gone with the Wind--re-ignited cultural debates about representations of race and slavery in American fiction, as well as legal controversies about the acceptable limits of postmodern intertexuality. Some critics made grandiose claims for The Wind Done Gone, one asserting that "Randall has achieved what some might have deemed impossible: She has burst the bubble of a cherished American myth, exposing the inherent racism and injustice of a chunk of Americana that has loomed over the landscape of our popular fiction for 65 years" (Goss 1). The trust that owns the copyright to Gone with the Wind was rather less impressed, and promptly brought suit against Randall for unauthorized use of Mitchell's creations. At the heating, Judge Charles A. Pannell, Jr., refused to consider debates about unequal access to historical discourse. "The question before the court," he proclaimed, "is not who gets to write history, but rather whether Ms. Randall can permeate most of her new critical work with the copyrighted characters, plot, and scenes from Gone with the Wind" (qtd. in Miller 1).

Both the legal wrangling and the critical praise for Randall's puncturing of racist myths suggest that The Wind Done Gone constitutes an innovative and radical challenge to a once hegemonic discourse about slavery and race in American culture. Indeed, conventional wisdom suggests that such counternarratives to the official historical record are very much a product of contemporary culture and postmodernism. According to this view, there is tittle subversive about the traditional historical novel, which simply seeks, according to its classic theorist, Georg Lukacs, to present an "artistic demonstration of historical reality" (50) and to evoke, as Avrom Fleishman argues, "the feeling of how it was to be alive in another age" (4). In contrast, Brian McHale characterizes the postmodern historical novel as a revisionist fiction that reinterprets the historical record, "demystifying or debunking the orthodox version of the past" (90). Linda Hutcheon, meanwhile, observes that the "new skepticism or suspicion about the writing of history found in the work of [postmodern theorists] Hayden White and Dominick LaCapra is mirrored in the internalized challenges to historiography in novels like Shame, The Public Burning, or A Maggot" (106). Critics who have focused upon fiction specifically concerned with American slavery make very similar arguments. Ashraf Rushdy asserts that a series of cultural and social developments in the late 1960s led to the development of a new counter-discourse about slavery in American culture, and a new kind of fiction about it that is characterized by "a renewed respect for the truth and value of slave testimony, the significance of slave cultures, and the importance of slave resistance" (4).

This critical orthodoxy has, however, tended to divert literary scholars from a full appreciation and proper examination of dissenting historical counternarratives produced by novelists earlier in the twentieth century. In his comprehensive study, Slavery and Race in American Popular Culture, William Van Deburg provides a devastating critique of Gone with the Windas both book and film (104-07, 125-27), but he refers only in passing to a radical and subversive novel about slavery by an African American writer published the very same year as Mitchell's opus--Black Thunder, Arna Bontemps's recreation of the Richmond slave rebellion of 1800 (104). Van Deburg also largely overlooks a striking portrayal of slavery and insurrection produced by a white writer in this era: he buries a single passing reference to Frances Gaither's impressive tale of an 1835 slave rebellion in Mississippi, The Red Cock Crows (1944), in his footnotes (206). Black Thunder and The Red Cock Crows, however, vividly demonstrate that both black and white writers in the 1930s and 1940s challenged romanticized representations of slavery and racist constructions of slave personalities long before the emergence of postmodernism or the literature of the Civil Rights era. …

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