ON Sept. 25th, the long-awaited, massively promoted, closely guarded (reviewers still can't get copies), "Scarlett: The Sequel to Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone With the Wind, will hit the bookstands. It will be simultaneously published in 40 countries and translated into 18 languages."I am on record as not liking sequels," says Celestine Sibley, noted columnist for the Atlanta Constitution and personal friend of Margaret Mitchell, author of "Gone with the Wind. But since I am reviewing the book for my newspaper, I better not say any more until I read it." Because read it she must, whether reviewing it or not. The book's publishers are banking on just this state of mind, that people will have to read it no matter how it compares with the original. And the hype-is-might promotion surrounding the release of the book threatens to overwhelm its content (with one exception, of course, does Scarlett get Rhett back?). It has become the perfect example of the publishing industry's addiction to blockbuster books. Warner Books, a division of Warner Communications, bought North American rights to the sequel for $4.5 million. Life magazine paid $250,000 to run an excerpt this month. Before a page is turned by a paying reader, the book has earned more than $10 million in both United States and foreign rights. Movie rights are being negotiated as this article goes to press. "Scarlett" will have to sell 250,000 copies for Warner to break even, say industry sources. The publisher plans to spend $600,000 to promote the book this fall and will ship 500,000 copies to stores around the country timed to arrive on the publication date. The effort is a fair risk, say the same industry sources, given that the original is the best-selling American novel of all time, with 28 million copies sold. Margaret Mitchell refused to write a sequel. But with the novel's copyright due to expire in 2011, and the near certainty that someone would produce one, the Mitchell estate bowed to the inevitable - and lucrative. The William Morris agency in New York City negotiated sale of book rights for the Mitchell heirs. "Scarlett was a very practical woman. She believed in doing business with the Yankees," says Miss Sibley. Scarlett's literary heirs have proved just as practical, doing business with the world. The first hurdle was to select an author. The task fell to Alexandra Ripley, a native of South Carolina now living in a converted 18th-century tavern on a dead-end road in Virginia. A writer of Southern historical fiction, she possessed the requisite deep-South sensitivities desired by the Mitchell heirs. WHEN it was announced three years ago that Ms. Ripley would write the official sequel, she admitted that the book "will never be mine. It's a foster mother kind of thing." And then, as if Scarlett echoed her reply, she went on to say: "Yes, Margaret Mitchell writes better than I do. But she's dead." Mitchell was struck and killed by a taxi on Peachtree Street in 1949 in her native Atlanta. The sequel is 768 pages long, making it 186 pages shorter than the original, but more than 300 pages longer than the average length of any of Ripley's three previous paperback romance bestsellers. What do we know of the tightly guarded manuscript? More than snatches. The Scarlett O'Hara-Rhett Butler-Ashley Wilkes triangle continues. Scarlett, though divorced, becomes pregnant with Rhett's child. Mammy, the only black character in the sequel, does not speak dialect (a precondition Ripley set with the Mitchell heirs before accepting the assignment). Scarlett goes to Ireland, to the county of her father's birth, and spends more than half the book there with Mammy in tow. "Writing a sequel is always difficult," says Floyd C. Watkins, professor emeritus of Southern literature at Emory University in Atlanta. In this case, it will be doubly so, he says, since, if it is a true historical novel with full character development, it will be what the first book wasn't. Mr. Watkins is among those critics who fault the original for numerous historical inaccuracies. Judging by the excerpt in Life magazine, "difficult" may prove to be a courteous Southern way of saying it can't be done. Ripley's style comes up well short of the original, with woefully flat dialogue and artificially steamy romance. Mitchell got the idea for the title of her book (a title considered by many to be one of the best in literature) from a poem, "Cynara," by Ernest Dowson, a poet who wrote at the end of the last century. There are clear echoes from Psalm 103, verses 15 and 16, in the King James Version of the Bible:
15 As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. 16 For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more.
For this critic, the sequel gives every indication of living up to its scriptural roots in a way the original never did.