A HALF CENTURY after its original publication, an occasion marked by the appearance of these two new editions, Gone With the Wind remains an unclassifiable landmark in American fiction. Its stupendous popularity has been exceeded, perhaps, only by that of the extraordinary movie adapted from it, with the predictable result that it has been dismissed in literary circles as a purely commercial novel, flawed by an excess of romanticism, stupefying length, and condescending depictions of blacks. Yet for all its popularity, Gone With the Wind simply cannot be tossed aside as mere marketplace fiction; it is far more subtle and complex than its detractors realize, its romanticism is laced with an irony that has eluded many readers, and it deals with important themes in ways rarely encountered in popular novels. It fits into nobody's category except its own, and this anniversary is an appropriate occasion to acknowledge that it is a category of considerable distinction.

Gone With the Wind is not a literary novel as that term has been understood in the United States since World War I, but it is a work of indisputable seriousness. Its roots lie not in the modernism that was in the air as Margaret Mitchell slaved away at it in the '20s and '30s but in the tradition of Victorian England, a tradition much loved by American readers but never really absorbed into American literature; apart from the work of such post-Victorians as Dreiser and Wharton, the expansive, panoramic, populous novel of Dickens and Thackeray has been infrequently imitated or adapted by serious American writers. Yet Gone With the Wind is precisely such a novel -- in structure, style, mood and voice -- and into the bargain it is no mere moonbeam-befogged bodice-ripper, but a penetrating exercise in social criticism and a work of monumental scale.

It is, furthermore, a distinctly American novel. It is commonly assumed to be an apologia for the Old South, and certainly there are elements of that in it, but as much as anything it is a book about that most American of preoccupations, money. Scarlett O'Hara may wear petticoats and make eyes at her suitors, but she is as "selfish and determined" as Dreiser's Frank Cowperwood or Dos Passos' J. Ward Moorehouse, and when Rhett Butler asks her if she ever thinks "of anything but money" she replies: "No . . . I've found out that money is the most important thing in the world and, as God is my witness, I don't ever intend to be without it again." Certainly her romance with Butler is central to the novel, but no more so than her dogged, gritty, obsessive pursuit of yet another American dream: to "stand alone," on her own feet, beholden to or compromised by no one except herself. If anything, were she less paradigmatically American -- less preoccupied with success and acquisition, with independence and individuality -- there probably would be more room in her heart for the happiness that Butler offers her.

Scarlett and Rhett: Does any other American novel contain two characters more fully realized than these, more wholly absorbed into American mythology? Huck and Jim, perhaps, or Huck and Tom, but no others rush to mind. Scarlett and Rhett are at once larger than life and implacably human, which is why we identify so passionately with them even as we measure the distance between us and them. There's not a shred of cardboard in either, and the dialogue between them is so electric -- especially before they marry, when their relationship is charged with tension -- that the pages crackle. "I love you, Scarlett," Rhett says, "because we are so much alike, renegades, both of us, dear, and selfish rascals. Neither of us cares a rap if the whole world goes to pot, as long as we are safe and comfortable." Who can resist such a pair?

But it is a measure of Mitchell's accomplishment that, although this observation of Rhett's cuts close to the bone, it turns out to be not the whole truth. Scarlett and Rhett change as the novel progresses, evolving into people who are not precisely what we expected them to be: Rhett has a gentle side, it seems, and a concern for standing in polite society not previously noted, while Scarlett has a capacity for self-delusion that blinds her to the most urgent realities of her own life. Nothing in Gone With the Wind is precisely what it seems to be, because Mitchell understood that we ingabit a world where illusion and musunderstanding are themselves realities.

Thus we have her depiction of the South, which is commonly assumed to be remanticized and unfailingly sympathetic. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The smmy mood with which the novel begins-the happy O'Hara and Tarleton families, the bearties of Tara, the singing and dancing slaves- not merely celebrates the Old South, but establishes a contrast for the dark mood that is to come and that is to dominate the book. Mitckell mourned the Old South, to be sure, but the novel leaves little doubt that she knew its demise was inevitable and that mooning over the past was destructive. "Oh, why can't they forget?" Scarlett asks. "Why can't they look forward and not back?" We were fools to fight that war. And the sooner we forget it, the better we'll be.

That is not a message calculated to please southern sentamentalists of a half-century ago, nor is Mitchell's portrayal of the "social scheme" in Atlanta and the surrounding countryside. No doubt her passage about the "Cause" has been read under many a magnolia as a tribute to suthern bravery but to read it as such is to miss its withering sarcasm: "How could anything but overwhelming victory come to a Cause as just and right as theirs? . . . One more victory and the Yankees would be on their knees yelling for peace and the men would be riding home and there would be kissing and laughter . . . Of course, there were empty chairs and babies who would never see their fathers' faces and unmarked graves by lonely Virginia creeks and in the still mountains of Tennessee, but was that too great a price to pay for such a Cause?" Similarly, Mitchell writes with open contempt about "what passes in these parts as honor," about Ashley Wilkes and his "talk about honor and sacrifice." There is no celebration of "southern honor" in Gone With the Wind; Mitchell knew full well that had it not been for vainglory, the South might have been able to avoid the war that nearly destroyed it. BUT MITCHELL knew very little about southern blacks. She was a child of her own time and place, but it is worth noting that so too was William Faulkner; the difference between Mammy and Dilsey is the difference between caricature and character. Mitchell was simply unable to work her way past the stereotypes ("they were, as a class, childlike in mentality, easily led and from long habit accustomed to taking orders") and at most was only able to see blacks in servile roles: "Not trust a darky! Scarlett trusted them far more than most white people, certainly more than she trusted any Yankee. There were qualities of loyalty and tirelessness and love in them that no strain could break, no money could buy. . . . And even now, with the Freedmen's Bureau promising all manner of wonders, they still stuck with their white folks and worked much harder than they ever worked in slave times. But the Yankees didn't understand these things and would never understand them."

No irony is evident here; the passage is offensive, as is a later remark that "anyone could Jew him down on prices." But just as the use of "nigger" in Huckleberry Finn must be viewed in the context of its time, so must Mitchell's unfortunate lapses into what we now properly regard as unacceptable. The important points about Gone With the Wind as it reaches its golden anniversary are not its imperfections, real though they are, but its strengths. It has endured not merely because it is "popular"; who now reads Anthony Adverse or Forever Amber, hugely popular books in their day? It has endured because it is human drama of the most elemental and universal character, written with passion and wit and conviction. No, it is not literature; but it is a great American novel.