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Thomas Dixon, 1864-1946 and Arthur I. Keller (Arthur Ignatius), 1866-1924
The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan
New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1905.

Summary

Thomas Dixon, Jr. was born January 11, 1864 in Shelby, North Carolina. His father was a Baptist minister and farmer, and his mother, Amanda Elizabeth McAfee, grew up as the daughter of a South Carolina planter. As a child during the South's devastating Reconstruction period, Dixon witnessed firsthand the difficulties associated with postwar poverty. He was first able to attend school regularly at the age of thirteen, when he entered Shelby Academy in 1877. A gifted student, he enrolled at Wake Forest College only two years later and by 1883 had earned his master's degree. Dixon's stellar academic record earned him a scholarship to Johns Hopkins University, where he studied history and politics for a semester until lured away to pursue an unsuccessful acting career in New York. In a year fraught with change, Dixon returned to North Carolina in May 1884. That same year he entered law school in Greensboro and was elected to the state legislature at age twenty. In March 1886, he eloped with Harriet Bussey, and the couple later had three children. In the same year, he was ordained a Baptist minister, and his flair for preaching resulted in his leadership of sizeable congregations in Boston and New York.

Dixon left the ministry in March 1895 in order to pursue lecturing full-time, a move that resulted in his spectacular rise to fame and fortune. While on his lecture tour, he began writing the first of his Klan trilogy, The Leopard's Spots (1902), which was a runaway success. The Klan trilogy—which also includes The Clansman and The Traitor—is so named for the prominent role the Ku Klux Klan plays in Dixon's attempt to redress injustices perpetrated against the South. In addition to essays on socialism, the "race problem," and women's suffrage, Dixon would publish some twenty novels as well as write and star in several plays and films. After the 1905 publication of The Clansman, Dixon attempted selling an adaptation of his novel, but it took nearly ten years before Epoch Producing Corporation agreed to invest in the project. Under D. W. Griffith's direction, the notorious film The Birth of a Nation was first screened in 1915. That same summer, Dixon relocated to California, opening Dixon Studios, Laboratory and Press. Despite producing several films, Dixon's movie venture did not flourish, and he returned to New York in 1923.

Deeply conservative both politically and religiously, Dixon remained adamantly against extending political rights to African Americans, fearing that social equality would inevitably result in miscegenation, a prospect Dixon found unseemly. Such reactionary beliefs, in conjunction with his insistent veneration of the South, made Dixon a popular yet controversial figure. During the last fifteen years of his writing career, his appeal steadily declined. Though he made at least two fortunes, upon his death in Raleigh on April 3, 1946, Dixon was virtually penniless. In spite of the magnitude of his career and his former celebrity status, Thomas Dixon and his works have since sunk into relative obscurity.

In his short preface to The Clansman, an Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905), the second novel in his infamous Klan trilogy, Dixon notes that whereas The Leopard's Spots (1902) offers the "historical outline of the conditions from the enfranchisement of the Negro to his disfranchisement," The Clansman presents "the true story of the 'Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy,' which overturned the Reconstruction regime." Spanning roughly five years (1865-1870), the novel opens just as General Lee signs the treaty at Appomattox, officially ending the Civil War. The first scene unfolds in a Washington hospital, where Miss Elsie Stoneman, daughter of the powerful statesman Austin Stoneman, entertains wounded soldiers with songs from the South. In this roomful of Union soldiers, she finds herself strangely drawn to an injured Confederate colonel, the nineteen-year-old Ben Cameron. According to Elsie's brother Phil, a Union army captain, the young Colonel Cameron was a heroic, honorable leader on the battlefield. Yet Ben has been condemned to death by a local court-martial, convicted of fighting as a guerilla soldier. Moved by the injustice of Ben's sentence as well as his mother's stirring pleas, Elsie petitions President Lincoln for his pardon.

Though Ben Cameron, the eventual Grand Dragon of South Carolina's Ku Klux Klan, arguably represents The Clansman's central heroic figure, perhaps Abraham Lincoln functions as its mythic hero. Certainly at the novel's close, Dixon traces the K.K.K.'s ideological origins to indignation over Lincoln's cruel assassination. Praising Lincoln's universality, the author portrays Lincoln as a noble southern gentleman who remains faithful to the values instilled during his Kentucky childhood. Deeply sympathetic to the South's great losses, the President even suggests that the North is equally to blame for the existence of slavery. Generous in spirit and willing to grant pardons whenever possible, Dixon's Lincoln nevertheless opposes suffrage for newly freed African Americans. Arguing in favor of colonization, the President concludes that the physical difference between the races precludes their harmonious coexistence. Moreover, what Lincoln cannot abide is the threat of assimilation, which he equates with the horrors of miscegenation and the production of a mulatto race.

Yet just as the gracious Lincoln hopes for healing in the South, the novel's most vilified character, the scheming Austin Stoneman, harbors terrible animosity against this enemy land. Heralded the "Great Commoner," Stoneman lobbies for President Johnson's impeachment and enacts revenge against the conquered South, orchestrating what Dixon terms "the Black Plague of Reconstruction" (p. 179). But as a result of his efforts, Stoneman becomes gravely ill, and his doctor advises him to relocate to a warmer climate. Along with his two children, Phil and Elsie, Stoneman relocates to Piedmont, South Carolina, home of the Camerons.

It is in Piedmont where Reconstruction's true atrocities become most evident. With tales of widespread corruption, the unjust seizure of property, and a state legislature overrun by malcontents, a general atmosphere of chaos prevails. Perhaps the most shocking act of brutality, seemingly lifted out of vaudevillian melodrama, is the violent sexual conquest of the honorable Jeannie Lenoir and her daughter Marion. Attacked in their home by four black men, led by the fiendish Gus, both mother and daughter are so shamed that together they embrace death's oblivion rather than face a public loss of virtue. While the southern woman remains a bastion of purity and goodness in Dixon's fiction, African Americans are most often associated with treachery or incompetence. With the exception of Jake, who remains the loyal friend of his former white masters, Dixon's depiction of African American characters relies heavily on offensive stereotypes. He reduces individuals to a series of physical characteristics, described in bestial terms, or to flawed personality traits.

The deeply sentimental Clansman remains above all a testimony to Thomas Dixon's faith in the South's enduring spirit. Amazingly, the South's defrauded, impoverished people persevere, maintaining their dignity and decorum. Hence Dixon presents the Ku Klux Klan as an "institution of Chivalry, Humanity, Mercy and Patriotism," which seeks to protect helpless women and children, uphold the United States Constitution, and to restore order to the benighted South (p. 320). Indeed when the newly formed Klan, led by an indomitable Ben Cameron, first rides, it is to redeem the virtue of southern womanhood: to capture and try the guilty Gus. With men, women, and children rallying together, Dixon suggests, the great beast of Reconstruction will be toppled. Furthermore, out of this embattled state, two separate love stories emerge, that of Ben Cameron and Elsie Stoneman as well as Phil Stoneman and Margaret Cameron. In these pairs of lovers, the North and the South appear reunited. Thus at the novel's close, Thomas Dixon seemingly promises that from these ashes, the South will rise again.

See also the entry for Thomas Dixon, Jr. from the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture available on this site.

Works Consulted: Bain, Robert, Joseph M. Flora, and Louis D. Rubin, Jr., eds., Southern Writers: A Biographical Dictionary, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979; Burke, W. J. and Will D. Howe, eds., American Authors and Books: 1640 to the Present Day, 3rd revised edition, New York: Crown Publishers, 1972; Wallace, W. Stewart, comp., A Dictionary of North American Authors Deceased Before 1950, Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1968; Wilson, Charles Reagan and William Ferris, eds., Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

Mary Alice Kirkpatrick

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