American Culture

Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman: the South’s stories, demagoguery, history…

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The Clansman by Thomas W. Dixon, Jr. (image courtesy Wikimedia)

We leave the 2014 reading list in this essay to consider a classic American novel of dubious repute that I read as a substitute last week when I was traveling and had forgotten my current book from the list.

Sometimes it is easiest – and wisest – to begin with a cliché. So here’s one about the place I am from and love with all my heart:

All Southerners are born storytellers….

This oft repeated claim has, as do all clichés and truisms, its basis in fact. Southerners seem to find in storytelling a needful way to explain the world and how it works. This is not to say that other regions of the United States do not feel this. But Southerners, more than people from any other region of America, are noted for their propensity to offer stories as explanations for “the way things are/were/will be/should be.” Leave it to Southerners, too, to take religion and make that all about storytelling. After all, every church service includes a homily – or in the case of a great Southern evangelical tradition like that of the Southern Baptists, a sermon, composed of numerous homilies punctuated with admonitions and cautions – dos and don’ts, one might call these.

With that in mind, let’s introduce another truism about the South:

Southern politics is dominated by demagogues.

This observation, based on, certainly, a considerable amount of  evidence, is both historically and, sadly, currently accurate. Southerners are, it would seem, a sentimental lot, more prone to act from emotion than rationality even now. Perhaps Henry Adams‘ description of Rooney Lee, Robert E. Lee’s son (and a distant relative of mine, as is his father) still holds:

Strictly, the Southerner had no mind; he had temperament. He was not a scholar; he had no intellectual training; he could not analyse an idea, and he could not even conceive of admitting two; but in life one could get along very well without ideas, if one had only the social instinct.

Such a description might apply to Thomas Dixon, Jr. A controversial book even in its own time, Dixon’s novel The Clansman reflects these two great Southern characteristics: storytelling and demagoguery. 

For those who do not know the story, The Clansman covers the years 1865-70, the time just after the end of the Civil War. The principal characters are the Stoneman family, Northerners, and the Cameron family, Southerners.  Ben Cameron is the novel’s hero, a former brevet colonel in the Confederate army – and eventually grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. His romance  with Elsie Stoneman, the daughter of a Federal congressman intent on imposing severely punitive measures against the defeated South, creates the tensions in the novel – and precipitates some of the novel’s most virulent action.

Suffice to say, Reconstruction brings widespread abuse of  the South by the “elevation” of African Americans “at the expense” of Southern “Aryans” (like Hitler and many others, including this American icon, Dixon embraced wholeheartedly the pseudo-scientific theory of the Aryan race and its superiority). But, powerfully persuasive demagogue that he was, Dixon also links the abuses of Reconstruction to what he depicts as the characteristic economic greed of the North:

The Cotton Thieves, who operated through a ring of Treasury agents, had confiscated unlawfully three million bales of cotton hidden in the South during the war and at its close, the last resource of a ruined people. The Treasury had received a paltry twenty thousand bales for the use of its name with which to seize alleged “property of the Confederate Government.” The value of this cotton, stolen from the widows and orphans, the maimed and crippled, of the South was over $700,000,000 in gold—a capital sufficient to have started an impoverished people again on the road to prosperity. The agents of this ring surrounded the halls of legislation, guarding their booty from envious eyes, and demanding the enactment of vaster schemes of legal confiscation.

But what makes the novel painful to read is not the rank sentimentality of the romantic scenes or the melodramatic treatments of the tragedy of Lincoln’s assassination or the demagoguery of Dixon’s descriptions of the motivations for the imposition of martial law and “carpetbagger” government in the defeated South. It is the horrific, racist depiction of African Americans. Dixon seems to take malicious pleasure in describing them in the most offensive terms possible:

Gus stepped closer, with an ugly leer, his flat nose dilated, his sinister bead eyes wide apart,  gleaming apelike…

I need not cite further examples, I think. Dixon’s language here more than proves my point.

The Clansman is a troubling, problematic book. As one considers its historical significance, both as a document illuminating the sort of mindset that both sought to justify a terrible Supreme Court decision and as a a paean to terrorists (and, indeed, in its cinematic form as the D.W. Griffith classic The Birth of a Nation it served as a rejuvenating force for a long dormant Klan in the years following the film’s release in 1915), one cannot help but be struck by how clearly Dixon shows that it is poverty that motivates extremism and terrorist action – in the name of justice.

Or perhaps in the name of misguided vengeance. The conflation – or confusion – of these two concepts, justice and vengeance, which seems to be a characteristic of frustrated, angry people who feel somehow betrayed by their government, is with us again. It is a motivating element in the actions of the Tea Party. And, it would seem, it leads us down the road to the same terrible places it has led us in the past.

Perhaps racism will never leave us.  It will simply continue to morph into forms that beguile us into thinking we are not what we may well be.

Perhaps, as Santayana warned us, we simply will not learn to remember.

Or perhaps – perhaps – we must needfully remember – and abide by – the advice of Mencken:

It is the natural tendency of the ignorant to believe what is not true. In order to overcome that tendency it is not sufficient to exhibit the true; it is also necessary to expose and denounce the false.

The Clansman is false and I denounce it. I am not the first to do so by a long way.

I am certain I will not be the last.

8 replies »

  1. What bothers me most about this is the word “history.” It is that, certainly, but we tend to think of that word – at least I do – as stuff that happened a long time ago. Before my time, perhaps. Thing is, the strain of “temperament” we’re talking about here is anything but dead and gone. It was pervasive during my childhood and yours, and it isn’t hard to find people who’d be right there, word for word, with Dixon.

    Nice job of illustrating a certain point…..

    • We may be talking about the same things here, Sam. Of course you may be hinting at the Postmodern argument that history doesn’t matter. That attitude – that history doesn’t matter because it happened “before one’s time” – is THE lie of Postmodernism. History certainly DOES matter, as we both know, and it’s why that “temperament” problem you refer to continues to plague us. History is personal even more than public – and if what is handed down by those around us perpetuates race hatred and bigotry, well history has served not as a warning or lesson but as a justification or apologia. Case in point: the number of people at the rather innocuous site Goodreads who rated this book 4-5 stars astonished me. But maybe just that behavior – rating this racist diatribe as “really liked it/loved it” says everything about the “temperament” problem. And that brings us right back to the famous Santayana quote….

  2. some wag said those who learn from history are doomed to repeat it anyway.

    • In a way, yes, it did, Dan. It also did more to foster the reemergence of the KKK than Dixon’s book originally did (which was mainly a success, as you’d guess in the South). But BIRTH OF A NATION, as you’d also guess, sparked renewed interest in Dixon’s “Klan trilogy” (THE LEOPARD’S SPOTS, THE CLANSMAN, and THE TRAITOR).

      As I may have mentioned elsewhere, BIRTH OF A NATION was the first film shown at the White House. Then President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed it “history written by lightning.” It may be of interest to other readers (I know you know this, Dan) to learn that Wilson and Dixon were fast friends from their days together at Johns Hopkins University. It may also interest readers to know that Wilson, a Virginian, shared Dixon’s views on “the negro problem.”