The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan

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The Clansman
The Clansman 1st Ed.jpg
Authors Thomas Dixon, Jr.
Language English
Publication date
1905

The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan is a novel published in 1905. It was the second work in the Ku Klux Klan trilogy by Thomas F. Dixon, Jr. that included The Leopard's Spots and The Traitor. It was influential in providing the ideology that helped support the revival of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK or The Klan). The novel was twice notably adapted, immediately by its author as a play entitled The Clansman (1905), and a decade later by D. W. Griffith in the 1915 silent movie The Birth of a Nation.[1]

The play, being concerned with the KKK and Reconstruction, is adapted by the second half of The Birth of a Nation. According to Professor Russell Merritt, key differences between the play and film are that Dixon was more sympathetic to Southerners' pursuing education and modern professions, whereas Griffith stressed ownership of plantations.[2]

Dixon wrote The Clansman as a message to Northerners to maintain racial segregation, as the work claimed that blacks when free would turn savage and violent, committing crimes such as murder, rape, and robbery far out of proportion to their percentage of the population. He claimed to write for 18,000,000 Southerners who supported his beliefs, though that many never joined the Klan.[3] Dixon portrays the speaker of the house, Austin Stoneman, as a negro-loving legislator mad with power and eaten up with hate. His goal is to punish the Southern whites for their revolution against an oppressive government by turning the former slaves against the white Southerners and use the iron fist of the Union occupation troops to make them the new masters. The Klan's job is to protect the White Southerners from the carpetbaggers and their allies, black and white.

In addition to criticism that The Clansman would stir up sentiment in the South, Dixon's argument that the Klan had saved the South from negro rule was ridiculed by some as absurd.[4]

Characters[edit]

  • Austin Stoneman – Northern political leader who advocates and implements Reconstruction in the conquered Southern States; introduces bill to impeach President Andrew Johnson
  • Elsie Stoneman – daughter of the above; defies father's wishes by falling in love with young Southern patriot Ben Cameron
  • Phil Stoneman – son and brother of the above; falls in love with Southerner Margaret Cameron
  • Lydia Brown – Austin Stoneman's mulatto housekeeper
  • Silas Lynch – mulatto assistant to Austin Stoneman; aids him in forcing Reconstruction on the defiant Southerners
  • Marion Lenoir – Fifteen-year-old white girl who was Ben Cameron's childhood sweetheart; after being brutally raped by Gus, she commits suicide by jumping off a cliff
  • Jeannie Lenoir – mother of the above; joins her daughter in fatal cliff leap
  • Gus – a former slave of the Camerons; rapes Marion and is then captured and executed by the Ku Klux Klan, under the supervision of the "Grand Dragon" Ben Cameron
  • Dr. Richard Cameron – a Southern doctor, falsely charged with complicity in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln
  • Mrs. Gloria Cameron – wife of Dr. Richard Cameron
  • Benjamin ("Ben") Cameron – son of the above and the hero of the novel; falls in love with Northerner Elsie Stoneman; fought for the South in the Civil War and later joins the Ku Klux Klan in order to resist Northern occupation forces
  • Margaret Cameron – sister of the above
  • Mammy
  • Jake
  • President Abraham Lincoln – portrayed as a sympathetic character who sought to restore normalcy by shipping former slaves back to Africa
  • President Andrew Johnson – Lincoln's successor, who was impeached (but not convicted) in Congress for opposing Reconstruction

Historical plot[edit]

Frontispiece to the first edition of Dixon's The Clansman.

In The Clansman, Reconstruction was an attempt by Augustus Stoneman, a thinly-veiled reference to Thaddeus Stevens, to ensure that the Republican Party would stay in power by securing the Southern black vote. Stoneman's hatred for President Johnson stems from Johnson's refusal to disenfranchise whites. His anger towards former slave holders is intensified after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, where he vows revenge on the South. His programs strip away the property owned by whites, in turn giving them to former slaves. Men claiming to represent the government confiscate the material wealth of the South, destroying plantation-owning families. Finally, the former slaves are taught that they are superior to their former owners and should rise up against them. These injustices are the impetuses for the creation of the Klan.

Reception[edit]

The publication of The Clansman caused significant uproar not only in the North, but throughout the South. In Montgomery, Alabama and Macon, Georgia the play was banned from being performed.[5] Thomas Dixon was denounced for renewing old conflicts and glorifying what many thought was an unfortunate part of American history. In an effort to prevent a showing in Washington, D.C a group of pastors appealed to President Roosevelt to intercede on their behalf.[6]

The play, despite these protests, was extremely popular in the South. It drew record breaking audiences in Columbia, South Carolina and opened with a huge premiere when performed in Norfolk, Virginia.[7][8] In fact, the vast majority of news stories about The Clansman have to do with the play, not the novel.

When offered membership in the KKK, Dixon reportedly turned it down because, he claimed, he did not agree with the Klan's methods.[9] The Klokard of the Klan, Rev. Dr. Oscar Haywood, at one point challenged Dixon to a debate over the nature of the Ku Klux Klan.[10]

Despite Dixon's reported claims that he rejected violence except in self-defence, in the book previous to The Clansman in the trilogy, The Leopard's Spots, Dixon's Klan dealt thusly with a black man who had asked a white woman to kiss him:[11]

When the sun rose next morning the lifeless body of Tim Shelby was dangling from a rope tied to the iron rail of the balcony of the court house. His neck was broken and his body was hanging low--scarcely three feet from the ground. His thick lips had been split with a sharp knife and from his teeth hung this placard: "The answer of the Anglo-Saxon race to Negro lips that dare pollute with words the womanhood of the South. K. K. K."

— Thomas Dixon, The Leopard's Spots, Chapter XIX, "The Rally of the Clansmen", p. 150

Dixon's novel is often contraposed with Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.[12] The character of Gus in The Clansman, who is shown as the worst kind of former slave, going as far as to rape a white woman, is the opposite of the benevolent Uncle Tom, who is portrayed as angelic. The books are also similar for the reactions they stirred up among their readers. Uncle Tom's Cabin was detested and banned throughout the South, while The Clansman was ranted against in Northern papers. Also like Uncle Tom's Cabin, The Clansman reached its greatest audience not through its book form, which sold over 100,000 copies, but through the film that had an audience of millions.[13] Uncle Tom's Cabin reached its greatest audience via film? When?

Rebirth of the Klan[edit]

Thomas Dixon's novel did not have the immediate effect of causing the recreation of the Ku Klux Klan. Neither did the subsequent play. The release of the movie The Birth of a Nation in 1916 finally let Dixon's work reach an audience large enough to start the resurrection of the Klan. This second Klan after 1921 started to grow rapidly on a nationwide basis. The Klan attacked Jews and Catholics. Through this nativist sentiment the Klan had its greatest density in the state of Indiana. Their membership reached 30% of the white adult male population.[14] The total Klan membership is thought to have reached nearly six million in 1924, less than twenty years after the publication of The Clansman.[15]

One of the images most commonly associated with the Klan, that of a burning Latin cross, was actually taken from The Clansman, but was not used by the original clan. Dixon, who had Scottish ancestry, drew upon the Scottish tradition of the Crann Tara, a burning cross used to call clan members to arms, as inspiration for the depiction of cross burning.[16]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Maxwell Bloomfield, "Dixon's 'The Leopard's Spots': A Study in Popular Racism." American Quarterly 16.3 (1964): 387-401. online
  2. ^ Russell Merritt, "Dixon, Griffith, and the Southern Legend." Cinema Journal, Vol. 12, No. 1. (Autumn, 1972)
  3. ^ Dixon, Thomas (February 25, 1905). ""THE CLANSMAN.": Its Author, Thomas Dixon, Jr., Replies with Spirit and Good Humor to Some of His Critics". The New York Times Book Review. Retrieved April 18, 2012. 
  4. ^ "THE CLANSMAN DENOUNCED.: South Carolina Editor Denies Charges Made by Thomas Dixon, Jr" (PDF). The New York Times. January 2, 1906. Retrieved August 27, 2017. 
  5. ^ "Suppress "the Clansman!"". The Washington Post. September 26, 1906. Retrieved February 22, 2012. 
  6. ^ "WOULD STOP "THE CLANSMAN.": Pastors Appeal to President to Prevent the Performance". The Washington Post. October 6, 1906. Retrieved April 18, 2012. 
  7. ^ "HISSING OF "THE CLANSMAN.": Majority of People of Columbia, S.C., Commend the Play." The Washington Post. August 21, 1905. Retrieved April 18, 2012. 
  8. ^ "PREMIER OF CLANSMAN.: Thomas Dixon's Dramatic Answer to "Uncle Tom's Cabin" Scores Success". September 23, 1905. Retrieved April 18, 2012. 
  9. ^ "KLAN IS DENOUNCED BY 'THE CLANSMAN': Thomas Dixon Blames It for Riots and Bloodshed and Demands It Be Throttled". The New York Times. January 23, 1923. Retrieved April 18, 2012. 
  10. ^ "KLOKARD HAYWOOD HERE TO AID KU KLUX: Issues Challenge to Author of 'The Clansman' to Meet Him in Public Debate. PLANS PUBLIC ADDRESSES Pastor Calls Men Rouge Outrages a Plot -- Says Disclosures Would Shake the World". The New York Times. February 5, 1923. Retrieved April 18, 2012. 
  11. ^ Dixon, Thomas (1998). "The Leopard's Spots". Documenting the American South. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Retrieved July 19, 2013. 
  12. ^ "Tom Dixon and His Clansman". The Washington Post. November 9, 1905. Retrieved February 22, 2012. 
  13. ^ Philip C. DiMare (2011). Movies in American History: An Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. pp. 41–42. 
  14. ^ "Indiana History Chapter Seven". Northern Indiana Center for History. Archived from the original on April 11, 2008. Retrieved October 7, 2008. 
  15. ^ "The Various Shady Lives of The Ku Klux Klan". Time. April 9, 1965. Retrieved December 24, 2009. 
  16. ^ Oliver, Neil; Frantz Parsons, Elaine. "Were Scots responsible for the Ku Klux Klan?". bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 4 October 2016. 

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