Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Clansman is a polemic justifying the wresting of control of the South’s state governments from the black-dominated administrations of Reconstruction. Coming as it did in 1905, when the South was still smarting from the Civil War, when southerners could still remember the pain and the poverty associated with the conflict, when blacks were still attempting to flex their political muscle for civil rights, the novel had great appeal for southerners as well as other segments of American society. Critics, though, argued that the novel opened up old wounds and deepened rifts between blacks and whites. The Clansman, though, is not merely about the degradation of African Americans or the glorification of whites. The novel is also concerned with healing and regeneration. Austin Stoneman and Dr. Richard Cameron, who typify strong sectional and political differences, fight to the very end of the novel. They, however, are representative of the past, of the old North and the old South; their children, the second generation, are of a different breed. They are more trusting of one another, and they refuse to be drawn into their parents’ feud. The double marriage of Margaret and Philip and Elsie and Ben is not solemnized when the novel ends, but the endearing affections of these four young people suggest that there will be a union in the near future. The union of these young people from the North and the South is not merely a bonding between two feuding families but is also suggestive of the reunion of the Union.

Prior to the Civil War, the South’s economy was based on agriculture; little attention was given to industry. Philip Stoneman, coming from a milling town in Pennsylvania, sees the potential the South, with its great waterfalls, has for a milling industry. With northern capital—again, the suggestion of the North and the South reuniting—Philip establishes a milling industry that brings wealth to the South and changes its economy from agrarian to industrial.