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(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Clansman is divided into four books covering a period from about 1865 to 1870. The first two books are centered on the activities in the nation’s capital, delineating the death of President Abraham Lincoln and the ensuing power struggle between Capitol Hill and the White House on how the South is to be treated. Books 3 and 4 shift to South Carolina and outline the havoc that the Reconstruction-era state governments have brought to the South, resulting in the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.

The Clansman has an omniscient narrator who relates events, allowing major characters to voice the author’s philosophy. The novel opens with the celebration of the Union army in Washington, D.C., at the close of the Civil War, while thousands of soldiers from the North and the South lie in makeshift hospitals. At the height of the celebration, President Lincoln is assassinated, and while the nation mourns, Andrew Johnson, a southerner, becomes the next president. Lincoln’s intention was to bring the South back into the Union; Johnson, a less resolute leader, attempts to effectuate Lincoln’s design, but he is met with stiff opposition in Congress under the leadership of Austin Stoneman. Stoneman, who controls Congress but who appears to be under the control of Lydia Brown, his mulatto housekeeper, prevents Johnson from bringing the South back into the Union. Instead, Stoneman persuades Congress to enact laws that put the government of the South in the hands of blacks. This new dispensation in the South alienates whites, causing them to retaliate against blacks. Because Johnson balks at penalizing the South, he is impeached and tried by the members of the Senate. He is saved from conviction by one vote. While the political battle rages on Capitol Hill, Elsie Stoneman, who is nursing wounded soldiers, meets Ben Cameron and the Cameron family. She introduces her brother Philip to Margaret Cameron, and soon a relationship develops between the young people. Through Elsie’s intervention, Mrs. Cameron manages to see her husband, Dr. Richard Cameron, a political prisoner awaiting trial. Dr. Cameron urges his wife to return to the South to aid the poor and suffering and to manage what might be left of their own wealth. Austin Stoneman, worn out from his political struggles, falls ill and is encouraged by his physician to recuperate in the South. Stoneman’s children, pursuing their love affairs, encourage their father to settle in Piedmont, South Carolina, where the Camerons live. Before leaving Congress, Austin Stoneman has been successful in getting Congress to pass several Reconstruction Acts that enable him to put the southern states under the control of blacks; therefore, he acquiesces to going South, where he can better effectuate his plan.

Returning to the South, the Camerons discover that their social status has been diminished, their wealth has been depleted, and almost all of their slaves have left. Those slaves who remain have notions of acquiring forty acres and a mule. The state government is run by rapacious, uneducated freedmen, carpetbaggers, and scalawags. Despite the adverse conditions, the relationships between Elsie and Ben and Philip and Margaret grow stronger. Ben, meanwhile, has been working with a secret organization, the Ku Klux Klan, to eliminate black domination of the South. The organization’s deepest fears are realized when Marion Lenoir and her mother, neighbors of the Camerons, are found dead. It is later learned that Gus, one of the Camerons’ former slaves, has ravished Marion and that mother and daughter, too ashamed to let the world know what...

(The entire section is 893 words.)