Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

More so than any other novelist, Thomas Dixon helped set the tone of white supremacy that prevailed in America for the first half of the twentieth century. He might not have done so with malice, for he maintained that he did not hate blacks, but he strongly believed that the two races could not exist in America as equals. He promulgated his views in a trilogy dealing with the Reconstruction South. The first novel in the trilogy, The Leopard’s Spot (1903), suggests that blacks are inferior; like the leopard, blacks cannot “change their spots” and therefore should be treated as inferior. The Clansman, the second of the trilogy, suggests how blacks might be controlled; the third installment, The Traitor (1907), explains how and why the controlling force, the Klan, might be abandoned when it is no longer needed. Through various mediums, Dixon managed to keep his concept of race in the public domain for the first two decades of the twentieth century. Dixon was also a professional actor, and he adapted The Clansman for the stage. In 1905, the play began touring the country. As drama, The Clansman caused as much divisiveness as the novel, but the play became so popular that two companies were touring the country simultaneously.

In 1915, Dixon’s story was used as the basis for D. W. Griffith’s seminal motion picture Birth of a Nation, which again thrilled and horrified Americans with its racial content. Together, the print, stage, and film versions of Dixon’s story helped to fix a negative image of blacks in the American consciousness, an image that would persist for decades.