Thomas Jr. Dixon Essay - Critical Essays

Dixon, Thomas Jr.


Thomas Dixon, Jr. 1864-1946

American novelist and nonfiction writer.

Thomas Dixon, a politically active southerner all his life, is remembered today mostly for his racist novel The Clansman (1905), which was the basis for D. W. Griffith's 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. Dixon is not considered a great literary talent, but his work has social significance. Dixon also co-authored a study of the Harding administration and espoused a number of right-wing causes.

Biographical Information

Dixon was born on January 11, 1864, in Shelby, North Carolina, near the end of the Civil War. As a youth, he observed the excesses of Republican Reconstruction, which colored his views of black-white relations for the rest of his life. He was a man of many interests and talents—an attorney, a state legislator, a minister, an actor, and an author of numerous novels and dramas during the course of his long life. His trilogy of novels, The Leopard's Spots (1902), The Clansman, and The Traitor (1907), deals with the South during Reconstruction, and his later novel The Flaming Sword (1939) continued the story of race relations in the United States. The peripatetic Dixon was involved in political causes as varied as Cuban independence and the election of Theodore Roosevelt. Before becoming a Republican in 1936, he even worked for Democratic president Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. Dixon also attempted motion picture production after the appearance of Birth of a Nation, the story of the beginnings of the Ku Klux Klan and one of the first successful feature-length films in the United States. His ideas about African Americans were vigorously opposed by black writers such as Charles Chesnutt and Sutton Griggs. Dixon died in Raleigh, North Carolina, on April 3, 1946.

Major Works

Although a popular, prolific novelist, Dixon could never be mistaken for a serious literary figure. His fiction is full of overstatement, melodrama, and improbable dialogue and situations. The power of his writings, however, lies in their propaganda value and their considerable influence over white America's view of African Americans during his lifetime and beyond. Dixon is probably remembered today mostly because of his participation in the film The Birth of a Nation, which is still studied as an effective propaganda piece and an example of early film art. Stage productions of several Dixon novels further brought his work to public attention. A strong advocate of the separation of the races, Dixon used exaggerated negative stereotypes of blacks in The Leopard's Spots and The Clansman to glorify the Ku Klux Klan and to foment white fears about black participation in American life. Lesser-known Dixon novels that also deal with the Reconstruction period include The Traitor and The Black Hood (1924). His 1912 novel, The Sins of the Father, treats the theme of miscegenation. Dixon also produced novels about Civil War heroes, such as The Victim (1914) and The Man in Gray (1921). In addition, he wrote several novels ridiculing socialism, most notably The One Woman (1903), and argued against “the new woman” in The Foolish Virgin (1915), The Fall of a Nation (1916), and The Way of a Man (1919). His final novel, The Flaming Sword, allied African Americans with communists in an effort to exploit Americans' fears about both groups. Dixon also produced a few works of nonfiction, including The Inside Story of the Harding Tragedy (1932), an apologia for the scandals of the Harding administration.

Critical Reception

Dixon's work has always stirred controversy. Early reviews of his works, especially of stage versions of The Clansman and of the film The Birth of a Nation, ranged from laudatory to vitriolic. Few critics took Dixon seriously as a literary artist. Some critical pieces in the 1950s dealt with Dixon as a historical phenomenon, and during the late 1960s and early 1970s a few articles and two full-length biographical and critical studies revived interest in Dixon. Beginning in the 1980s, critics began to take a cultural studies approach to Dixon's work, acknowledging its obvious literary inferiority and reactionary messages while noting its contributions to an understanding of important historical trends in American society. Deconstructive critics in the 1990s and early 2000s also delved more deeply into the ways Dixon's discourse dealt with the language of white supremacy or defined such concepts as blackness and whiteness.

Principal Works

The Leopard's Spots: A Romance of the White Man's Burden (novel) 1902

The One Woman (novel) 1903

The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (novel) 1905

The Traitor: A Story of the Fall of the Invisible Empire (novel) 1907

Comrades (novel) 1909

The Root of Evil (novel) 1911

The Sins of the Father: A Romance of the South (novel) 1912

The Southerner (novel) 1913

The Life Worth Living (autobiography) 1914

The Victim (novel) 1914

The Foolish Virgin (novel) 1915

The Fall of a Nation: A Sequel to the Birth of a Nation (novel) 1916

The Way of a Man (novel) 1919

The Man in Gray (novel) 1921

The Black Hood (novel) 1924

The Love Complex (novel) 1925

The Sun Virgin (novel) 1929

The Inside Story of the Harding Tragedy (nonfiction) 1932

A Dreamer in Portugal (nonfiction) 1934

The Flaming Sword (novel) 1939

Southern Horizons: The Autobiography of Thomas Dixon, A Critical Edition [edited by Karen M. Crowe] (autobiography) 1984


Francis Hackett (review date 20 March 1915)

SOURCE: Hackett, Francis. “Brotherly Love.” New Republic 22 (20 March 1915): 185.

[In the following review of the film The Birth of a Nation, Hackett condemns Dixon as a “yellow journalist … and quite disgustingly and contemptibly yellow” who perpetuates racist attitudes, and he concludes that the film “degrades the censors that passed it and the white race that endures it.”]

If history bore no relation to life, this motion picture drama could well be reviewed and applauded as a spectacle. As a spectacle it is stupendous. It lasts three hours, represents a staggering investment of time and money, reproduces entire battle scenes and complex historic events, amazes even when it wearies by its attempt to encompass the Civil War. But since history does bear on social behavior, The Birth of a Nation cannot be reviewed simply as a spectacle. It is more than a spectacle. It is an interpretation, the Rev. Thomas Dixon's interpretation, of the relations of the North and South and their bearing on the negro.

Were the Rev. Thomas Dixon a representative white Southerner, no one could criticize him for giving his own version of the Civil War and the Reconstruction period that followed. If he possessed the typical Southern attitude, the paternalistic, it would be futile to read a lecture on it. Seen from afar, such an attitude might be deemed reactionary, but at any rate it is usually genial and humane and protective, and because it has experience back of it, it has to be met with some respect. But the attitude which Mr. Dixon possesses and the one for which he forges corroboration in history is a perversion due largely to his personal temperament. So far as I can judge from this film, as well as from my recollection of Mr. Dixon's books, his is the sort of disposition that foments a great deal of the trouble in civilization. Sometimes in the clinical laboratory the doctors are reputed to perform an operation on a dog so that he loses the power to restrain certain motor activities. If he is started running in a cage, the legend goes, he keeps on running incessantly, and nothing can stop him but to hit him on the head with a club. There is a quality about everything Mr. Dixon has done that reminds me of this abnormal dog. At a remote period of his existence it is possible that he possessed a rudimentary faculty of self-analysis. But before that faculty developed he crystallized in his prejudices, and forever it was stunted. Since that time, whenever he has been stimulated by any of the ordinary emotions, by religion or by patriotism or by sex, he has responded with a frantic intensity. Energetic by nature, the forces that impel him are doubly violent because of this lack of inhibition. Aware as a clergyman that such violence is excessive, he has learned in all his melodramas to give them a highly moral twang. If one of his heroes is about to do something peculiarly loathsome, Mr. Dixon thrusts a crucifix in his hand and has him roll his eyes to heaven. In this way the very basest impulses are given the sanction of...

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Frances Oakes (essay date fall 1957)

SOURCE: Oakes, Frances. “Whitman and Dixon: A Strange Case of Borrowing.” Georgia Review 11 (fall 1957): 333-40.

[In the following essay, Oakes's close textual reading of The Clansman reveals substantial similarities between Walt Whitman's and Dixon's descriptions of Reconstruction-era Washington, D.C.]

One of the strangest cases of literary borrowing can be found in Thomas Dixon's The Clansman, a novel of somewhat dubious artistic merit which, nevertheless, has a place in American literature as a result of its widespread popularity. Written in 1905, and later rewritten as a script for D. W. Griffith's first great movie, The Birth of a Nation,...

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Durant da Ponte (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: Da Ponte, Durant. “The Greatest Play of the South.” Tennessee Studies in Literature 2 (1957): 15-24.

[In the following essay, da Ponte reviews contemporary reaction to the dramatic adaptation of The Clansman.]

Few people today remember his name. It is not to be found in such general and specialized works of reference as the current Encyclopaedia Britannica, The Dictionary of American Biography, The Literary History of the United States, or the volumes of Van Wyck Brooks. With the exception of Ernest E. Leisy, who devotes little more than a paragraph to him in The American Historical Novel, the other standard historians of American fiction give...

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Thomas D. Clark (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: Clark, Thomas D. Introduction to The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, by Thomas Dixon, Jr., pp. v-xviii. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1970.

[In the following introduction to a reprint of The Clansman, Clark places the novel in its historical context.]

The first thing to be said in discussing Thomas Dixon, Jr.'s novel The Clansman is that no person of critical judgment thinks of it as having artistic conception or literary craftsmanship. One can readily agree with the opinion of the reviewer for the Bookman in February 1905, when he wrote, “The Clansman may be summed up as a very poor novel, a very...

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E. Stanly Godbold, Jr. (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: Godbold, E. Stanly, Jr. “A Battleground Revisited: Reconstruction in Southern Fiction, 1895-1905.” South Atlantic Quarterly 73, no. 1 (1974): 99-116.

[In the following excerpt from his essay on several post-Reconstruction southern authors, Godbold discusses Dixon's novels about the Reconstruction era in the South.]

The era of Reconstruction has proved to be both troublesome and fascinating for historians and novelists alike. Historians have never agreed upon what life in the South was like during Reconstruction, nor are they likely to. One group has looked upon the era as the rape of the South, in which a coalition of armed soldiers, illiterate blacks,...

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Raymond A. Cook (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: Cook, Raymond A. “Novelist.” In Thomas Dixon, pp. 52-100. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1974.

[In this chapter from his full-length biographical and critical study, Cook examines Dixon's literary theories, novels, and nonfiction.]


The works of some writers may be considered apart from their lives since their philosophy of life and their principles of literary art may have sharp lines of demarcation separating them, but such a demarcation is not evident in the life and works of Thomas Dixon. When we consider his literary career in retrospect, the fusion of his social philosophy with his literary principles is...

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Thomas P. Riggio (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Riggio, Thomas P. “Uncle Tom Reconstructed: A Neglected Chapter in the History of a Book.” American Quarterly 28, no. 1 (1976): 56-70.

[In the following essay, Riggio notes that southern Reconstruction writers, particularly Dixon, built on the legacy of Uncle Tom's Cabin to form a new image of white manifest destiny.]

No American novel, not even Moby Dick, has so dramatic a history as the one written by “the little woman who wrote the book that made this big war.” Lincoln's witticism proved prophetic, as Uncle Tom's Cabin has occasioned an ongoing battle for over a century. A major critical effort of the last two decades has...

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Joan L. Silverman (essay date spring-summer 1981)

SOURCE: Silverman, Joan L. “The Birth of a Nation: Prohibition Propaganda.” Southern Quarterly 19, nos. 3-4 (spring-summer 1981): 23-30.

[In the following essay, Silverman points to the ways in which D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation used the material in Dixon's novels The Leopard's Spots and The Clansman to promote temperance.]

In discussing the passage of the Prohibition Amendment, historians tried to focus on the relentless lobbying of the Anti-Saloon League which implemented the educational spadework of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. They cite both organizations as representing a last-ditch effort by evangelical small...

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James Kinney (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Kinney, James. “The Rhetoric of Racism: Thomas Dixon and the ‘Damned Black Beast.’” American Literary Realism, 1870-1910 15, no. 2 (1982): 145-54.

[In the following essay, Kinney addresses themes of race and racial conflict and explains why Dixon became a spokesman for white racism.]

Despite the great popularity of Thomas Dixon's work, he was in a basic way moving counter to the main current of his time. The period from 1880 to 1910 was essentially one of reform and social progress. The Pendleton Act (1883), the Interstate Commerce Act (1887), the Sherman Anti-Trust Act (1890), and reform measures urged by the Populists in the 1892 election were early...

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Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore (essay date spring 1994)

SOURCE: Gilmore, Glenda Elizabeth. “‘One of the Meanest Books’: Thomas Dixon, Jr. and The Leopard's Spots.North Carolina Literary Review 2, no. 1 (spring 1994): 87-101.

[In the following essay, Gilmore examines Dixon's life as illuminated by his novels and his autobiography Southern Horizons, and concludes that Dixon's “only success was the transformation of personal obsessions into popular wisdom.”]

“I tried to write this book with the utmost restraint,” Thomas Dixon, Jr. recalls in a historical note that accompanies his first fictional work, The Leopard's Spots,1 a vicious 1902 tale of white manhood lost and regained...

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Maxwell Bloomfield (essay date spring 1995)

SOURCE: Bloomfield, Maxwell. “Constitutional Ideology and Progressive Fiction.” Journal of American Culture 18, no. 1 (spring 1995): 77-85.

[In the following excerpt from his essay on five Progressive-era writers, Bloomfield concludes that Dixon considered constitutional reform a way to redefine state control over race relations.]

In the early 20th century an information explosion in American law coincided with the rise of revolutionary new technologies for the shaping of public opinion. Mechanical improvements reduced the cost of publishing magazines and newspapers, and encouraged the creation of mass audiences undreamed of in earlier generations. Comic strips and...

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Sandra Gunning (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Gunning, Sandra. “Re-Membering Blackness after Reconstruction: Race, Rape, and Political Desire in the Work of Thomas Dixon, Jr.” In Race, Rape, and Lynching: The Red Record of American Literature, 1890-1912,” pp. 19-47. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

[In the following chapter from her book-length study of fictional reactions to lynching and white mob violence in the post-Reconstruction South, Gunning analyzes the assertion of white male supremacy and reaffirmation of the stereotype of the dangerous black male in several of Dixon's novels.]

It will probably be asked, Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state,...

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Judith Jackson Fossett (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Fossett, Judith Jackson. “(K)night Riders in (K)night Gowns: The Ku Klux Klan, Race, and Constructions of Masculinity.” In Race Consciousness: African-American Studies for the New Century, edited by Judith Jackson Fossett and Jeffrey A. Tucker, pp. 35-49. New York: New York University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Fossett examines Dixon's construction of the idea of “white” as represented in the white robes of Klan members.]

The Klan was the only way to save our civilisation.

—Thomas Dixon, The Traitor

Decked out in his white robe and mask, spewing white...

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Lawrence J. Oliver (essay date March 1998)

SOURCE: Oliver, Lawrence J. “Writing from the Right during the ‘Red Decade’: Thomas Dixon's Attack on W. E. B. DuBois and James Weldon Johnson in The Flaming Sword.American Literature 70, no. 1 (March 1998): 131-52.

[In the following essay, Oliver states that Dixon's later novel The Flaming Sword appealed to the lowest passions of white readers by allying black militants with communists in its “cultural work” of preserving white hegemony.]

In his contribution to Radical Revisions: Rereading 1930s Culture (1996), Alan Wald observes that the surge of recent scholarship on American culture during the 1930s aims to “complicate and...

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Kim Magowan (essay date spring 1999)

SOURCE: Magowan, Kim. “Coming between the ‘Black Beast’ and the White Virgin: The Pressures of Liminality in Thomas Dixon.” Studies in American Fiction 27, no. 1 (spring 1999): 77-102.

[In the following essay, Magowan explores the idea of miscegenation, concluding that both the white woman and the white man are supposedly subject to black sexual predators in several of Dixon's novels.]

The girl uttered a cry, long, tremulous, heart-rending, piteous. A single tiger-spring, and the black claws of the beast sank into the soft white throat and she was still.

—Thomas Dixon, The Clansman


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Brian R. McGee (essay date summer 2000)

SOURCE: McGee, Brian R. “Thomas Dixon's The Clansman: Radicals, Reactionaries, and the Anticipated Utopia.” Southern Communication Journal 65, no. 4 (summer 2000): 300-17.

[In the following essay, McGee examines the discourse used in The Clansman, arguing that the novel uses the language of both dystopia and utopia.]

Whenever lists of the cinematic canon are produced by film scholars, D. W. Griffith's early masterpiece, Birth of a Nation, invariably appears. Griffith's first film has received no shortage of academic attention. Not only was this epic a remarkable technical accomplishment, but those studying the Ku Klux Klan movement have devoted...

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Cathy Boeckmann (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Boeckmann, Cathy. “Thomas Dixon and the Rhetorical Mulatto.” In her A Question of Character: Scientific Racism and the Genres of American Fiction, 1892-1912, pp. 63-97. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2000.

[In the following chapter from her book on American fictional representations of the nature of blackness in the nineteenth century, Boeckmann asserts that, in The Leopard's Spots and The Clansman, Dixon uses the outer appearance of African Americans in a negative way to symbolize alleged inherent character traits.]

At the start of book two of the white supremacist novel The Clansman, Thomas Dixon introduces the character...

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Further Reading


Cook, Raymond Allen. Fire from the Flint: The Amazing Careers of Thomas Dixon. Winston-Salem, N.C.: John F. Blair, 1968, 255 p.

Biography of Dixon with extensive bibliography, footnotes, and photographs.


Coulter, E. Merton. The South during Reconstruction, 1865-1877. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1947.

Examines the effects of Reconstruction during Dixon's boyhood.

Griggs, Sutton E. The Hindered Hand: or the Reign of the Repressionist. Nashville, Tenn.: Orion Publishing Company, 1905.

Fictional attack by a...

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