Thomas Jr. Dixon Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.