Thomas Jr. Dixon Criticism - Essay

Francis Hackett (review date 20 March 1915)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1271 words.)

Frances Oakes (essay date fall 1957)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 3068 words.)

Durant da Ponte (essay date 1957)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4338 words.)

Thomas D. Clark (essay date 1970)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4420 words.)

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

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 1860 words.)

Raymond A. Cook (essay date 1974)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 18635 words.)

Thomas P. Riggio (essay date 1976)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6690 words.)

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

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2951 words.)

James Kinney (essay date 1982)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4781 words.)

Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore (essay date spring 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7015 words.)

Maxwell Bloomfield (essay date spring 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2957 words.)

Sandra Gunning (essay date 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 15862 words.)

Judith Jackson Fossett (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6017 words.)

Lawrence J. Oliver (essay date March 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8565 words.)

Kim Magowan (essay date spring 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 11712 words.)

Cathy Boeckmann (essay date 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 17340 words.)