Mining for Musty Gold: Book Reviews by Bob Cuddy

Searching the shelves for forgotten nuggets

Nugget: "The Clansman"
Author, date of publication: Thomas Dixon Jr., 1904
Even the casual person has likely heard of “Birth of a Nation,” the ground-breaking 1915 film that introduced new film techniques then used them in the service of racism.
 
African-American director Nate Parker is making a new “Birth of a Nation” with Nat Turner as the protagonist. An anti-Klan approach.
 
If you scour the dusty shelves of a library, or a used book store, you might find the novel on which the first “Birth of a Nation” was based. I did. Here’s what I concluded.
 
 
"The Clansman"
By Thomas Dixon Jr.

When Thomas Dixon Jr. wrote "The Clansman," in 1904, The Civil War had been over for less than 40 years and was still a vivid memory for many Americans, both North and South.
 
Southern whites, who had been forced to relinquish formal control over the lives of blacks, were continuing to re-establish their grip informally through various Jim Crow institutions and practices. It was in this context that Dixon wrote and American readers embraced "The Clansman.’ When you read the novel through the filter of the century that has passed since its publication it is difficult to imagine how the book could see the light of day, let alone win wide acceptance. And yet it not only sold thousands of copies, it helped set the tone of race relations for much of the 20th century.
 
It did this in conjunction with the movie it inspired, "Birth of a Nation." This is a book whose impact far surpassed its literary value. "The Clansman," in a word, tells how the heroic Ku Klux Klan rescued the post-Civil War south from the ravages of freed blacks and sinister Northern carpetbaggers.
 
Its hero is idealistic young Ben Cameron, who joins the Klan to "save" his homeland. But the Klan as an institution is the real hero here, and Dixon presents its nighttime lynchings and other murders as both gallant and valorous. There may be a book someplace that holds more alarming racial stereotypes than "The Clansman," but it seems unlikely.
 
Here we have white damsels in distress being menaced by libidinous blacks (black men in this novel have one thing in mind: getting their hands on white women). You have black "savages" becoming judges. You have slippery Northern abolitionists with sinister ulterior motives. And, of course, you have the noble Klan. The book is fascinating because you can turn to nearly every page and find appalling racism and then recoil when you realize that the images held wide currency as fact 100 years ago. Here, for example, is a white doctor in the court of a black judge: "For four thousand years his land (Africa) had stood a solid bulwark of unbroken barbarism. Out of its darkness he had been thrust upon the seat of judgment of the law of the proudest and highest type of man evolved in time. It seemed a hideous dream."
 
Elsewhere Dixon extols "40 centuries of Aryan genius," menaced by the disappearance of slavery.
Here’s Dixon describing Gus, one of his chief villains, advancing on a cowering white maiden. "His beastly jaws half cover(ed) the gold braid on the collar. His thick lips were drawn upward in an ugly leer, and his sinister bead eyes gleamed like a gorilla’s." Good God! Well, you get the picture. Why read such a piece of tripe? There are reasons, although literary merit is not one of them: The florid, lurid prose is deep purple, the characters are cardboard cutouts, there is no plot to speak of.
But "The Clansman" is worth a look because it reflects the thinking of the time. When D.W. Griffith based "Birth of a Nation" on "The Clansman" a decade later, it, too, became wildly popular, although it also led to race riots.
 
"Birth," which still crops up at film festivals and in film classes, is a strange hybrid: It was technologically brilliant and groundbreaking at a time when film was still in diapers. And yet Griffith used his genius to serve the vile ends of racism.
Critics excoriate "Gone with the Wind" for its racial stereotypes, and they have reason to. But "The Clansman" and its filmed version, "Birth of a Nation" also helped shape popular attitudes toward the South and toward black Americans.
 
It took the civil rights movement to begin to undo those stereotypes and we’re not home free yet as a nation.
But a glance at "The Clansman will give a you a better understanding of how far we have come and why we had to struggle so hard to get there.