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Controversial History: Thomas Dixon and the Klan Trilogy

In 1915, The Birth of a Nation—a film based on the Ku Klux Klan novels of Thomas Dixon, Jr.—became the first American film blockbuster. Dixon's The Leopard's Spots and The Clansman were published in 1902 and 1905, respectively, but it took nearly ten years before Epoch Producing Corporation agreed to invest in a film adaptation. D. W. Griffith became the director of the landmark and notorious film, which is praised for its many cinematic innovations while condemned for its overt racist agenda.

The racist themes of the film came directly from Dixon's novels. Thomas Dixon, Jr., a North Carolina native, capitalized on a potent sentimentalist approach to racism, but his success as a novelist lay in his welding southern identity, the region's rich heritage and landscape, and ideas of white supremacy. While many decry Dixon's novels for their blatant racism, these works remain an important artifact for the study of racial hostility in the South. They also epitomize the popular "Lost Cause" Myth, which also manifested itself in the installation of Confederate monuments and memorials throughout the South. This myth asserted that southerners did not fight for slavery or independence but rather to protect their idea of American values. As this myth gained acceptance North and South, companion ideals, such as support for white supremacy, gained cultural authority.

While on a lecture tour, Dixon began writing The Leopard's Spots: A Romance of the White Man's Burden, the first novel in what would become his Ku Klux Klan trilogy. The novel was a runaway success, and he followed it with two more, The Clansman, an Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan and The Traitor: A Story of the Fall of the Invisible Empire (1907).

With The Leopard's Spots, Dixon sought, in part, to correct what he perceived as gross misrepresentations of the South in literary works, primarily in Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, which even fifty years after its publication was still widely read. In his fictional portrayal of the beginning of the Klan, Dixon argues the group began as a defensive organization—to protect white womanhood from black male sexual aggression and to protect government from corruption. Dixon seamlessly weaves his racist rhetoric into sentimental love plots, priming readers to feel sympathy for white supremacist leaders.

While most of The Leopard's Spots is set in the later nineteenth century, The Clansman focuses exclusively on the earlier era of Reconstruction. In his short preface to The Clansman (1905), Dixon notes that whereas The Leopard's Spots (1902) offers the "historical outline of the conditions from the enfranchisement of the Negro to his disfranchisement," The Clansman presents "the true story of the 'Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy,' which overturned the Reconstruction regime." The deeply sentimental Clansman displays Thomas Dixon's faith in the South's enduring spirit in the face of economic and social hardship.

The Traitor (1907), the final installment of the trilogy, transpires amid the Klan's decline. In addition to dramatizing the woeful story of life in the Reconstruction South, Dixon offers a vibrant testimony to the gallant, courageous, and transformative spirit of the South and its people. Participating in the southern gothic tradition, The Traitor includes folk legends, tales of haunted houses and secret passageways, rumored generational madness, and spectral apparitions. Though Dixon dedicates his novel to "the men of the South who suffered exile, imprisonment and death for the daring service they rendered our country as citizens of the Invisible Empire," The Traitor suggests that hope for regeneration rests not in revolution or organized rebellion but in the power of individual human relationships (p. vii).

Dixon's works are part of DocSouth's "Library of Southern Literature" Collection, which includes the most important southern literary works from the colonial period to the beginning of the twentieth century. This collection presents the varied and rich foundation of southern writing.

DocSouth staff