Documenting the American South Logo
Collections >> Library of Southern Literature, The North Carolina Experience >> Document Menu >> Summary

Thomas Dixon, 1864-1946 and C. D. Williams
The Traitor: A Story of the Fall of the Invisible Empire
New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1907.


Thomas Dixon, Jr. was born January 11, 1864 in Shelby, North Carolina. His father was a Baptist minister and farmer, and his mother, Amanda Elizabeth McAfee, grew up as the daughter of a South Carolina planter. As a child during the South's devastating Reconstruction period, Dixon witnessed firsthand the difficulties associated with postwar poverty. He was first able to attend school regularly at the age of thirteen, when he entered Shelby Academy in 1877. A gifted student, he enrolled at Wake Forest College only two years later and by 1883 had earned his master's degree. Dixon's stellar academic record earned him a scholarship to Johns Hopkins University, where he studied history and politics for a semester until lured away to pursue an unsuccessful acting career in New York. In a year fraught with change, Dixon returned to North Carolina in May 1884. That same year he entered law school in Greensboro and was elected to the state legislature at age twenty. In March 1886, he eloped with Harriet Bussey, and the couple later had three children. In the same year, he was ordained a Baptist minister, and his flair for preaching resulted in his leadership of sizeable congregations in Boston and New York.

Dixon left the ministry in March 1895 in order to pursue lecturing full-time, a move that resulted in his spectacular rise to fame and fortune. While on his lecture tour, Dixon encountered a dramatic rendering of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), which he found rife with fallacious accounts and radical misrepresentations of the South and its people. As a result, he began working feverishly on a fictional response that might more accurately depict the southern experience. What followed was the 1902 publication of The Leopard's Spots, a runaway success and the first novel in his Klan trilogy. The Klan trilogy—which also includes The Clansman and The Traitor—is so named for the prominent role the Ku Klux Klan plays in Dixon's attempt to redress injustices perpetrated against the South. In addition to essays on socialism, the "race problem," and women's suffrage, he would go on to publish some twenty novels as well as write and star in several plays and films. After the 1905 publication of The Clansman, Dixon attempted selling an adaptation of his novel, but it took nearly ten years before Epoch Producing Corporation agreed to invest in the project. Under D. W. Griffith's direction, the notorious film, The Birth of a Nation, was first screened in 1915. That same summer, Dixon relocated to California, opening Dixon Studios, Laboratory and Press. Despite producing several films, his movie venture did not flourish, and he returned to New York in 1923.

Deeply conservative both politically and religiously, Dixon remained adamantly against extending political rights to African Americans, fearing that social equality would inevitably result in miscegenation, a prospect Dixon found unseemly. Such reactionary beliefs, in conjunction with his insistent veneration of the South, made Dixon a popular yet controversial figure. During the last fifteen years of his writing career, his appeal steadily declined. Though he made at least two fortunes, upon his death in Raleigh on April 3, 1946, he was virtually penniless. In spite of the magnitude of his career and his former celebrity status, Thomas Dixon and his works have since sunk into relative obscurity.

In The Traitor: A Story of the Rise and Fall of the Invisible Empire (1907), Dixon offers yet another "true" portrait of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization he claims was formed in desperation to save southern civilization. However, as the title indicates, this final installment in Dixon's trilogy transpires amid the Klan's decline. Participating in the southern gothic tradition, The Traitor includes folk legends, tales of haunted houses and secret passageways, rumored generational madness, and spectral apparitions as part of its complex story. Divided into three books that span a two-year period (1870-1872), the novel follows the story of John Graham, a prominent lawyer in Independence, North Carolina (located in the Piedmont region) who serves as the Klan's North Carolina Grand Dragon. When the story opens, the reader encounters the drunk and embittered hero contemplating revenge. Having been disbarred recently and previously turned out of his family home by the corrupt Republican judge, Hugh Butler, Graham fiercely seeks personal and legal reparations, only to find himself smitten with the judge's enchanting daughter, Stella.

In response to Graham's threats against him, an enraged Judge Butler summons federal troops to round up outlawed Klan members. Recognizing that the powerful "Invisible Empire" now faces imminent danger in the form of government prosecution, John Graham convenes one final dress parade and meeting, during which he officially disbands the North Carolina Ku Klux Klan. In place of despairing resignation, Graham triumphantly claims, "Our work is done. We have rescued our state from Negro rule" (p. 53). Sensing a rare opportunity to upstage his political adversary, the charismatic Steve Hoyle challenges Graham's authority and vows to organize a new union of patriots. Under Hoyle's leadership, this new Klan, a group of petty marauders, regularly terrorizes the inhabitants of Independence in spite of Graham's best efforts to thwart his former comrades.

Amidst the town's uproar, an intruder masquerading as a Klansman murders Judge Butler. Despite immediately withdrawing his lawsuit, John Graham becomes the primary murder suspect due to his former role in the now-dissolved "Invisible Empire" as well as his public animosity against the late judge. The devastated Stella Butler now plots vengeance and the "traitor's" downfall. With the help of General Champion, she commissions a northern Secret Service detective, Mr. Ackerman, to ferret out the murderer. A wily Stella manically pursues John's destruction, hoping to entrap him by manipulating his feelings for her.

Through the character of Stella, Dixon begins examining questions of class and caste. Whereas her mother belonged to the southern aristocracy, her father descended from poor whites. While Stella periodically exhibits the noble and refined traits inherited from her mother, her vain ambition and base scheming suggest her father's malingering influence. Only towards the novel's close does Stella—through the transformative power of love—embrace her true and better nature. In a similar vein, Dixon vilifies northern scalawags such as the conniving politician Alexander Larkin; he likewise mocks the inflated aspirations of Judge Butler, representative of the so-called "poor white trash." However, the author also resists prevailing stereotypes in presenting characters such as Jewish storekeeper Sam Nickaroshinski, a Polish immigrant who gladly loans John Graham money, and Dan Wiley, the poor but loyal mountain man who claims the former Klan leader as his best friend.

Far less judicious is Dixon's depiction of newly freed African Americans, who now clamor for political and social equality. Although the Graham family's devoted butler, Alfred, is portrayed favorably, his former wife, Aunt Julie Ann, appears as a foolish opportunist. Indeed, she discards Alfred in favor of the ridiculous Isaac A. Postle, a self-named religious zealot. Greedy and self-serving, Isaac (the Apostle) mercilessly beats Aunt Julie Ann while claiming to have been sanctified and thereby rendered into a sinless state. He later perjures himself while testifying against John Graham, inadvertently exposing the truth about his perfidious northern benefactor, the carpetbagger Alexander Larkin.

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's conclusion suggests that hope for regeneration rests not in revolution or organized rebellion but in the power of individual human relationships (p. vii). Perhaps the most visible representation of renewal materializes in the marriage of Ackerman and Susie Wilson. As the U.S. Secret Service agent and northerner explains, in loving this true southern woman, he "learned to love and sympathise" with her blighted people (p. 293). 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.

See also the entry for Thomas Dixon, Jr. from the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture available on this site.

Works Consulted: Bain, Robert, Joseph M. Flora, and Louis D. Rubin, Jr., eds., Southern Writers: A Biographical Dictionary, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979; Burke, W. J. and Will D. Howe, eds., American Authors and Books: 1640 to the Present Day, 3rd revised edition, New York: Crown Publishers, 1972; Cooke, Raymond A., Thomas Dixon, New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1974; Powell, William S., ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1979-1996; Wallace, W. Stewart, comp., A Dictionary of North American Authors Deceased before 1950, Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1968; Wilson, Charles Reagan and William Ferris, eds., Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

Mary Alice Kirkpatrick

Document menu