Source: From ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SOUTHERN CULTURE edited by Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris Copyright (c) 1989 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu
Thomas Dixon, 1864-1946
Dixon, Thomas Jr. 1864-1946, Writer. Born in the rural North Carolina Piedmont a year before the Civil War ended, Thomas Dixon lived to see the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the end of World War II. Between 1902 and 1939 he published 22 novels, as well as numerous plays, screenplays, books of sermons, and miscellaneous nonfiction. Educated at Wake Forest and Johns Hopkins, Dixon was a lawyer, state legislator, preacher, novelist, playwright, actor, lecturer, real-estate speculator, and movie producer. Familiar to three presidents and such notables as John D. Rockefeller, he made and lost millions, ending up an invalid court clerk in Raleigh, N.C.
Paradoxically, Dixon is among the most dated and most contemporary of southern writers. In genre an early 19th-century romancer, thematically Dixon argued for three interrelated beliefs still current in southern life: the need for racial purity, the sanctity of the family centered on a traditional wife and mother, and the evil of socialism.
In the Klan trilogy—The Leopard's Spots (1902), The Clansman (1905), The Traitor (1907)— and in The Sins of the Fathers (1912), Dixon presents racial conflict as an epic struggle, with the future of civilization at stake. Although Dixon personally condemned slavery and Klan activities after Reconstruction ended, he argued that blacks must be denied political equality because that leads to social equality and miscegenation, thus to the destruction of both family and civilized society. Throughout his work, white southern women are the pillars of family and society, the repositories of all human idealism. The Foolish Virgin (1915) and The Way of a Man (1919) attack women's suffrage because women outside the home become corrupted; with the sacred vessels shattered, social morality is lost. In his trilogy on socialism—The One Woman (1903), Comrades (1909), The Root of Evil (1911)—he attacks populist socialism expressed in such works as Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, arguing that it is impossible for all classes to be equal in a society. Dixon's last novel, The Flaming Sword (1939), written just before he suffered a crippling cerebral hemorrhage, combines the threats of socialism and racial equality, presenting blacks as communist dupes attempting the overthrow of the United States. Through all his work runs an impassioned defense of conservative religious values.
Young Dixon's religious and political beliefs were melded in a crucible shaped by his region's military defeat and economic depression and by the fiercely independent, Scotch-Irish Presbyterian faith of the North Carolina highlands. As a student reading Darwin, Huxley, and Spencer, he suffered a brief period of religious doubt. But his faith rebounded stronger than ever, and Dixon sought the grandest pulpit he could find. He abandoned a successful Baptist ministry in New York for the larger nondenominational audience he could reach as a lecturer and, after the success of The Leopard's Spots, as a novelist and playwright. With the movie Birth of a Nation (based on The Clansman), Dixon believed he had found the ideal medium to educate the masses, to bring them to political and religious salvation. Although his work is seldom read today, both in his themes and as a political preacher seeking a national congregation through mass media, Thomas Dixon clearly foreshadowed the politicized television evangelists of the modern South.
Virginia Commonwealth University
Raymond A. Cook, Fire from the Flint: The Amazing Careers of Thomas Dixon (1968), Thomas Dixon (1974); F. Garvin Davenport, Journal of Southern History (August 1970).