Stuff 4: The Family Boxes 2 March 22, 2017

When I said it was a vile and racist book, I meant extraordinarily vile and deeply racist.

I tried to read it: The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon, nestled so innocently in the box of inherited books. What had my husband’s grandfather been thinking, not just in buying it, but keeping it for long enough that it ended up being passed down to us?

And what on earth should we do with the thing?

I ended up skimming it, being able to do more than glance at many of the pages. The book probably counted as a fast read in 1905, with short paragraphs and lots of dialogue, although much of the dialogue is didactic, tossing Dixon’s white supremacist message at the reader in what amount to sermons from his preferred characters. (He was a Baptist minister and lawyer as well as the author of 28 books.)

The villain of the piece is Congressman Austin Stoneman, a caricature of real-life Radical Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, an abolitionist lawyer and law-maker who spent his long career pushing for an end to slavery. I hadn’t known much about Thaddeus Stevens before reading The Clansman, and the only good thing about finding the book was the time I spent looking into Stevens’s fascinating life and career.

Over the years, biographers have psychoanalyzed Stevens to death. His club foot and lifelong limp are said to have made him identify with the underdog, and his relationship with Lydia Smith—a mixed-race woman who was publicly his housekeeper and possibly his partner—is said by some to lie behind his deep opposition to slavery. (Not all scholars believe the Smith-Stevens relationship was a common-law marriage, although it was portrayed that way in Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln, when Stevens was played by Tommy Lee Jones and Smith by S. Epatha Merkerson.)

Of course, Stevens might have opposed slavery simply because it’s wrong, as some modern biographers point out. I like the wording on his gravestone:

 

I repose in this quiet and secluded spot
Not from any natural preference for solitude
But, finding other Cemeteries limited as to Race
by Charter Rules
I have chosen this that I might illustrate
in my death
The Principles which I advocated
through a long life;
EQUALITY OF MAN BEFORE HIS CREATOR

 

In any case, in Dixon’s book and Birth of a Nation, “Austin Stoneman’s” sentiments are traced to the influence of his housekeeper, here called Lydia Brown, “a strange brown woman of sinister animal beauty and the restless eyes of a leopardess.” Under her sensual direction, Stoneman does everything he can to raise freed slaves to equality after the U.S. Civil War, something Dixon regards as a horror.

Stoneman owns alternate chapters in the book, most of them involving tendentious political debates. The other chapters centre on the chaste love affairs of his barely-grown daughter and son and their Southern squeezes. The real-life Stevens had no children, but in the novel, Stoneman’s daughter Elsie falls in love with the hero of the novel, a young Southern colonel named Ben Cameron who (spoiler alert) becomes one of the first grand wizards of the Ku Klux Clan.

Cameron is said to resemble Elsie’s brother so closely they might be twins, leading to a weird undercurrent of incest running throughout the book, which is remarkable for its sexual anxiety.

At the centre of the novel is the rape of a fifteen-year-old white girl by a cartoon black man who speaks in deeply racist Mammy-style dialogue. After the rape, the girl commits suicide so her name isn’t stained, jumping off Lover’s Leap with her mother to a spotless, if also incestuous, death. (Lover’s Leap?)

I’m so tired of women being raped in quote, art to support male supremacy, in this case explicitly Aryan male supremacy, especially where it’s used to justify the murder of a black character by the Ku Klux Clan at the climax of the book. Yet it’s something we can’t seem to get away from.

At last year’s Toronto Screenwriting Conference, screenwriter and showrunner Glen Mazzara made the point that American popular culture has long fallen back on two specific male and female tropes.

There is the male anti-hero—the gunslinger, the sheriff, the private detective, the mutant superhero—a flawed man who does the right thing for the wrong reasons, never able to find a place in the society he saves. And there is the woman who has been raped or otherwise defiled. In other words, the archetypal pop cult woman is a victim, and she’s invariably at the centre of a revenge fantasy. In historical terms, the woman is ultimately avenged by men. More recently, she’s turned vengeful herself, even if her decision to pull out a gun turns out as badly as it does in Thelma and Louise.

In Dixon’s potboiler, once the men have avenged the girl’s rape, everything is fine: Stoneman is disgraced, black politicians defeated or killed, white men put back in charge, the Klan rising over all.

Looked at technically, Dixon is clever in his propagandizing, slowly drawing in unsophisticated readers. The first chapters centre on the little love affair of Elsie Stoneman and her wounded soldier Ben, and on debates between Stoneman and President Abraham Lincoln, who is portrayed as a saint, largely because of his go-slow policy on ending slavery after the U.S. Civil War. Only slowly do the violence and racism ramp up. Most of the black characters appear later in the book, many of them starting out as the type of comic figures speaking pidgin English who would have been familiar to readers from blackface comedy a hundred years ago. Only gradually does the plot turn truly nasty and the portrayals vile.

By the end, Dixon is fulminating, going so far overboard the book is silly. Stoneman’s disgrace comes when he is discovered to have dug up and defiled the dead body of the Klansman Ben Cameron’s brother, a lily-white Confederate soldier. But by then, unsophisticated readers were presumably hooked by both the action and the chaste love story.

When I first blogged about finding the book, some friends suggested I get rid of it by donating it to a historical collection. But because it was a bestseller, there are endless copies of The Clansman circulating. It’s sold used on Amazon, abebooks and other sites, and is already available in the Toronto Public Library, among other public venues. Since it’s out of copyright, people can also order newly-minted print on demand copies online. Our inherited copy is far from a historically-significant remnant.

In fact–and this is what troubles me–it’s an actor in today’s culture.

Here’s one chilling review from someone who lists himself as A Customer, exactly as it appears on Amazon:

“I do not agree with Mr. Dixons glorification of Lincoln, thus I found the first several sections of the book difficult to stomach. However, once the book reached the Reconstruction of South I gave it my undivided attention. You’ll find no P.C. revisionism here. Mr. Dixons novel reads more like fact than fiction, yet no one these days has the courage to tell the truth for fear of being called a racist. President Woodrow Wilson said of the book (and the film “Birth of a Nation”) that it was “All Too True” and he should know as he lived in the South during Reconstruction. As an A.P. History teacher I only wish I could get away with having my students read this book.”

 

To be continued.