Friday, 26 July 2013

Thomas Dixon's "The Clansman" - the wildly controversial 1905 novel filmed by D.W. Griffiths as "Birth of a Nation"

I had The Film Programme playing in the background on Radio 4 yesterday afternoon when a discussion started up about movies featuring the Ku Klux Klan. Host Matthew Sweet and two guests chatted in a desultory, uninformative fashion for a few minutes. Birth of a Nation was mentioned, as was Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s latest stab at turning history into a moronic comic book for 15-year old High School stoodents (the dumb ones, mind you), and Blazing Saddles (which, at least, was funny). To be fair, one of the guests did make the interesting point that the KKK was now mainly used by film-makers as an excuse to make fun of “stupid Southerners”.

Spookily, I had just finished reading The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, Thomas Dixon’s 1905 novel about the period of Reconstruction following the War between the States, when the South was over-run by carpetbaggers (Northerners on the make), scalawags (Southerners in league with the Union) and Union soldiers (black and white). Dixon was an unreconstructed segregationist whose views on blacks would get him thrown in jail these days. The novel (available here, if you want to pay, or here, if you want the free ebook version) posits the theory that the formation of the Klan was an inevitable response by white Southerners determined to protect themselves against the brutal oppression orchestrated by vengeful Northern politicians – the worst of them being Austin Stoneman, based on the Republican Thaddeus Stevens, a prominent foe of Abraham Lincoln, who was the leader of the radical Reconstructionists in the House of Representatives.

One of the many notable things about The Clansman is its sympathetic portrait of Abraham Lincoln, who is accurately shown as no great fan of racial integration (an attitude shared by most Northerners at the time), and having no desire to take revenge on the South. According to Dixon, it was Lincoln’s assassination which paved the way for what many see as the anti-white excesses of Reconstruction. Dixon – while contemptuous of black freedmen – blames radical Republican politicians for what he sees as the disproportionately brutal treatment meted out to Southerners. Another notable feature of the book is that the Klan is shown as being led by the younger members of the old Southern aristocracy, with their traditional codes of chivalry intact. (Apparently, that code largely derived from Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, which was enormously popular in the South, and which served as a behavioural primer for the Southern Gentleman.)

It was the play of The Clansman which created a real stir in the States: it was banned in a number of cities, as was D.W. Griffiths’ Birth of a Nation, which incorporated much of the original plot, and which was equally sympathetic in its portrayal of the Klan (the film’s original title was The Clansman). I saw Birth of a Nation at school when I was 13 or 14. I have no idea why we were shown it, and there was (as far as I can remember) no lecture beforehand warning us to disregard its anti-black and pro-KKK themes. I remember sitting open-mouthed during much of it: even in an era before racial equality and Hate Crime legislation, it seemed a trifle OTT.

The original Ku Klux Klan emerged in the late 1860s and died out in the early 1870s, after a federal grand jury declared it to be a terrorist organisation. Birth of a Nation and, by implication, The Clansman, is credited with the re-emergence of the Klan in the early 1920s, which at its peak boasted 6,000,000 members (it was particularly popular in Indiana, for some reason). Dixon disliked the second version of the KKK, condemning both its thuggery and its virulent anti-Semitism (in its new incarnation, it was also anti-Catholic and prohibitionist). One suspects Dixon was also appalled that it had lost what he evidently believed to have been its original gentlemanly leadership.

Back to Quentin Tarantino: I was surprised by the director's bizarre claim that his reason for making Django Unchained was "to do movies that deal with America's horrible past with slavery and stuff but do them like spaghetti westerns, not like big issue movies. I want to do them like they're genre films, but they deal with everything that America has never dealt with because it's ashamed of it, and other countries don't really deal with because they don't feel they have the right to."

Er… really? America has never dealt with slavery? Or the KKK? Name me a single Hollywood film or American TV programme made since 1915 that has taken a sympathetic stance towards slavery or the Klan. Yeah, thought so.

So Django Unchained is a response to the vicious racism of Birth of a Nation, which was released 98 years ago and which only a tiny, infinitesimal portion of today’s cinemagoers will have seen. Given that the vast majority of Americans are obviously pro-slavery and pro-KKK (which is no doubt why America has never had a black president) and that there have never been any films whatsoever attacking the country's racial prejudice, I personally think Mr. T should be given a medal for valour - and quickly, before those vicious right-wingers who control Hollywood run him out of town. Hell, they'll be blacklisting the poor guy next! 

As for foreigners not feeling they have a right to address potentially embarrassing aspects of American history – I guess he must have missed Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning (1988).

And if Tarantino really wanted to  shine a light into what he seems to imagine is a hidden recess of American history, why didn’t he make any attempt to get his facts straight? Why have the Klan operating in 1858, at least eight years before the start of Reconstruction – to which it was a reaction?

My reading The Clansman does not mean I feel any sympathy whatsoever for the Klan in any of its incarnations: I find the idea of violent secret gangs of whatever stripe operating outside the law distinctly unappealing. But I'd be extremely interested in seeing a proper, grown-up film about the fate of Southern whites during Reconstruction which didn't simply pander to the modern liberal view that they were all stupid racists who got what was coming to them. But, let's face it, the chances of anyone making such a film any time soon are non-existent.


  1. The Klan's second incarnation started in Indiana. The "klan" is still very strong in the midwest." One of the reasons they hated Jews and Catholics was because they hated all the immigrants that were moving into the area (lots of Southern and Eastern Europeans...of course they also hated the Black migrants that moved up there starting in the 40's...see any number of race riots in large northern cities from the 40's through to the 70's)

    They were no Klu Klux Klan...or Red Shirts, or White Leaguers, etc. They were a bunch of clowns who threw picnics around burning crosses. A bit like the Klan today that pulls stunts like adopting highways.

    The Klan and other militias were what today would be called insurgents. It was made very clear by the Republicans from news editorials, to Generals on the front line, that the aim of Lincoln's invasion was to eliminate The South as a culture. I've gone over all this on my own blog but one quote from sherman will suffice...General Sherman in a June 21, 1864 letter to Lincoln's Secretary of War, Edwin Station wrote, "There is a class of people men, women and children (my Family included), who must be killed or banished before you can hope for peace and order."

    Part of that plan was to ensure that the Republican Party took control of The South.

    There was a time after the War that white Southerners believed they could convince the freed slaves to vote Democrat...efforts, some genuine, some not, were made. They failed and once Black became synonymous with Republican it was over. Race relations in The South, already a very sticky proposition, were utterly doomed.

    These insurgents didn't just bully and kill Black folks...they killed Republicans during what most believe to be an existential struggle. I've got an account written by a prominent citizen here of how things went down in 75 or 76. He makes no bones about it. There was a political riot in Clinton that turned into a running battle...between Democrats (whites) and Republicans (blacks). After that the Democrats decided they were going to do whatever it took to oust the Republicans and end the occupation. This fella is not bashful at all in explaining how they were determined to payoff people, stuff ballots and murder to make it happen...and they did.

    Reconstruction took two sets ofpeople, whose cultural similarities far outweighed their superficial differences, and faced them in opposite directions...White Southerners view the Federal government as an enemy...Black Southerners see it as their only true protection.

    There's a great article, published in Cultures of American Imperialism, that deals with Reconstruction literature written by Southerners. Red Rock by Thomas Nelson Page is another work I think you'd find interesting.

    1. Thanks, e.f. – fascinating as always. I wonder if anyone has ever written a non-partisan history of American race riots – there’s an Encyclopedia of American Race Riots, but the blurb would suggest it’s an anti-white tract and it’s part of the “Greenwood Milestones in African American History” series, so I’m not sure it quite fits the bill (besides, it costs £124.72 on Amazon!).

      Over here, I’m not sure there’s any appreciation of the fact that Blacks used to vote Republican (let alone why they did), or that the Democrats used to be practically synonymous with states rights and/or slavery (according to one’s point of view). In fact TV programmes covering US race relations tend to jump from the Civil War to the Ku Klux Klan to the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960s (with the occasional detour to Jesse Owens and lynching episodes in the 20s) to the urban riots of the late ‘60s. From reading US sites, though, I’m not sure it’s that much different in the States. I could be wrong, but I’d have thought any discussion of race might benefit from a slightly wider narrative than the one routinely peddled by the TV networks, the liberal press, Hollywood and your army of race relations hucksters. I’m not saying the narrative’s wrong – but it strikes this foreigner as incomplete.

      One phenomenon that doesn’t get reported here (especially by my erstwhile employers, the BBC) is the number of Northern blacks heading South for work. I’d love to know what effect that’s having on race relations, and whether that’s threatening Republican power there.

      I’ll certainly give “Red Rock” a try – thanks for the recommendation.

  2. "Name me a single Hollywood film..." Well Gone with the Wind comes pretty close, although you have to have read the book to decode that part of film where Ashley Wilkes gets shot in the arm after attending a 'meeting'. The book makes it clear that the meeting is a gathering of the Klan, which is portrayed sympathetically.

    Fascinating post. I watched about 30 minutes of Django Unchained on a plane last week and then gave up. I think Tarantino is to film what Tracy Emin is to art.

    1. The only difference between them perhaps being that Tarantino actually made some good films, albeit quite a long time ago now, whereas Tracy Emin has never created anything I'd even be prepared to wipe my bottom with.

      Gone with the Wind - okay, granted. Icthought of including it, but left it out on the grounds that, while it's genuinely sympathetic to Southerners and hostile to carpetbaggers, it doesn't overtly praise the Klan . However, it definitely soft-pedals on slavery, so I think I have to concede the point.

  3. High quality post and insightful comments. Thank you.

    "I find the idea of violent secret gangs of whatever stripe operating outside the law distinctly unappealing". Yes, because no matter what cause or political movement they adopt as a fig-leaf their activities quickly degenerate into looting and blood-lust. In terms of the Civil War, we have the example on the Kansas - Missouri border of the barbarism of the Bushwackers, the Red Legs, the Jayhawkers; the dreadful massacres at Lawrence and Centralia; and the emergence of a cast of psycopaths like Quantrill and "Bloody" Bill Anderson et al. It is stated that the KKK was particularly strong in the Mid-West. Why did this area attract the ultra-violent?

    Lincoln's great fear was that Lee&Grant and Sherman&Joe Johnstone would not come to a peace agreement in 1865 and would take the remnants of the Confederate army west and link up with Nathan Bedford Forrest, a fighting General in the same class as Stonewall Jackson, and mount a guerrilla war. It was not to be. Instead Forrest was allegedly one of the founders of the KKK [and Grand Vizier?].

    If the Confederacy had mounted an insurgency the butcher's bill would have been enormous. In its place, the formation of the first wave of the KKK, at least, was the lesser of two evils? The South may have had many blemishes, but at the end of the day they were invaded. In my humble and distinctly non-expert book that overrides everything else.

    Anyway, great post. Thanks for link to "the Clansman".

    1. You're welcome, SDG. Leaving aside the question of slavery - an institution that appears to have been on the way out in any case - it's impossible to read about the courage, daring and military prowess of Southern soldiers and their commanders without wishing it had turned out differently: I find it hard to get past accounts of Gettysburg. And I'm with you - it was an invasion, pure and simple.