Thomas Dixon: a writer on the wrong side of history

June 26, 2018 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalism, writers, writing.

Sometimes a successful writer, both in his life and in his writing, gets it all wrong. Such was the case with Thomas Dixon.

Dixon was born in 1864 in North Carolina and grew up during the Reconstruction era as an unreconstructed Southerner. He attended Wake Forest and later Johns Hopkins, where he befriended a young Woodrow Wilson. He got into politics, practiced law, and eventually became a Baptist minister. He accepted an offer from a larger church in Boston where his fame and popularity grew. He moved from there to New York in 1889, and by 1895 he had given up the pastorate to be fulltime on the lecture circuit. He was thought to be the most popular lecturer in the nation at the time.

In 1901, while on a lecture tour, Dixon attended a theatrical version of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He cried at the performance, not out of sympathy for the characters in the play but out of anger for what he thought was Stowe’s misrepresentation of the South. He vowed then and there — 50 years after Uncle Tom’s Cabin was first published — to get even and to set the record straight.

Dixon decided that he would write a sequel to Uncle Tom’s Cabin but would do so from the South’s point of view.

Dixon’s novel, The Leopard’s Spots, was published in 1902, and his fame — in addition to the tenor of the times — made it a best-seller. Dixon followed that success with another novel, The Clansman, in 1903 and still another in 1909, The Traitor. All were virulently racist books that played on the fear white people had of blacks and the supposed evils of miscegenation. All were highly popular with the reading public.

They were so popular that movie director D.W. Griffith used them to make his early epic, The Birth of a Nation. The film reflected the racist views of Dixon’s novels.

One of the people who shared these views was Woodrow Wilson, Dixon’s old friend from Johns Hopkins. The two had stayed in touch over the years. When The Birth of a Nation was released in 1915, Wilson sponsored a private showing in the White House and is reported to have said the file was “like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so true.”

Dixon’s writing undoubtedly had an impact, confirming the stereotypes and prejudices of many of his readers. But his work never came close to undoing the mighty fortress of accuracy, logic, and emotion that Harriet Beecher Stowe built.

Dixon inadvertently paid tribute to Stowe in the Leopard’s Spots when he wrote:

A little Yankee woman wrote a book. The single act of that woman’s will caused the war, killed a million men, desolated and ruined the South, and changed the history of the world.

And it drove Dixon to spend much of his life and intellect trying, unsuccessfully, to counter all that.

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