An Unexpected Reader: Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman

by Gyasi Byng May 09, 2016

Recently I had to read Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan for a class on the Africanist presence in American literature. Believe me when I tell you that there’s no chicanery in the title: the novel is “historical,” romantic, and about the KKK.

Dixon portrays the Klan as the great white savior of the South and African Americans as sexually deviant and intellectually bankrupt. The first thing that struck me about the book was the editor’s introduction. Even though the book remains in print, the editor clearly stated that no scholar in their right mind believes the novel to have any literary merit.

And to be perfectly honest with you, it’s not a very well written book.

Dixon was a heavy-handed writer who beats his reader over the head with his propaganda.

Working my way through The Clansman, I found every aspect of my identity offended. As an American, I was offended by Dixon’s revisionist history. As a black woman, I was offended by his racism. As a woman, I was offended by his sexism. As a writer, I was offended by his unrealistic dialogue and mediocre plot.

But despite all of this, I found myself fascinated by the realization that I was reading a book not written for me. In 2016, it’s strange to consider that something isn't meant for you, especially when it comes to fiction.

Every act of writing, from a Facebook update to a tweet to a poem to an essay to a novel, is an act of communication. No matter what I write, I am seeking an audience, a reader, to communicate an idea. I don’t know what this reader will look like, and I do not know their backstory: all I can do is anticipate them. I guess and suppose what this reader would want to read. I presume how this reader would react when they engage with my writing.

Considering the following sentences, I’m assuming that Dixon wasn’t writing to a 27-year-old black woman from Long Island:

“Black hordes of former slaves with the intelligence of children and the instincts of savages, armed with modern rifles, parade daily in front of their unarmed former masters…The children of the breed of men who speak the tongue of Burns and Shakespeare, Drake and Raleigh, have been disarmed and made subject to the black spawn of an African jungle! Can human flesh endure it?” (Dixon 121).

Furthermore, I can infer that Dixon anticipated a reader who would agree with him.

I doubt that he would ever have anticipated a black reader.

Whether from sincere interest or mild curiosity, three million copies of The Clansman were purchased after its publication. Selling one million copies of a novel today is an achievement, but selling three million in 1905 was unheard of.

If anything, Dixon’s book was similar to some of the pop literature we read today: A large number of people read it, it received mixed reviews, and eventually it produced a film, D.W. Griffiths’ The Birth of a Nation.

Eventually, the novel sort of faded away. It’s not literary canon by any stretch of the imagination. Those that read it and write about it usually approach it as a historical reference rather than a serious piece of American literature.

I approached The Clansman academically, spitefully, and violently.

I felt a strange sense of satisfaction reading a book that was so clearly intended for another audience. Reading Dixon’s book in spite of him felt like salting and burning his bones: eradication, extermination, and exorcism with every page turn. Also, it felt devious, like I was stealing something he never intended for me to have.

And yet, there is still something uncomfortable and embarrassing in reading a book that is not intended for you but is so clearly about you.

I’ve been taught to avoid reductive “writer’s intent” readings; however, as one of Dixon’s unexpected black readers, he has communicated to me his mad and chaotic obsession with black people. In order to thoroughly dehumanize a group of people, you have to watch them. You have to observe their movements in order to exaggerate them. Dixon could not have written, “Besides being so bow-legged that his walk was a moving joke he was so striking a negro in his personal appearance…” without watching with unforgiving acuity how an elderly black man walked (103). In order to write what I am about Dixon, I have to watch him write. How mad I must be watching Dixon watching a black man walking down the street.

How obsessed and chaotic I must be to respond to a writer who was never speaking to me in the first place. I wonder: who am I not speaking to now?

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Gyasi Byng
Gyasi Byng

Author

Gyasi S. Byng lives in Rochester, New York. She is PhD student at the University of Rochester where she teaches a writing course on robotics and human identity. She received her MA from Florida Atlantic University and her BA from Palm Beach Atlantic University. Her recent publications include “I Have Never Been Strong” in Open Minds Quarterly, “In the Waiting Line” in Apogee: Reclaiming the Margins, and “Beige Girl Problems” in Rivet: The Journal of Writing That Risks.



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