Excerpt: 'Thomas Dixon: Jael-baiter'
If evil can be judged by the effects of one's work, Thomas Dixon (1864-1946) was perhaps the most evil author of fiction in American history. He was a well-known preacher, real estate speculator, lawyer, playwright, filmmaker, and novelist, but if his name is unknown to you, as it was to me, it is because his works are bad. And not "fun bad" either. Unreadably bad. He had but a handful of ideas, which he recycled and spliced ad absurdum. His characters are stick figures with big mouths, his prose lugubrious and pedantic. And yet his writing actually caused a great many people to go out and kill other people.
One hallmark of awful writing (beyond the basic show-don't-tell thing) is whether a story begins with a scene of class distinction rendered without restraint, designed only to incite contempt. How does The Fall of a Nation (1916) begin?
The liveried flunkey entered the stately library and bowed.
"You rang, sir?"
He scarcely breathed the words. In every tone spoke the old servile humility of the creature in the presence of his creator the King.
Eek. Let us cease direct quotation for now.
The plot of the book is remarkable, in that it's an early example of parallel-universe fiction. Back in 1916, before America entered World War I, political dialectic was polarized between those who believed the European war belonged to the United States as well, and those who didn't. In Dixon's novel, the isolationists have won the argument, and crafty German spies enlist the unwitting aid of American feminist-socialist-pacifists to invade America.
Mayhem ensues at a glacial pace. There are vague scenes of Germans marching through Manhattan and blowing up rail lines and taking over the port of Norfolk, Virginia. Shortly after the president and his cabinet are jailed, fifty thousand (or a million — Dixon keeps changing his mind) Daughters of Jael organize to repel the invaders. Who are they? Strong young girls named after the biblical heroine and "taught in secret two things — to keep their lithe young bodies hard and sun-tanned and learn to wield a steel knife whose blade was eight inches long, slender and keen."
But here is the money shot, as it were — in battle, the Jael-ites are "white-robed girl riders" whose costumes are suspiciously familiar. In fact, there's an illustration of them facing page 358 that leaves no doubt as to their origin: they are quite obviously a female version of the Ku Klux Klan. For the ridiculous The Fall of a Nation turns out to be a sequel to Dixon's 1905 The Clansman, better known by the title under which it was later filmed, The Birth of a Nation.
And herein lies Dixon's truly evil work. Even if you haven't seen the film, you might know that it is controversial, in that it depicts the antebellum Klan as heroes, while also pioneering filmic techniques — crosscutting, close-ups, montage — that are the basis of modern storytelling. D. W. Griffith, the director, was a genius who later recanted (as best as he knew how) the film's political bent. So there is an academic argument about the film's worth: part genius, part monstrosity. No one has such discussions about Dixon. For instance, his only in-print biography, by Anthony Slide, to whom this essay owes a great debt, is called American Racist.
How racist is his writing? Oh, let's just take one scene from The Leopard's Spots (1902), which Slide has actually read (I am not so self-flagellating): "Six Negro troopers invade a marriage party and carry off the bride. The white guests pursuing the troopers are urged to shoot and kill the bride, which they do: 'there are things worse than death!'"
There're seventeen more novels where that came from.
The Birth of a Nation is possibly the most widely seen motion picture ever, debuting at a time when the power of the medium hadn't been diluted. It was the first picture shown at the White House, causing President Wilson to comment, "It is like writing history with Lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true."
But its influence was far more troubling than a mere thumbs-up from the president. Ironically, when the film was produced, the Klan had been dead for several generations. But not for much longer. Though the cause-and-effect link is a matter of some debate, the chronology is nonetheless amazing: The film opened in Los Angeles on February 8, 1915; Mary Phagan was murdered on April 27; Leo Frank was lynched for the crime on August 16 (apparently the Klan's first lynching); on December 6, Klan founder William Simmons and his followers rode in hoods and white robes to Birth's Atlanta premiere, which was fabulous propaganda. Outside the theater, they solicited memberships for their new group, and their ranks swelled. It's hard to think of another work of American fiction that so directly contributed to so much violence and strife.
Dixon knew to call The Fall of a Nation a sequel, even though it has nothing to do with Birth except for its ideology of contempt, a vision of the Klan riding to the rescue again. He directed a film version of it himself (now lost) and, in 1939, wrote another sequel, The Flaming Sword, in which Negroes unite with Communists to (of course) overthrow the United States. There are, again, cities going down in flames and so on, but this time with explicit scenes of black men raping white women.
I know, it sounds like campy, over-the-top excitement, like you have to read it to believe it, but the truth is: no, you don't. If a single reader of this essay makes it through a single Dixon novel, I will be shocked. Evil is essentially boring, and the flames of a bad idea are rarely fanned by intelligent storytelling. Let's just bury him, again.
I like how Anthony Slide leaves Dixon's life story, with a quotation from Dixon's journals: "Ask self — if you dropped dead tonight How many people would really miss you, how many lives would really be poorer — because I'd gone." A good question, self-pity aside. But a better one is: how many lives were ruined because he'd come in the first place?
From "Thomas Dixon: Jael-baiter'" by Glen David Gold, which appears in the "Evil" edition of Tin House magazine. © 2007 Tin House Magazine. Excerpted by permission.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.