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CARPE LIBRUM: ‘The Clansman’ suffers from blasé writing

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Historical fantasy incites blah interest.

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Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.   

clansmanThe Clansman

Thomas F. Dixon Jr., 1905

Two years ago I realized there were a lot of films I thought I had seen—because I had seen so many clips from them throughout my lifetime. Similarly, there are books I think I have read—because their stories are so well-known in literary and popular culture.

I set off on a tear of watching films I felt like I knew. At the top of the list were the complete works of Leni Riefenstahl and “Birth of a Nation.” Though readers might not know Leni Riefenstahl’s name, they likely have seen her work. Most of the “B” roll of Nazi Germany, Nazi rallies and Hitler giving speeches is used in various documentaries comes from her work, specifically her two most well-known films: “Triumph of the Will” and “Olympiad.”

Riefenstahl has remained a source of confusion and fascination for me for much of my life. She wasn’t charged as a war criminal, but rather as a “fellow traveler”; however, she never recanted or apologized for work with the Nazi party. “Triumph of the Will” is one of the most famous propaganda films ever made, and a recruiting tool, especially for Hitler youth, and it would be hard to match. I have seen so many clips from it and read so much about it, I really thought I had seen it. When I sat down to watch, I was started by how different the film taken in its entirety was from its short selections. But I found myself haunted by another film I really thought I knew, yet realized I hadn’t entirely:  “The Birth of a Nation”—the D.W. Griffith silent film. I talk about it every weekend on the Literary History Walking Tour in regard to “The Clansman” by Thomas F. Dixon—the book from which the film was made.

“Birth of a Nation” is a distressing movie, certainly, but it is also not as obvious and simple as I thought. Actually, for a storytelling vehicle, it is way ahead of its time. Still, each weekend I talk about the book and the author—and I haven’t read the book. Somehow it seems disingenuous, doesn’t it?

Published in 1905 by Thomas F. Dixon, a Baptist minister originally from Shelby, North Carolina, “The Clansman” is the second in a trilogy of historical romances about the Ku Klux Klan. It has been out of print for years, so finding copies of it is easier said than done, but there I was in 2016, trying to track down a novel best remembered for its overtones of hate rather than the quality of the work. I discovered it had been reissued as an academic book used in college classes in 2001—and it is mostly read from a scholarly standpoint. I acquired a used copy that has been heavily underlined and annotated for a college class.

I read an average of a book a day. Yet, it took me forever to get through “The Clansman.” To begin with the cover was embarrassing, and I didn’t want to been seen in public with it. Now, I walked around with copies of Holly Hughes’ “Clit Notes, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure” and “The Vagina Monologues” without a moment of compunction. But carrying a book with a Knight Rider on the cover in full robes, with the title “The Clansman” in bold, italic script, was more than I was prepared to face.

I was expecting something like “Gone With the Wind”: so romantic and compelling it sweeps up readers in the story completely that they have to stop periodically to remind themselves the depiction of the relationships between the white and African-American characters was so far from reality as to be painfully laughable. Nonetheless, it’s a charming fantasy. And that’s what it is: a fantasy to visit and find escape a little from a modern world that lacks grace, charm and honor. Both films, “The Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the Wind,” are among the most successful and popular films ever released.  The book “Gone with the Wind” is incredibly compelling and easy to understand how it won the Pulitzer.

Not so with “The Clansman.” I was prepared, if not for a romanticized view of the past, then an angry, vile call to arms. What I got instead was really quite blah. To begin with, Dixon has no idea how to write female characters—how women think or talk to each other. The book follows two families, the Camerons and the Stonemans, through the immediate aftermath of the Civil War  and  an inevitable “Romeo and Juliet”-like romance between two young persons from the families. We can tell Dixon understands the feelings of a young man in love, and the decision faced from a man looking to marry and start a family. As to how a young woman in a similar situation would react is clearly beyond him. He views Thaddeus Stevens as the greatest enemy the South could face—and is pretty upfront with his dislike for Stevens’ African-American housekeeper who also was his common-law wife.

But would this book move me to violence? I really can’t see it. As a highly simplified view of the wrongs done in the South by the victors following the Civil War, it is an interesting insight into the way human nature can filter events for its own ends. But as a piece of writing shrouded in awe with far-reaching impact, it was surprisingly disappointing.

But would I have known had I not gone to the source material? No. That is why original sources remain so important—especially in an age of cut and paste and repost.

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