Biography of Controversial Writer Thomas Dixon Part 4

About the controversial writer Thomas Dixon, history and biography of the author of Birth of the Nation and other racist works.


THOMAS DIXON (1864-1946). Clergyman and writer.

The Clansman was made into a play which toured the country for five years, and during a 1906 run in New York, D.W. Griffith played the lead role. When motion picture critic Frank Woods handed the book to Griffith several years later, Griffith decided the time was right to revive the story. His gamble on the Clansman paid off handsomely. It proved to be the turning point in his career.

Karl Brown, one of Griffith's cameramen, reflected the general feeling of many involved in the project when he described The Clansman as "terribly biased, utterly unfair, filled with lies, distortions, and above all, the rankest kind of superstitions." But even Brown was enthralled with the transformation of The Clansman into The Birth of a Nation. He conceded that the 1915 film "had been perfectly orchestrated and the instrumentation flawless."

The Birth of a Nation became world-famous. It opened in New York City's Liberty Theatre at the unheard of price of $2 a ticket. Although produced at a cost of only $100,000, it grossed $18 million in the first few years after its release. Dixon, Griffith, and others wise enough to invest heavily in the movie made enormous profits.

On Wall Street, Dixon lost a fortune in the panic of 1907. But he made another with more writing and through his connection with the motion picture industry in Hollywood. This fortune he lost in a foolish real estate venture. At 70 he was appointed by a Republican friend to be clerk of the federal court of the eastern district of North Carolina. The timing was right. His wife was ill, and funds were practically nonexistent. He continued to work on his autobiography and on a novel--The Flaming Sword--about Negro communists who take over the U.S. A Miss Madelyn Donovan assisted him. In December of 1937 his wife died. In February of 1939 Dixon had a cerebral hemorrhage, and Miss Donovan, knowing he needed constant care, married him at his beside. Incapacitated, he lived on for almost seven years and died bankrupt.

Why has it been so difficult to keep the memory of this unusual man alive? Perhaps because he was truly a paradox and, as such, perplexing. Or perhaps because his principal themes--the inferiority of blacks, women, and communists--are slowly being laid to rest in a forgettable past. At any rate, Dixon was right when, in the last months of his life, agonizing over old age and illness, he said, "I have outlived my fame."

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