I’ve been looking for this for the past decade–a copy of Thomas Dixon, Jr.’s The Leopard’s Spots: A Romance of the White Man’s Burden, 1865-1900 (New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1902). As many of you probably know, it was the first in Dixon’s “Ku Klux Klan” trilogy, an awesomely racist masterwork that was enormously popular with white Americans. The second novel in the trilogy, The Clansmen (1905) became the basis for D. W. Griffith’s movie, The Birth of a Nation (1915). The Leopard’s Spots is Dixon’s retort, fifty years after the fact, to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), only this time Tom isn’t a slave but rather a poor white Southern man whose family is victimized by black men, and Simon Legree isn’t a wicked Southern overseer, but instead is a white liberal who abets the political ambitions of black men during Reconstruction. (The source for the above information, as well as a detailed plot summary, is available at Documenting the American South.)
Dixon gave life and breath to the Lost Cause interpretation of Southern history, carrying it into the twentieth century (and unfortunately perhaps into our own century.) Instead of slavery as the nation’s great sin, Dixon argued that racial equality was an even greater evil. Dixon’s novels, as popular as they were with white Americans, didn’t go unanswered by black Americans. See for example this self-published pamphlet by Kelly Miller of Howard University, As to the Leopard’s Spots: an open letter to Thomas Dixon, Jr. (1905).
The last time I saw a copy of it was in an estate sale about a decade ago in my former hometown of Winesburg, Ohio, at the home of someone who must have been a retired professor, to judge from the size of his or her library. There were boxes and boxes of old books, and I mentioned to my friend Rad Readr (who knows a thing or two about American literature) that I had seen a copy of this book. He chastised me for not buying it on the spot! It’s not exactly a rare book–even the first editions are available for $5-$30. But, every time I’ve been in an estate sale or antique shop for the past decade, I’ve looked for this book, just so that I could buy it for Rad! Many of you probably know that feeling–something akin to l’esprit de l’escalier, of having missed an opportunity to get something that you can’t find anywhere else. (This book is available inexpensively from any number of on-line used and rare book dealers–but it would have seemed like cheating to buy it like that instead of stumbling upon it by chance in the meat world.)
Consider it a late Christmas present, Rad. I’ll get it on its way, once I’ve returned home and have had a chance to look through it myself. Have any of the rest of you read this book, or used it in your research? It’s been the subject of a number of books and articles over the past twenty years–so I’m fairly certain that a good number of you know more about this book’s history and literary value than I do. Fill me in!
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