December
27th 2009
One man’s trash is another woman’s treasure

Posted under: American history, art, book reviews, happy endings, race, unhappy endings

leopardsspotsI’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!

10 Comments »

10 Responses to “One man’s trash is another woman’s treasure”

  1. Janice on 27 Dec 2009 at 4:02 pm #

    That’s a fascinating find! Mind you, I expect that it isn’t a great read in any literary sense but mostly the kind of book that a historian (or scholar of literature) would appreciate. I end up reading a lot of such books or so my disappointed relations inform me as they browse through the home library.

    I’ve branched into research on the Norse discovery of North America (or, more properly, how that discovery was understood and used by subsequent cultures) and have stumbled upon a wealth of books and ephemera, especially from the 19th and 20th centuries that expound on one crackpot aspect or another. So far, most of those discoveries have been developed via ILL or microform reading, but I have started acquiring a few such print works when I can find them!

  2. Knitting Clio on 27 Dec 2009 at 5:50 pm #

    @Janice — I’d be interested in hearing more about the “crackpot” theories about Norse settlement in North America. It seems the archaeological evidence is strong enough that folks don’t need to make up stuff.

  3. Comrade PhysioProf on 27 Dec 2009 at 6:28 pm #

    I love finding shit like that! I almost creamed in my pants when I found a complete set of Upton Sinclair’s “World’s End” series at a garage sale. I had a few of the volumes, but getting my hands on the complete set like that was fucking awesome!

    The funny thing is that PhysioWife wanted to go check out this garage sale, and I was complaining like a WATB that I didn’t want to go. I was so glad she dragged me!

  4. Janice on 27 Dec 2009 at 6:31 pm #

    Knitting Clio, it’s mostly about the extension of that investigation to other places where the evidence fails: like claiming Boston was a thriving Norse city, Norumbega, until the end of the 15th century. Or that the Norse came to Northern Minnesota (the Kensington Runestone) or from the Heavener Runestone claims as far as Oklahoma. A few weeks ago I was pawing through a book from the 1950s that tried to claim that Vinland was in the Great Lakes around Sault Ste. Marie.

    The fights in the 19th century over where Vinland would be found were pretty interesting, too. Was it Cape Cod, Nova Scotia, the Chesapeake Bay area or somewhere else? Scholars and amateurs devoted to various theories fought it out in the journals and on the talk circuit. Because so many of them lacked physical evidence (or the physical evidence was so wrong, as in the case of the Newport Tower which is pretty clearly a 17th century windmill (and so not like any Norse building yet found or discussed in any literature).

  5. widgeon on 28 Dec 2009 at 9:08 am #

    I often pick up old “Life” magazine issues from the mid-twentieth century at antique shops and bookstores. They are great fun to look through, and I have used them in PhD oral exams–asking for interpretations of images. There is something about having the physical objects themselves, even if they are not rare or valuable, that is satisfying.

  6. human on 28 Dec 2009 at 12:25 pm #

    Old “Life” magazines are GREAT. I love looking at the advertisements!

  7. Historiann on 29 Dec 2009 at 9:54 am #

    Widgeon–what a great idea! (And what a fun exam!) Love it.

    Janice–thanks for the report on your research. I once got very interested in the print culture of the Colonial Revival, and its invention of Priscilla Alden in the mythology of early Plymouth, so I’m a little familiar with some of the sources from the era you’re looking at. So much effort expended to authorize a particular version of the past! (Only in the case of Priscilla, it was more about reading 19th C gender roles (rather than racialist ideology) back into the colonial period, or earlier.)

  8. Rad Readr on 30 Dec 2009 at 7:38 pm #

    Thanks, Historiann!! It took me a while to arrive at this post because I have been traveling for the holidays and only checking email for a few minutes here and there…I am touched that you remembered the Dixon book and even more touched that you found it the old-fashioned way — by hitting the boxes at a sale.

    Dixon used to be of interest in American Studies because of “Birth of a Nation,” but more recently certain critics in Amlit have been making arguments that there are common strands between Dixon’s brand of white supremacist argument and 1) US imperialist nationalist and 2) certain strands of identity politics.

    Happy holidays!!!

  9. figleaf on 03 Jan 2010 at 8:18 pm #

    Oh dear, Thomas Dixon was my great-great uncle. And since no one else (being in their right minds) in the family was interested I wound up inheriting his collected works. So I’ve got “The Leopard’s Spots,” “The Man in Gray,” “The Klansman,” yes, but also some of his even more tea-bagger-sounding titles like “The Victim” and “The Foolish Virgin.”

    A distant cousin has been sending me boxes of archival material from that side of the family. He, no less than his siblings, were some kind of pieces of work. A sister wrote the first presidential assassination-conspiracy theory book, which became a best-seller. His oldest brother, A.C. Dixon, a fire-breathing conservative minister, was among other things editor of the journal that became the foundation of Christian fundamentalism, and lent its name to the movement. As far as I know the only upside was yet another sister who became the first woman woman doctor in North or South Carolina. Oh, and his dad, like Thomas and A.C. a Baptist minister, was one of the early members of the then-breakaway Southern Baptists. Which makes sense since he was also a slaveowner.

    Charming family. My goal is to keep them perpetually turning in their graves.

    figleaf

  10. figleaf on 03 Jan 2010 at 8:19 pm #

    Doh. “He,” meaning Thomas Dixon, not my cousin.