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When the subject can’t be trusted
Ten years ago, historian Cynthia Lyerly was invited to participate in a conference on the legacy of the southern racist Thomas Dixon, Jr. (1864–1946), whose 1905 novel The Clansman inspired D.W. Griffith’s landmark movie The Birth of a Nation. Dixon grew up in North Carolina during the Reconstruction years after the Civil War, went off to Boston and New York to become an influential preacher in the 1890s, and then churned out almost two dozen popular novels and plays that romanticized the Ku Klux Klan and stoked fears of the black man as a sexual predator.
Lyerly, who also grew up in North Carolina, earned her Ph.D. at Rice University delving into issues of race, gender, and religion in southern history. Dixon’s life story contained all her scholarly interests. Now an associate professor at Boston College, she is several years along on a biography with, she figures, a couple of years to go. She described the challenge bluntly in the title of a talk she gave on campus in November: “Writing a Biography of a Pathological Liar.”
In a recent conversation at her office in Maloney Hall, Lyerly said she began to realize early on that Dixon, who gave frequent interviews during his life, and who left a long, unpublished autobiography, said nothing that can be taken at face value. Previous biographers, she says, were too credulous. Having searched online newspaper databases to compare Dixon’s statements with verifiable events and timelines, she believes, for example, that he made up an account of witnessing the aftermath of a horrific rape of a Confederate widow by a freed black man. Having plumbed census data for genealogical information and to learn more about his family circumstances, she disbelieves his story of his father refusing an offer of $100,000 worth of gold to buy his slaves. Lyerly has examined Dixon’s personal library, kept at a small college in North Carolina, and studied his marginalia. She concludes Dixon drew on “white supremacist trope” in creating his life stories. “I do feel like I’m a private detective on occasion,” she says.
The most famous event in Dixon’s life may be the most difficult to unravel. Dixon befriended a young Woodrow Wilson when both were students at Johns Hopkins University in the early 1880s. By 1915, when Griffith and Dixon, who worked on the screenplay, had finished The Birth of a Nation, Wilson was President. The filmmakers managed to set up a special screening at the White House, which led to the quote long attributed to the president: “It’s like writing history with lightning. My only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”
Lyerly expects it will take months of combing through newspaper archives to find when the purported quote first appeared. There’s clear evidence that Wilson instructed his secretary to send out word he did not endorse the film. But so far nobody has established whether it was Griffith or Dixon, or somebody else, who reported the now infamous words. “It may be that this will be one of the many rabbit holes I’m going to chase down,” Lyerly says, adding that, at some point, a biographer has to depend on “learned intuition.”
“I know the kinds of things he loves to lie about,” she says and notes that self-promotion was a driving motive. “I’ve got these patterns.”
Lyerly speaks in a strong voice, with just a hint of North Carolina inflection. She enthuses about the Dixon project, even as she matter-of-factly notes, “He’s a rabid Negrophobe, a defender of lynching. There’s vile stuff in his novels.” Racism is often said to be the product of ignorance, she observes, but “Dixon is not, in any stretch of the imagination, ignorant. He’s highly educated, he reads voraciously. He reads all the prominent black authors. Nothing penetrates. He assumes they’re spinning a story just like he is. It’s a closed system for him. He’s committed to white supremacy and no factual information is going to interfere with that. . . . He’s a fascinating case study in how racism can make you stupid.”
Read more by Dave Denison