An Uneasy Birth

Marking the 100th Anniversary of D. W. Griffith’s Controversial Landmark Film, The Birth of a Nation

While recently pulling materials for an exhibit on silent films, I happened upon a small promotional flyer, probably from Blacksburg’s Lyric Theatre, for D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, which saw its initial theatrical release on March 3, 1915.

Though Griffith’s work is considered a watershed in cinematic history, few today can claim to have watched it in its entirety. The film’s relegation to a remote corner of public consciousness can be attributed to its silent film format (considered quaint or boring by most modern viewers) and to its treatment of a subject matter that is today widely seen as repugnant.

The Birth of a Nation purports to tell the story of America’s Civil War and the origin of the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction. In doing so, the film portrays the Klan as a noble organization devoted to protecting Southern society from marauding bands of brutish, lecherous Freedmen and their manipulative, hypocritical carpetbagger allies.

The Birth of a Nation flyer cover, depicting a cross-wielding Klan member in full regalia sitting astride a rearing horse, hints strongly at the film’s content and point of view.
The Birth of a Nation flyer cover, depicting a cross-wielding Klan member in full regalia sitting astride a rearing horse, hints strongly at the film’s content and point of view.

 

The plot for The Birth of a Nation was based on Thomas F. Dixon Jr.’s novel The Clansman, the second volume in a trilogy about the Reconstruction South. A North Carolina Baptist minister, attorney, and state legislator, Dixon became a popular author around the turn of the 20th century, publishing more than 20 novels. The Clansman

The Clansman is among five of Dixon’s novels held by Special Collections. The library’s main collection holds several more titles.
The Clansman is among five of Dixon’s novels held by Special Collections. The library’s main collection holds several more titles.

is today remembered as his most famous (or infamous) work, and from it was drawn the film’s Southern apologist version of the Klan’s origins.

In bringing Dixon’s tale to the screen, Griffith spared no expense and pioneered a number of moviemaking techniques and technologies: The Birth of a Nation is said to have been the first film to employ night photography, panning motion shots, the iris effect, the intercutting of parallel action sequences, and many more advances that would become mainstays of cinematic narrative. Griffith also employed hundreds of extras in staging epic Civil War battle scenes and interspersed his story with accurate tableaux of scenes from American history. The film was unlike anything that movie-going audiences had seen to that time.

 

Inside, the flyer lists some of the innovations and enormous costs associated with the film’s production.
Inside, the flyer lists some of the innovations and enormous costs associated with the film’s production.

Griffith’s accuracy and attention to detail exploited the public’s willingness to take its history lessons from fictionalized accounts. An uninformed audience, seeing accurately portrayed historical scenes presented side-by-side with Dixon’s skewed view of events, might be partially forgiven for accepting all as fact. Even supposedly knowledgeable viewers, however, were enthralled by Griffith’s prowess as a storyteller. The film is said to have been the first to be screened in the White House. After seeing it, President Wilson, himself a historian, reportedly said, “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” The film’s widespread popularity and its audience’s impressionability are credited with being partially responsible for the KKK’s resurgence and rise to political prominence during the 1910s and 1920s.

CAPTION: A page from the flyer illustrates how The Birth of a Nation mixed historic events with a subjective, fanciful view of the Klan’s origins.
A page from the flyer illustrates how The Birth of a Nation mixed accurate historical depictions of the Civil War with with a subjective, fanciful interpretation of events.

Even in 1915, however, the film spurred controversy. The NAACP staged protests in several major cities and made repeated efforts to have the film banned from theaters. Letter-writing campaigns sought to educate the public on the facts of Reconstruction and to warn of the film’s inflammatory nature, while boycotts attempted to provide economic deterrents against the film’s release. Such efforts were in fact successful in having the film banned from the theatres of a handful of large cities but could not prevent its nationwide release.

Testimony to its immense popularity at the time, The Birth of a Nation continued to enjoy periodic revivals for years, and it is said to have remained America’s highest-grossing film until being toppled by another Civil War / Reconstruction epic, Gone with the Wind, more than twenty years later.

Despite his film’s overwhelming commercial success, Griffith was not immune to criticism. Partially in response to negative comments on his film’s racially intolerant themes, Griffith released his magnum opus, Intolerance, the following year. The three-and-a-half hour epic tells four parallel stories from different time periods of human history, each illustrating the catastrophic consequences of intolerance. Griffith would continue to make films throughout the silent era with varying degrees of success, but he never again matched the achievements of The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance.

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Should The Birth of a Nation be considered an early cinematic masterpiece that is marred by its skewed interpretation of history and its outdated, hateful view of racial relations, or should any film (or other work of art) be considered a masterpiece when it advocates a point of view that is later almost universally abhorred as destructive and wrongheaded? In answering this question in his 2003 review of the film in 2003, critic Roger Ebert wrote: “’The Birth of a Nation’ is not a bad film because it argues for evil… [I]t is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil.”

John Redd Hutcheson, 9th President of Virginia Tech

Dr. John Redd Hutcheson
Portrait of Dr. John Redd Hutcheson, circa 1940s, from the John R. Hutcheson Family Collection, Ms2015-001

Recently, Special Collections received a new collection, the John R. Hutcheson Family Collection, containing letters, newspaper clippings, photographs, and more documenting the life of Virginia Tech president John R. Hutcheson.

Although only president of Virginia Polytechnic Institute (VPI, as Virginia Tech was then known) for two years from 1945 to 1947, John Redd Hutcheson (1886-1962) devoted himself to serving his alma mater and the people of Virginia. He enrolled at VPI in 1903 at the behest of his brother Tom. In order to pay for college, the brothers lived in the dairy barn on the college farm, where they milked 17 cows a night for 8 cents an hour each (roughly $2.15 an hour in 2015!) After saving his earnings, Hutcheson moved into the barracks and then waited tables in the school dining hall. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1907 and master’s in 1909.

Following several years teaching high school in Virginia and Mississippi, Hutcheson received a letter from Joseph D. Eggleston, VPI president and director of the Virginia Agricultural Extension Service (now Virginia Cooperative Extension), urging Hutcheson to join his staff. He accepted, becoming an animal husbandry specialist in 1914. In 1917, Hutcheson was appointed assistant director and two years later succeeded Eggleston as director of the Extension. Over the next 25 years, Hutcheson helped to organize the Virginia Farm Bureau and Virginia Agricultural Conference Board, to reestablish the Virginia State Grange, and to develop a long-range program for developing the state’s agriculture. All of his work developing the farm and home demonstration program in Virginia earned Hutcheson an honorary doctorate from Clemson University in 1937, along with his brother Tom – VPI professor T.B. Hutcheson.

"Clemson's First Honorary Degrees Go to Hutcheson Brothers of V.P.I."
Article entitled “Clemson’s First Honorary Degrees Go to Hutcheson Brothers of V.P.I.”, about John R. and T.B. Hutcheson, May 12, 1937, from the John R. Hutcheson Family Collection, Ms2015-001

In 1944,  the Board of Visitors appointed Dr. Jack – as Hutcheson was affectionately known – acting president of VPI, and the next year he succeeded Dr. Julian A. Burruss as the ninth president. During his tenure, the student population swelled following the end of World War II, and he was responsible for making accommodations for the new civilian population (made up almost entirely of veterans), who outnumbered the cadet students for the first time in VPI’s history. Temporary trailer courts were established on campus to house the veterans, and Dr. Jack would personally visit them to ensure they had fuel for their homes.

"Dr. John R. Hutcheson Named President of Virginia [Polytechnic Institute]"
Article discusses the nomination of John R. Hutcheson as V.P.I. president, Roanoke Times, August 15, 1945, from the John R. Hutcheson Family Collection, Ms2015-001

The enormity of his duties necessitated the creation new executive positions during Dr. Hutcheson’s presidency. He created the office of admissions, director of student affairs, director of buildings and grounds, and a university business manager position. The Board of Visitors, at Dr. Jack’s suggestion, appointed Walter S. Newman as the university’s first vice president – all within two years!

Page 2 of obituary for John R. Hutcheson, [January 1962], from the John R. Hutcheson Family Collection, Ms2015-001
Page 2 of obituary for John R. Hutcheson, [January 1962], from the John R. Hutcheson Family Collection, Ms2015-001
"Former VPI President Diest at 76"
Page 1 of obituary for John R. Hutcheson, [January 1962], from the John R. Hutcheson Family Collection, Ms2015-001
Unfortunately, just 16 months into his presidency, Hutcheson entered the hospital and had to take sick leave. Newman became acting president until Sept. 1947, when he succeeded Hutcheson. Simultaneously, the Board of Visitor’s elected Dr. Jack as the first chancellor of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and the next year named him the first president of the newly formed VPI Educational Foundation, Inc. (now the Virginia Tech Foundation, Inc.) Dr. Jack remained chancellor until 1956 and president of the foundation until his death in 1962.

The legacy of Dr. Hutcheson’s tenure at Virginia Tech is still visible today – from the continuing work of the Virginia Cooperative Extension to the numerous offices he created still operating. And of course, you can visit Hutcheson Hall on the Blacksburg Campus, dedicated to John R. and T. B. Hutcheson in 1956.

Look for the completed finding aid in the next week for the John R. Hutcheson Family Papers, Ms2015-001. In the meantime, you can find out more about Dr. Jack in the John Redd Hutcheson Papers, RG 2/9 and Edgemont Farm Papers, Ms2003-022, documenting the administration of the Hutcheson family farm.

The great big world of miniature books

When I arrived in fall of 2014 as a new employee, the department had an exhibit on display featuring miniature books from the 19th and 20th centuries. It was a perfect introduction to the curious, strange, and unexpected variety of materials that I would come to find in Special Collections.

The Library of Congress defines miniature books as “works… 10 centimeters or less in both height and width”, which is a little under 4 inches.  The Miniature Book Society maintains a more circumscribed definition of “no more than three inches in height, width, or thickness.” Within these parameters, American collectors recognize several sub-categories, including macro-mini (3”-4”), miniature (2”-3”), micro-mini (1”-2”), and ultra-micro-mini (less than 1”). Often intricately bound and printed, miniature books are considered a testimony to the printer’s skill.

Dew Drops Devotional, cover and text
One of our miniature books, an early 19th century devotional entitled “Dew Drops”, is about the size of a house key.

According to the American Antiquarian Society, the oldest miniature “books” were produced on clay tablets in Mesopotamia; scholars and monks from ancient Egypt to medieval Europe produced miniature manuscripts by hand long before the invention of the printing press. The Diurnale Mogantinum, published in 1468 by Johann Guttenberg’s assistant Peter Schoffer, is the earliest example of a traditionally printed miniature book. The tiny texts became particularly fashionable in America during the 19th century as a portable and novel way to carry decorative and instructional texts. The most popular books in this time were religious tracts, advertisements, and children’s books.

ImitaciondeChristo
“Imitación De Cristo.” This 1964 text, which measures a little under 3.5” inches long, is ornately bound in gilded leather.

Miniature books experienced a new wave of popularity in the 1970s as artists and independent publishers explored new methods for binding, printing, and distributing. Like their full-sized counterparts, modern miniature books are incredibly diverse in construction and purpose, ranging from plain and conventionally bound to elaborately illustrated pop ups, scrolls, and accordions.

IMG_20150205_124532
Maurice Sendak’s “Nutshell Library”, a collection of children’s stories.

Although Special Collections does not collect tiny books on the scale of some passionate hobbyists, we have accumulated a limited but fascinating assortment of miniatures over the years. Highlights include an ornithology text published in 1810; several 19th and 20th century children’s books; a collection of Lincoln speeches reprinted in the mid 20th century; curios, art books, and poetry chapbooks by American micro-presses in the 1960s and 1970s; a handful of foreign language texts; and an edition of “Five Articles by Chairman Mao Tse-Tung.”

A simply but beautifully bound chapbook by master printing James Weil
Five Articles by Chairman Mao
Published in 1972 by Peking Foreign Languages Press, this edition is bound in red plastic.

We also have several tiny books about food, which you can read more about on What’s Cookin’ @Special Collections,  the blog for our History of Food & Drink Collection. If you want to learn more about the history and making of miniature books, check out Louis Bondy’s “Miniature books: their history from the beginnings to the present day” available in the Newman Library and Peter Thomas’ “More making books by hand: exploring miniature books, alternative structures, and found objects” available in the Art + Architecture Library.

Bill Berkson "Ants" inside cover
1974 chapbook by acclaimed poet Bill Berkson, with illustration by “Yellow Submarin” animator Greg Irons.