The phrase “The Great American Novel” remains in the popular parlance, in no small part because of its frequent use in The Great American Comic Strip, Charles Schultz’s Peanuts. Like most language denoting outsized ambition, I suspect it is generally employed in these overcautious times with real or implicit scare quotes, although many a writer young and old may aspire to it in their secret heart all the same.

We can, as it happens, pinpoint the moment of the coinage of “Great American Novel” quite precisely. This occurred in an article titled, of all things, “The Great American Novel,” which was published in The Nation in 1868, under the byline of John W. De Forest. De Forest, a Connecticut man, had served with distinction in the Civil War. Aged 35 at the beginning of hostilities, he mustered a company in New Haven, the 12th Connecticut Volunteers, fought in Louisiana and Virginia, spent, by his own estimation, “forty-six days under fire,” and ended the war with the rank of captain, before returning to civilian life and literary pursuits.

Searching for a definition of the Great American Novel, De Forest turns to the work which he believed had come nearest to hitting the mark, a novel which by some reckonings had hastened the coming of the civil war, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). The Great American Novel, after the model provided by Beecher Stowe, ought to provide “[a] picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence.” There needs also be “a national breadth to the picture, truthful outlining of character, natural speaking, and plenty of strong feeling…”

Hammatt Billings engraving

Fig. 2 Engraving by Hammatt Billings, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin page 321, 1852

Uncle Tom’s Cabin “was a picture of American life, drawn with a few strong and passionate strokes, not filled in thoroughly, but still a portrait.” There was, then, room for improvement. At the time that “The Great American Novel” appeared, De Forest’s third novel, Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty, had recently been published by Harper & Brothers. The heroine of the title, Lillie Ravenel, is brought to the Yankee capital of “New Boston, Barataria” by her father, fleeing occupied New Orleans, though her sympathies with her homeland remain intact until they are challenged by her acquaintance with two eligible Northern bachelors. Until the appearance of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage almost 30 years later, Miss Ravenel’s Conversion was the definitive novel of the Civil War, perhaps only exceeded in literary accomplishment by the short stories of fellow combat veteran Ambrose Bierce. Modestly, De Forest only averred vaguely to his own literary output when discussing the various attempts at The Great American Novel, though like many a critic/ creator, the thing that De Forest proscribed just happened to be embodied in the work that he was producing.

The idea of The Great American Film has not obsessed our native filmmakers in quite the same way that The Great American Novel has our writers of prose, though I am not at all certain that this was the case in 1915. The cinema, in something like its modern form, was then barely 20 years old, the span of time which separates us from the first Toy Story and Billy Madison, and I hope that I am not supposing too much to say that the people who made and watched movies were still in the process of understanding exactly what it was they were—half-novel, half-play, or something else entirely.

I specify 1915 because this was the year that David Wark Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation premiered, in February, at Clune’s Auditorium in Los Angeles. With this colossal film, Griffith was making an attempt at the Great American Film in something like the sense that De Forest had described The Great American Novel, though despite his evident reverence for the figure of Lincoln, his own sentimental loyalties, inherited from his father, Confederate Colonel “Roaring Jake” Griffith, were closer to those of secessionist Lillie Ravenel. Griffith’s film, based on Thomas F. Dixon Jr.’s 1905 novel The Clansman, certainly boasted “national breadth,” moving as it did between events in Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, and South Carolina, both in antebellum and Reconstruction times, and using two representative families bound by sympathies, the Northern Stonemans and Southern Camerons, to represent the two sides of the War Between the States.

Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation

We have recently passed the 100th birthday of The Birth of a Nation. Anticipating the event, the usually sanguine Dave Kehr, rarely moved to Tweet, announced “Looks like we’ll have a whole year of people calling BIRTH OF A NATION the ‘first feature film.’ Which is just wrong.” In fact, the Birth centenary passed with little more than a quiet mutter of acknowledgement, while what acknowledgement there was tended to confirm that film culture is, in the main, sick to death of The Birth of a Nation.

In the AV Club, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky addressed the “troubling contradiction” at the heart of Griffith’s opus, that being “the idea that art or entertainment can be aesthetically good while being ideologically bad.” When it comes to the reputation of the “problematic” Birth, Vishnevetsky writes that “American culture has had a really hard time letting it go, or has turned not letting it go into a critical art in and of itself.” While typically perspicacious in his insights, Vishnevetsky is vague when it comes to describing what exactly that “letting go” (or “draw[ing] the line” or “dismiss[ing]”) would be comprised of. Burning the negative? (This was the subject of a fine recent essay by Glenn Kenny at’s Balder and Dash section, on what he terms the “‘What Is To Be Done?’ piece.”) It is not as though Birth is today praised in the terms reserved for a Great Gatsby or a Citizen Kane, to cite two American masterpieces generally thought to be uniquely American in their subject matter and manner of expression. One argument against the “letting go” of The Birth of a Nation came from proverbial stopped-clock Armond White in The National Review. “It’s important to fully confront the history of our cinema and media,” wrote White, “to measure their earliest falsehoods by their present racist lies and realize how we often mask and defend contemporary political presumptions. Otherwise, hindsight becomes duplicitous—a way to fend off honest self-examination.”

Unlike De Forest or Beecher Stowe, Griffith was not seeking to show America as it was in his day, but how, to his mind, it had been, and how it had gotten to be where it was at the present. Where it was in 1915, to be precise, was on the brink of a largely-unhoped-for war with European powers, a possibility which was referred to by what White calls the “powerfully homiletic subtitle ‘War’s Peace’” before a Matthew Brady–like scene of battlefield carnage, one of what Vishnevetsky refers to as “assorted pacifist asides,” which an audience of the day would have seen with newsreel footage of the Marne fresh in their minds. Today, when The Birth of a Nation is remembered, it’s not for its antiwar sentiments but for its battle scenes, and for its racial politics which have not, let us say, aged particularly well.

The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation

After making several cogent points, White, for whom self-examination is presumably an affair to be carried out in private, digresses into recounting a curious “dream sequence” in which he teaches Orson Welles to appreciate the beauty of Griffith’s Birth—which is odd, because it was reading of Welles’s esteem for Griffith that brought me in the first place to this artist who, to my teenaged self, seemed fusty and Victorian. In particular I remember a text which Welles wrote for a Spanish film magazine called Griffith in the 1960s, which is reproduced in Peter Bogdanovich’s This Is Orson Welles:

“I met D.W. Griffith only once and it was not a happy meeting. A cocktail party on a rainy afternoon in the last year of the 1930s. Hollywood’s golden age, but for the greatest of all directors it had been a sad and empty decade. The motion picture which he had virtually invented had become the product—the exclusive product—of America’s fourth-largest industry, and on the assembly lines of the mammoth movie factories there was no place for Griffith. He was an exile in his own town, a prophet without honor, a craftsman without tools, an artist without work. No wonder he hated me. I, who knew nothing about film, had just been given the greatest freedom ever written into a Hollywood contract. It was the contract he deserved. I could see that he was not at all too old for it, and I couldn’t blame him for feeling I was very much too young. We stood under one of those pink Christmas trees they have out there, and drank our drinks and stared at each other across a hopeless abyss. I loved and worshipped him, but he didn’t need a disciple. He needed a job. I have never really hated Hollywood except for its treatment of D.W. Griffith.”

I re-watched The Birth of a Nation when it played at Film Forum a day before its New York City centennial—it debuted at Liberty Theater, near Times Square, an event which has not been immortalized as the Clune’s screening was in Bogdanovich’s Nickelodeon (76). I have returned since, and will continue to return, to Film Forum’s Monday screenings of Griffith features, where most recently I saw for the first time his 1924 America.

DW Griffifth America


America, which finds the director once again trying to encompass a drama of national scope in a single film, was adapted from The Reckoning, a 1905 novel of the American Revolutionary War by a since-largely-forgotten author named Robert W. Chambers. Its dramatis personae includes many of the generals and statesmen of that conflict, among them General George Washington, King George III, William Pitt (seen having risen from his sickbed to speak for the rights of the colonies), Samuel Adams, and John Hancock. While the King is merely a dupe misled by “evil councilors,” the true villains of the piece are two real-life historical figures, Captains Walter Butler and Peter Hare (played by Lionel Barrymore and Louis Wolheim), both American-born Loyalists whose names have since been forgotten by most folks without a pronounced interest in musketry, though once they were hugely reviled figures for their roles in the Battle of Wyoming and Cherry Valley massacres of 1778.

The invented characters are Nathan Holden (Neil Hamilton), a farmer, express rider, member of the Boston Committee of Public Safety, and revolutionist, and the extended Montague family, proud descendants of Charles, Lord of Halifax. Their number includes the Virginia Montagues—daughter Nancy (Carol Dempster), for whom lovestruck Nathan Holden composes Romantic verse; sissified son Charles (Charles Emmett Mack); and the patriarch, a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses (Erville Anderson)—as well as a Loyalist uncle, Sir Ashley (Sydney Deane), whose homestead is located in “Northern New York.” It is to there that the Southern Montagues retreat after having been coincidentally on hand to witness the battles of Lexington and Concord, in the course of which Charles has his tattered London finery reduced to rags and throws his tricorner hat in with the colonial rebellion, inspired by a memory of family friend Gen. Washington which has about it something of the quality of unrequited homosexual longing.

I have not read Chambers’s book—how many people living today can claim that distinction?—but I can’t imagine it has anything near to the same amount of influence on America that The Birth of a Nation did. The presence of Birth isn’t felt looming over America in the same way that it is, say, over Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), Broken Blossoms (1919), or Abraham Lincoln (1930), all works in which—with what degree of success we can debate elsewhere—the filmmaker may be seen attempting to redress or repudiate the reputation for racism that his greatest catastrophic success had (deservedly) earned him. In America, Griffith reworks entire sequences from Birth within a new historical context, right down to including some charming comic business with pussycats. The borrowing is most notably visible in the film’s climax of convergent montage, as Birth’s breakneck Ku Klux Klan ride-to-the-rescue, lifting a siege on a farmhouse by mulatto Lt. Gov. Silas Lynch, becomes a cavalry charge in which Nathan and his men rush to save Fort Sacrifice, where Nancy and other Mohawk Valley settlers have holed up against Capt. Hare and his half-Mohican, half-white army.



In America, again, miscegenation is an agent of anarchy, here as evidenced by Butler and Hare’s allegiance with the Native American tribes. In a treaty sealed among the stygian “council fires of the great Indian Confederacy,” Butler induces the Sachems of the Long House to fight with the British against the colonial uprising before retiring to his “hunting lodge,” a pleasure dome where dusky dames frug about in next-to-nothing. Hare, for his part, gets himself up in redskin drag before battle, so that he can slake his bloodlust with impunity, not bound by the white man’s conventions. (He is contrasted with Riley Hatch’s Joseph Brant, the college-educated Mohawk chief who comports himself with imperious manners.) An opening intertitle poses the revolution as “a civil war between two groups of English people”—justified on the part of the English Americans, certainly, but nothing to stay sore about. Griffith is curiously careful to disassociate the actions of Butler and Hare from the gentlemanly warfare practiced by the proper British regulars—this despite the fact that he had every bit as much inherited reason to detest the Redcoat as “Roaring Jake” had given him to hate the carpetbaggers. Griffith’s grandfather, Captain David Griffith, had fought against the Brits in 1812, and he came of revolutionist stock. In a Photoplay profile published in 1916, Griffith speaks of “a great-grandfather in Virginia, a stormy, fierce old man who refused to allow the word England to be spoken in his presence and who, as far as he could, barred his door to anything English.” In this same profile, Griffith recounts his first memory, of his father playing a “prank” that involved the threatening and intimidation of an elderly ex-slave with a cutlass. “That sword,” Griffith recounts, “remains the first memory of my existence.”

“Roaring Jake” died when Griffith was 10. Griffith, sentimental about him as one who retains only a boy’s memory of his father might tend to be, speaks of the man’s great culture and intelligence, though the Southern gentleman described in the sword anecdote—tantamount to child abuse—sounds like a prick and a gloating bully who delights in striking mortal fear into a man incapable of defending himself, however many Waverley novels the bully had read notwithstanding. One wonders what he would have made of his boy come of age, an airy-fairy lad with a passion for dramaturgy?

If The Birth of a Nation was an anachronism when it first appeared, America was even more so. Calvin Coolidge, who gave the first radio address from the White House the day after the film’s February 21 premiere, had come to the oval office the previous summer after the premature death of Warren Gamaliel Harding, whose brief stay in Washington has widely been reckoned as among the most corrupt periods in all of American life. The film’s rather starry-eyed vision of the democratic experiment, then, may have seemed somewhat out of step with the cynical times, what we tend to think of as the F. Scott Fitzgerald period. (A word from blowhard Tom Buchanan, from the following year’s Gatsby: “It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.”) If Coolidge provided a presidential pull-quote to America along the lines of that with which Woodrow Wilson famously supplied The Birth of a Nation, it has not been preserved by historical record. Griffith, it should be said, understood the system of patronage and kickback that defined Harding’s America—he decorated Birth with footnotes referring to Wilson’s 1902 A History of the American People.



Here is the other contradiction at the heart of Griffith: he was, for a moment at least, simultaneously antique and state-of-the-art, a difficult balance to maintain. (And to maintain it is not necessarily desirable—the same combination could be said to apply to suicide bombers using cell phone detonators.) Griffith’s films are very often touching in their obsolescence, however, for they seem to provide a tactile linkage to a bygone pastoral America, a place of milking stools and corn-lofts and carriage-houses and sugaring off maple cider. This they have in common with those of many made in this country near to the turn of the last century, though in Griffith this is not merely incidental, as it is in, say, Mack Sennett comedies, to which sleepy Los Angeles suburbs provide a backdrop.

Though not generally placed in the first rank of Griffith’s films, America contains some of the most ravishing images to be born in “the camera box of Billy Bitzer” (one of the film’s four credited cinematographers). I am thinking particularly of the smokepot-wreathed battlefield reenactments and the trick photography shots of Boston, particularly the “One if by land, two if by sea” view of the Old North Church from across the Harbor, which precedes Paul Revere’s breakneck ride—a legend which failed to capture my imagination in history classes of yore, and ever after, until I saw it here. In this setpiece, as in the rout of the British at Concord Bridge and the bitter loss at Bunker Hill, Griffith quite outdoes Birth for sheer stirring spectacle. When possible, America was shot on or around the actual scenes of the events depicted, and Griffith’s film abounds with plein air views of the Eastern woods in all seasons, from the barren snowfields of Valley Forge in the winter of discontent to the groves of white ash and black birch and red spruce from which the Minute Men pick off British Regulars. (That the Minute Men are borrowing from the Indians in their gun-and-run guerilla warfare style is a matter which is not touched upon.)

Steeped as he was in the pictorial tradition of the previous century, in lithographs and Hudson River Valley painting, the matter of Griffith’s legacy as a cinematic stylist is a tricky one. John Dorr, in his 1974 FILM COMMENT essay on “The Griffith Tradition” (which can be found in the Allan Dwan Dossier), traces the movement of the “essentially nationalistic tradition of dramatic narrative” codified by Griffith into genre filmmaking, particularly the Poverty Row variety practiced by such filmmakers as Dwan, whom Andrew Sarris, in a semi-ironic jibe, noted that some French critics treated like “Griffith’s ghost.” In the case of Dwan, who worked under Griffith on Intolerance, along with Erich von Stroheim and Tod Browning, the connection to this tradition was not merely a case of influence, but of physical proximity—much as it was for John Ford who, in what is for Quentin Tarantino an unforgivable act of moral cowardice, rode with the Klan as an extra in The Birth of a Nation when aged 20. Ford proved that he had not forgotten Griffith in a film that appears in the “last year of the 1930s” when Welles met the disillusioned director of Intolerance. The film in question is Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk, arguably the third-best film that he made which was released in 1939, and nothing less than magisterial. Again in Ford’s film, the presence of the British in the Revolutionary War is diminished while that of their Indian cohorts is emphasized—when America was released, we had recently ended one war with them as allies; when Drums Along the Mohawk appeared, we were about to go into another.

Drums Along the Mohawk

Drums Along the Mohawk

Unlike Griffith, Ford acknowledges the tribes, like the Oneida, who fought on the side of the revolution. Like America, Drums Along the Mohawk climaxes with a combined Redcoat and Indian attack on a rebel stronghold in Northern New York, the historically-real Fort Dayton. (The siege depicted in based on one in 1882, led by none other than Joseph Brant.) The last-minute reprieve, a convergent montage of reinforcements arriving while the defenders have fallen into a last redoubt in the blockhouse, seems almost certainly to have been undertaken after a re-viewing of Griffith’s America. (Or perhaps its 1915 antecedent.) Inasmuch as any director after Griffith took up the project of the Great American Film, it might be said to be Ford. In the year of its release, his The Iron Horse appeared, a dramatization of the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, connecting East and West coasts and, in a symbolic sense, signaling another Birth of a Nation.

While Ford’s sprawling output went on to comprise something like a cinematic Comédie humaine, Griffith’s career petered out with his epochal ambitions. Towards the end of his life, in 1947, Griffith gave an interview which I am hardly the only critic guilty of over-quoting, in which he bemoaned that the modern cinema had forgotten “the beauty of moving wind in the trees.” This gets at the thing which makes The Birth of a Nation so impossible to forget. It embodies a harrowing juxtaposition of that which many of us value most about America—an Arcadian, bucolic tradition, with roots in Emerson and Leaves of Grass—and that which most of us would like to forget about it, a record of historical crime which may not be better or worse than those of other nations, but which is certainly thrown into grotesque relief when contrasted with the ideals that we have never ceased to represent ourselves as believing in. It shows both the beauty of moving wind in the trees, and the Blood on the Leaves.