Mr. Mencken Went to Dayton and the Culture Wars Began

Long before Christopher Hitchens and Bill Maher, H.L. Mencken was America's most notorious satirist of religion. And thus began the battle for the soul of America.

It was the O.J. Simpson trial of its era, the first case ever covered by the broadcast media; it was the most public demonstration of what would soon be referred to as the “culture wars”; it pitted science (and humor) against religion in ways that continue to resonate and repeat to this day; it was—and is still—the most famous misdemeanor case in American history.

The Scopes trial, which took place in Dayton, Tennessee, during July of 1925, marks the fault line at which science and beliefs in Biblical inerrancy could no longer peacefully co-exist at a distance. The attendance of Baltimore Sun reporter, H.L. Mencken, ensured, too, that satirical humor—as well as science—would be an omnipresent adversary to the religious fundamentalism represented by the prosecution at trial. “Often humorous and at times frightening” was how one critic assessed the collision of value systems on display. Mencken, more than anyone, made sure that both humor and fear would be dramatically represented by satirically probing into the threats and consequences posed when local legislatures curtail freedom of speech, determine what gets taught in public schools, and enable religious activists to decide public policy.

Mencken was “the most influential journalist of his day” and “the wittiest”, according to Gore Vidal, who also celebrated the “unease” created by the journalist’s irony and insults (Gore Vidal. “Foreword”. Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, ed. The Impossible H.L. Mencken: A Selection of His Best Newspaper Stories. New York: Doubleday. p.xvii, xix). Like Alexis de Tocqueville before him, Mencken worried about the tyranny of the majority and about the pressures upon individuals to conform to a mass consensus, particularly on matters of theology. Critics of religion have been mostly muted in the US, argues Vidal, thus faith has remained largely immune to examination or advancement (Rodgers p.xix). Mencken’s caustic assaults on public religion thus shone a revealing light upon issues often conveniently protected in the shadows.

Critic Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, like Vidal, recognizes the social role of Mencken the humorist, though she calls particular attention to his rhetorical gifts, highlighting the “humorous exaggerations”, the neologisms, colloquial vernacular, and “American cadence” in his writing she finds reminiscent of Mark Twain (p.xxxvii). Such techniques were rare for the prose of the era and were more evident in the kind of “new journalism” that Tom Woolf, Norman Mailer, and Hunter S. Thompson would develop 40 years later. Like those successors, Mencken dramatized in order to reveal farce, and with the Scopes trial he found the perfect forum for his rhetorical methods, one tailor-made for the kind of hyperbole and superiority humor he mastered in. In the process, and over the duration of the trial, he contributed, opines Rodgers, “some of the most brilliant dispatches in the history of journalism” (p.561).

The roots of the Scopes trial—like so many conflicts between science and religion—can be traced back to the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859. In the decades thereafter, this seminal text sat uncomfortably alongside The Bible’s Old Testament creation narrative, though it had rarely rubbed up against it. For most average Americans, Darwin’s evolutionary theories were not necessarily objectionable—for most did not understand them—however, when they were reduced to the simplified notion that man had evolved from monkeys, tolerance for such science grew strained.

One less-than-average American, William Jennings Bryan, the three-time Democratic Party presidential candidate and former Secretary-of-State, did take offense at Darwin’s theories, not only because they implicitly challenged his belief in Biblical inerrancy, but also for their potential to be used in politically dangerous ways. Social Darwinism, with its premise that the strongest of the species will survive, justified the kind of totalitarian ideologies that privileged the elite over the common man, he felt. As a long-time populist warrior for the rights of the proletariat and an equally long-time believer in literal interpretations of The Bible’s words, Bryan considered it his duty to crusade against evolution, which he did on various speaking tours in the early ’20s.

Soon, certain local legislatures picked up on Bryan’s fire-and-brimstone warnings and began drafting laws to protect children from such insidious science, both as a matter of social guardianship and of preserving traditional Christian beliefs and principles. Inspired by Bryan’s campaigning, the Tennessee State legislature passed the Butler Act in March, 1925. The basis of this law was to outlaw the teaching of evolution in the public schools of the state. Its enactment was regarded, initially, as merely a symbolic gesture, for no effort had previously been made to remove the standard science textbook, William Hunter’s A Civic Biology, from schools, even though it covered Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection. Indeed, such science had been taught in Tennessee’s schools since the turn of the century without objection, and few envisaged that the new law would change anything.

News of the Butler Act soon reached a fledgling organization based in New York called the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU had little concern over the merits of either evolution or creationism, though; its mission was defending freedom of speech, wherever it considered it to be curtailed. Like Mencken, the group was wary of majoritarianism and thus sought to protect individual liberty, however beyond the mainstream an individual may be.

Seeing a possible test case, the ACLU posted advertisements in various Tennessee newspapers inviting teachers to challenge the law. In turn, seeing a potential to revive the economic fortunes of their struggling town by exploiting the publicity such a case would bring, boosters in Dayton conspired to challenge the law by utilizing one of their local teachers. Football coach and sometimes science teacher John Scopes duly obliged to assist, and was soon after indicted for the misdemeanor crime of teaching evolution in a Tennessee public school.

If the ACLU’s involvement signaled the latest chapter in the historical saga of smug northern intellectuals chastising closed-minded southerners, subsequent developments would only underscore this perennial cultural sensitivity. Few journalists in America displayed such open scorn for the South as H.L. Mencken. For him, the region represented everything antithetical to the culture and modernity of the jazz age he so embraced. Moreover, when he got word that the hardline prohibitionist, uncompromising fundamentalist, and defender of the common masses, William Jennings Bryan, would be leading the prosecution team in the Scopes trial, this amounted to an incitement to battle for the “sage of Baltimore”.

For Mencken, this trial was less a court case than a potential showdown in the larger culture war, one that pitted the present against the past, the North against the South, the individual against the mob, freedom against suppression, science against the supernatural, and rhetorically, satirical humor against stoic earnestness. Essentially, this was to be a battle for the soul of America.

However, if another civil war was to be re-enacted, Mencken knew that more than the national media would be needed on the battlefield; a worthy adversary for the silver-tongued Bryan would also be a requisite. This Mencken found in Chicago defense attorney, Clarence Darrow, whom he persuaded to represent Scopes pro bono. With the atheist Darrow representing science, the fundamentalist Bryan representing religion, and the satirical scribe Mencken as the self-designated mediator, the stage was set for the trial—and cultural confrontation—of the century. All that was missing was the entertainment!

Soon that arrived, too, as a circus atmosphere took over Dayton in the days leading up to the trial. Partly courtesy of the publicity hype put on by the local boosters and partly contributed by the arrival into town of various maverick characters from the surrounding hills and beyond, there was no shortage of eye candy for the 200-plus reporters or 500-plus visitors on site during the trial. Billed as the “Trial of the Century” even before the opening gavel had pounded, what Mencken coined the “monkey trial” had no shortage of monkey business.

Most notable was an actual monkey called Joe Mendi—attired sharply in a three-piece suit and fedora—that was put on display downtown every day for everyone’s amusement. Charismatic preachers competed with Joe for attention on the streets, while inside Robinson’s drugstore—where the initial trial plot had been hatched—souvenirs and monkey dolls flew off the shelves, and “simian” sodas were sold at the counter for the throng of visitors sweltering in the 90-plus degree temperatures.

Mencken’s coverage of the eight-day trial for the Baltimore Sun is as legendary as the case itself, and offers an illustrative showcase of how wit can be used as the most incisive of weapons. The dispatches commenced at the end of June with a pre-trial commentary headlined “Homo Neanderthalensis”:

29 June 29 1925

Mencken here established his general scorn and distaste for a society that negates intellectual progress by enabling the voices of the “ignorant” masses. Creationism is appealing because of its simplicity, he argued: “The cosmology of Genesis… offers, to an ignorant man, the irresistible reasonableness of the nonsensical” (Rodgers 563). Conversely, evolution is complicated, the stuff of stuffy intellectuals. Its teaching must thus be stifled by the “great majority” in accordance with its resentment and jealousy, as “one more excuse for hating [their] betters” (Rodgers 563). It was apparent from this initial dispatch that restraint was not going to feature in the journalist’s panorama of insult humor.

10 July 1925

Clarence Darrow, renowned for his strategic jury selections, was under no illusion that he could find sympathetic jurors from the local pool. But as publicizing the issue was of greater importance than actually winning the trial, Darrow willingly accepted the 11 avowed Christians and one non-church goer onto the jury. Regarding this, Mencken offered an analogy as bottom-line explanation: “For it will be no more possible in this Christian valley to get a jury unprejudiced against Scopes than it would be possible in Wall Street to get a jury unprejudiced against a Bolshevick” (Rodgers 570). In a segment that might have been tagged “humor that writes itself”, Mencken also took time to survey the goings-on outside the courtroom, which included a visiting pastor from Mississippi named T.T. Martin who was passing out pamphlets with the titles “God or Gorilla”, “Evolution is a Menace”, and “Hell and the High Schools” (Rodgers 571). These, surmised the reporter, were, regarding the case, just “another layer of icing on the cake” (Rodgers 572).

17 July 1925

Whatever vitriolic hyperbole Mencken had been holding in reserve was released on this day’s verbal assassination of the lead prosecutor and his unwavering followers. Metaphors and epithets intertwined into gleeful insult poetry as the reporter responded scornfully to Bryan’s centerpiece oration: “Now he is a tinpot pope in the coca-cola belt and a brother to the forlorn pastors who belabor half-wits in galvanized iron tabernacles behind the railroad yards. His speech was a grotesque performance and downright touching in its imbecility” (Rodgers 594). With pessimistic melodrama, Mencken added an epitaph, suggesting a future of “darkness” from which it would be difficult to recover. In light of today’s continued trivialization of science at the hands of those privileging supernatural theories of creation, the writer’s somber reflections here can be seen as quite prophetic.

18 July 1925

“Neanderthal man is organizing”, Mencken declared, continuing his predictive course, the case all but concluded (Rodgers 600). Here, though, the focus was on those “civilized” citizens of Tennessee not only denied the right to a legitimate education, but who also had to endure the mockery leveled at their state. Such pity was tempered with chastisement, though, as the reporter also blamed them for their cowardice, for offering “no challenge” and being “unanimously silent” in the face of the fundamentalist “Hun” (Rodgers 598, 600). Still, Mencken bemoaned that Tennessee would become a state where the educational institutions would lack credibility and where its youths would clamor in escaping its confines to attend classes elsewhere. Dayton, he surmised, “will be a joke town at best” (Rodgers 600).

27 July 1925

With the trial over, the prosecution victorious, and most reporters long gone from Dayton, Mencken still submitted a couple more dispatches, this one in response to the passing of Bryan, which happened just five days after the close of the trial. Rather than seconding the sentiments of the many mourners across the nation, though, the Baltimore bulldog used the words “vulgar”, “common”, “a cad”, “ignorant”, “bigoted”, “self-seeking”, and “dishonest” to commemorate the late prosecutor-politician-evangelical. In one witty aside, too, Mencken suggested that God had perhaps thrown down a thunderbolt intending to kill the atheist Darrow, but had missed, hitting Bryan instead (Larson 189).

14 September 1925

In his final piece on the Scopes trial, entitled “Aftermath”, Mencken reflected from a two month distance upon the backlash emerging from the liberal media against Darrow and his courtroom tactics. Like himself, Darrow had shown little but scorn and sarcasm when addressing Bryan and his supporters. For some, like Walter Lippmann of the New York World, Darrow’s “sneering and scoffing of the Bible” had only hardened the anti-North and anti-science attitudes of the opposition (Larson 209). As a result, laws similar to the Butler Act were starting to gain traction in surrounding states, as fundamentalists sought to hunker down and protect their traditions against the interfering “carpetbaggers”. Such a talking point in the culture wars was as relevant then as it has been since; however, rather than reconsider such tactics, Mencken doubled-down, declaring this resumption of war: “The way to deal with superstition is not to be polite about it, but to tackle it with all arms, and so rout it, and make it forever infamous and ridiculous” (Rodgers 608).

Such a hard line is similar to the ones we see today from the likes of Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher concerning religion, but it’s not one some otherwise like-minded sympathizers feel is most effective in the ongoing battles over hearts and minds. Mencken, though, like these contemporary warriors, was more interested in the long-term war than the immediate battles at hand. Therefore, though Scopes was convicted for his misdemeanor, the country and the world—not only Dayton and Tennessee—were in the process exposed to a case where “sense”, according to the reporter, “achieved a great victory” (Rodgers 612).

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