Sunday, September 11, 2022

The Hills of Zion

H. L. Mencken (1880–1956)
From H. L. Mencken: Prejudices: The Complete Series

Thomas Theodore Martin, dean of the School of Evangelism at Union University, sets up a book table in support of William Jennings Bryan in Dayton, Tennessee, for the opening of the Scopes trial. “There was the eloquent Dr. T. T. Martin, of Blue Mountain, Miss., come to town with a truck-load of torches and hymn-books to put Darwin in his place,” writes Mencken in “The Hills of Zion.” Bettmann Archive / Getty Photos.
In late May 1925, the magazine editor and newspaper columnist H. L. Mencken wrote to his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald, then living in Paris:
Dear Fitz:
When are you coming back to the Republic? You are missing a superb show. In a few weeks I am going down to Tennessee to see a school-teacher tried for teaching Evolution. Match that in your decayed principalities if you can! William Jennings Bryan is to prosecute, and Clarence Darrow and Dudley Field Malone are for the defense.
Earlier in the year, Tennessee had passed the Butler Act, prohibiting the teaching of human evolution in public schools. When the American Civil Liberties Union announced that it would defend any teacher charged with violating the law, a group of community leaders in Dayton, Tennessee, saw a chance to drum up publicity for their town. They found a volunteer, John Scopes, a physics and math instructor who taught biology briefly when a teacher had taken ill. He could not remember whether he’d taught the forbidden topic, but he had certainly used the state-sanctioned textbook containing a chapter on evolution. In early May, a warrant was issued for his “arrest,” he was immediately “released,” and the accused went to play tennis. A former state senator living in the town exclaimed to the Chattanooga News, “Something has happened that’s going to put Dayton on the map!”

Despite denunciations of the stunt by most Tennessee newspapers, the Associated Press obliged the town by sending out a wire story on the arrest and impending trial. By the time a grand jury indicted Scopes in late May, three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, a foe of evolutionary theory who had gathered adherents in the fight against its acceptance by the public, agreed to prosecute the case. (“It is better to trust in the Rock of Ages than know the age of the rocks; it is better for one to know that he is close to the Heavenly Father than to know how far the stars in the heavens are apart,” Bryan wrote in 1922 in The Menace of Darwinism—lines he repeated in speeches and lectures around the country.) Bryan regarded the upcoming trial as an ideal test case and told the local prosecutor he would even pay Scopes’s fine if the teacher couldn’t afford it. In response to the news of Bryan’s involvement, Clarence Darrow and four other prominent lawyers, including an ACLU representative, joined the defense team. A local civic association set up a Scopes Trial Entertainment Committee, which printed up brochures and, since the town had only three small hotels, established a directory of private rooms available for journalists.

In Baltimore, Mencken worked as a nationally syndicated columnist for The Evening Sun and as the founding coeditor of an extraordinarily successful new magazine, The American Mercury. At first, he seemed inclined to side with the state. “No principle is at stake at Dayton,” he wrote in an article for The Nation published before the trial, “save the principle that school teachers, like plumbers, should stick to the job that is set before them, and not go roving around the house, breaking windows, raiding the cellar, and demoralizing children.” The ten days he spent in Dayton, however, convinced him that more was at stake than the curriculum, and he painted Bryan’s involvement in the case as fueled by naked ambition. “He can never be the peasants’ President, but there is still a chance to be the peasants’ Pope.”

When Mencken arrived in Dayton in July, he admitted he was surprised: “What I found was a country town of charm and even beauty.” The town was packed with more than two hundred reporters, and the invasion of eccentric characters (and at least two chimpanzees) thrilled him. “It was a carnival from start to finish,” recalled Scopes, already a bit player in his own drama. “Every Bible-shouting, psalm-singing pulpit hero in the state poured out of the hills and brought his soapbox with him, and they came from outside the state too.” In a letter to biologist Raymond Pearl, Mencken hyped the quality and abundance of bootleg whiskey available in Tennessee cities, bragged of having survived the poisonous corn liquor in Dayton, and admitted that the circus atmosphere “is genuinely fabulous. I have stored up enough material to last me 20 years.” His humorous yet caustic dispatches from the town delighted a national readership—and horrified the town’s residents, who realized Dayton was now “on the map” for all the wrong reasons.

The turning point in Mencken’s attitude toward the charade was likely the moment when, on the hunt for his next story, he encountered Chattanooga News reporter Nellie Kenyon and asked, “What does one do for entertainment?” Kenyon mentioned that there was a “Holy Roller meeting” nearby and, that evening, she took him to it—an event described in his next Evening Sun column, later revised as “The Hills of Zion,” perhaps his best-known and most-anthologized essay. “To Mencken, the revival he had just witnessed represented all of the falsehoods William Jennings Bryan and the lawyers for the prosecution represented,” Marion Elizabeth Rodgers wrote in a recent biography. “Yet at the same time he was so fascinated by the Holy Rollers that he visited their camp again and again, sitting on the ground, his hands on his knees, spellbound.”

As for the trial, Mencken realized all along that the fix was in—that it was “no more possible in this Christian valley to get a jury unprejudiced against Scopes than would be possible in Wall Street to get a jury unprejudiced against a Bolshevik.” A week into the trial, the presiding judge, John Tate Raulston, who walked into the courtroom pointedly carrying a Bible each day, announced that scientific testimony would not be presented to the jury. Rather than a battle between evolution and fundamentalism, the trial would merely determine whether Scopes was guilty of teaching material that was prohibited by the state. Mencken, whose coeditor, George Jean Nathan, had resigned that month, began to worry about his magazine duties and decided to leave town. It was a decision he soon regretted, since he missed the climactic scene when, deprived of witnesses, Darrow surprised the court by calling Bryan to the stand as an expert on the Bible, which resulted in a testy two-hour interrogation that put the great orator at a disadvantage. The subsequent reports of Bryan’s performance, as well as the exaggerated portrayals and caricatures of the event in biography, fiction, and film, permanently stained the public memory of Bryan’s storied career.

Scopes was convicted, of course, but the decision was overturned on appeal because Raulston himself had assessed the fine when state law required that the jury must determine the amount. The ruling quashed the ACLU’s hope for an appeal that would challenge the Butler Act itself. “In a way it was Mencken’s show,” John Scopes wrote in the mid-1960s. “In the public mind today, a mention of the Dayton trial more likely evokes Mencken than it does me.”

Five days after the trial ended, Bryan died in Dayton after attending a church service, and Mencken wrote the first version of “In Memoriam, W. J. B.,” a blistering obituary that became, in its various forms, one of his more infamous works. “It is too early, it seems to me, to send the firemen home,” Mencken warned; “the fire is still burning on many a far-flung hill, and it may begin to roar again at any moment. The evil that men do lives after them. Bryan, in his malice, started something that it will not be easy to stop.”

Postscript: Toward the end of the essay, Mencken mentions Thomas Theodore Martin, whose “headquarters” during the Scopes trial is pictured in the photograph above. As Mencken later recalled in Heathen Days, “On our first day in Dayton we had gone about scraping acquaintance with the country evangelists who were swarming into town, and among them we were especially delighted by an old man named T. T. Martin, hailing from Blue Mountain, Miss. . . . He made a gallant effort to save the abandoned souls of [fellow Sun journalist Henry M. Hyde] and me, and would take a hack at us every time he met us on the streets, which was ten or twenty times a day. Indeed, he continued these efforts by mail long after the Scopes trial was over.” Mencken later regretted not saving any of Martin’s letters, and he wrote in his unpublished notes for the book, “After his death, in 1940 or thereabout, his daughter wrote to me that he had died in full hope of saving me soon or late. He was typical of the old-time Southern evangelists of the better sort. . . . Even on the subjects of Darwinism and Prohibition he was relatively moderate.”

Notes: Coca-Cola was variously spelled as cocoa-cola, coco-cola, and coca-cola—even, at first, by the company’s founder, Asa Griggs Candler. Mencken uses the two latter spellings interchangeably, and we have kept them as is. In an account now regarded as apocryphal, Caliph Omar (Umar Ibn al-Khattab) is said to have burned the Library of Alexandria in 640 on the grounds that if its contents agreed with the Koran they were superfluous and if they contradicted it they were heretical. Henry Havelock Ellis was an English scientist who studied the psychology and sociology of sex. His books included The New Spirit (1890) and the seven-volume Studies in the Psychology of Sex (1897–1928). Albert Moll was a German psychiatrist, a pioneer in the study of sexuality, and the author of The Sexual Life of the Child (1908). Andy Gump was the lead character of The Gumps, a comic strip created by Sidney Smith in 1917.

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It was hot weather when they tried the infidel Scopes at Dayton, but I went down there very willingly, for I had good reports of the sub-Potomac bootleggers, and moreover I was eager to see something of evangelical Christianity as a going concern. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

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