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H. L. Mencken: The nail in the coffin


I’ve written about H. L. Mencken’s mendacity at the Scopes trial in two previous posts (here and here). In today’s post, I’m going to drop one more bombshell, which will, I hope, drive the final nail in the coffin of Mencken’s credibility as an accurate reporter on the trial.

My bombshell is actually a letter written by a reporter named Nunnally Johnson, who covered the Scopes trial for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and later became a successful Hollywood screenwriter. Thirty years after the trial, he passed on his recollections in a letter to theater publicist Arthur Cantor, dated March 8, 1955 (courtesy of the Billy Rose Theatre Collection):

Dear Mr. Cantor,

I covered a lot of different stories, from murders to labor investigations, during my years on papers in New York but the Scopes trial, which I covered for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, was without question the best and most memorable. I can’t say that I think it had any particular effect on history but it was certainly remarkably characteristic of its time.

For the newspapermen it was a lark on a monstrous scale. Few of them could take it too seriously. As you probably know, it was instigated and promoted by a newspaper, and the outcome was inevitable. Scopes knew this and was agreeable to the conviction from the start. The truth was, he had admittedly violated a law, and the purpose of his trial was to tell the world of the existence of this somewhat absurd law.

The law which Mr. Johnson is alluding to here was the Tennessee Butler Act of 1925 (Tenn. HB 185, 1925), which did not outlaw the teaching of evolution in State schools, but prohibited only the teaching that man had evolved, or any other theory denying that man was created by God as recorded in Genesis:

That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the Story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.

The Butler Act additionally outlined that an offending teacher would be guilty of a misdemeanor (not a serious crime – h/t Barry Arrington) and fined between $100 and $500 for each offense. As I pointed out in my earlier post, Mencken’s mendacity at the Scopes trial, William Jennings Bryan was not the author of the Butler Act; moreover, he actually opposed the fine it imposed on teachers breaking the law, believing (correctly) that it would only serve to create “martyrs” for the cause of evolution. Finally, Bryan was quite willing to tolerate human evolution being discussed in science classrooms, so long as it was presented only as a hypothesis.

And now for the bombshell!

Nunnally Johnson’s letter continues:

But there was one bit of enlightenment for the sophisticated metropolitan newspapermen. Being admirably cultivated fellows, they were all of course Evolutionists and looked down with contempt on the local Fundamentalists. But some of us soon learned that there were still further levels of intelligence. The Fundamentalists had a group they looked down on too. The objects of their contempt were the members of something called the Church of God, who assembled under a great oak tree in the country near Dayton, babbled in tongues, and whose first and firmest belief was that the world was flat. The fundamentalists shook their heads sadly over these ignoramuses.

I remember very little of what I wrote about the trial, though I covered it from the beginning through Darrow’s assassination of William Jennings Bryan. The stories, I assume, can be got from the Eagle files, if they should be of any use to you.

I wish the play great luck. The editorial is extraordinary. I hope it can be interpreted, in the perspective of time, so that some sense can be made out of it. I doubt I will be able to attend the opening. But thank you very much for the invitation.

Very truly yours,

Nunnally Johnson

What, you may ask, does this have to do with H. L. Mencken? Quite a lot. In his reporting on the Scopes trial, Mencken went out of his way to depict the people of Dayton as “flat-earthers” (yes, he actually called them that) in his last report before the end of the Scopes trial, titled, Tennessee in the Frying Pan” (July 20, 1925):

Dayton, of course, is only a ninth-rate country town, and so its agonies are of relatively little interest to the world. Its pastors, I daresay, will be able to console it, and if they fail there is always the old mountebank, Bryan, to give a hand. Faith cannot only move mountains; it can also soothe the distressed spirits of mountaineers. The Daytonians, unshaken by Darrow’s ribaldries, still believe. They believe that they are not mammals. They believe, on Bryan’s word, that they know more than all the men of science of Christendom. They believe, on the authority of Genesis, that the earth is flat and that witches still infest it. They believe, finally and especially, that all who doubt these great facts of revelation will go to hell. So they are consoled.

In this passage, Mencken equates the beliefs of the people of Dayton with the beliefs of a fringe group that met in the countryside, outside the town, even though he (like many other reporters covering the trial) knew full well that the people of Dayton actually looked down upon these flat-earthers, and that Bryan himself believed that the Earth was millions of years old and was also open to the idea that plants and animals may have evolved. But hey, anything for the sake of a good story, right?

In the above passage, and in another report, titled Malone the Victor, Even Though Court Sides With Opponents, says Mencken (July 17, 1925), Mencken also mendaciously attributed to Bryan the statement that man is not a mammal, when in fact Bryan said nothing of the sort, as I demonstrated in my post, Mencken’s mendacity at the Scopes trial (see my earlier post, Part Four). What Bryan did object to was the portrayal of man in Hunter’s Civic Biology as an unexceptional mammal, “so indistinguishable among the mammals that they leave him there with thirty-four hundred and ninety-nine other [species of] mammals.” I might add that Bryan, far from being an uneducated man, was very well-educated for his time, with a B.A., an M.A., an LL.B. and at least seven honorary doctorates. Mencken, by contrast, never obtained a university degree.

In her acclaimed biography, Mencken: The American Iconoclast(Oxford University Press, 2005; paperback, 2007), Marion Elizabeth Rodgers freely acknowledges that Mencken distorted the facts in his coverage of the Scopes trial:

In an effort to prove to Mencken and the other journalists that their reporting was biased, that within those same hills there also existed educated circuit preachers, drugstore owner Fred Robinson made a special effort to introduce out-of-state reporters to a highly educated minister. The New York Times subsequently wrote in amazement of the Tennessee mountain man who had, along with his old clothes and polished boots, a scholar’s knowledge of Greek and Hebrew as well as Darwin’s Origin of Species. But to Robinson’s dismay, “Mencken kept with the hillbilly story of the Holy Rollers. ” (p. 278)

….”I have met no educated man who is not ashamed of the ridicule that has fallen upon the state,” reflected Mencken. The civilized minority had known for years what was going on in the hills, wrote Mencken: “They knew what country preachers [had] rammed and hammered into yokel skulls.” Now Tennessee was paying the price. (p. 281)

In spite of the trial’s lack of dignity, the columnist asked that his readers “not make the colossal mistake” of viewing it as “a trivial farce.” But the next American who finds himself with an idle million on his hands, Mencken proposed, should dedicate it to civilizing Tennessee, “a sort of Holy Land for imbeciles.” (p. 282)

On pages 287-288, Rodgers continues:

What disturbed the local townspeople of Dayton most was to be portrayed as religious fanatics. While many of the population admitted to being conservative Christians, the residents disliked being described as mountaineers. Two who fell into this category were college graduates from northern Pennsylvania. Others gave interviews, only to find that their speech had been liberally sprinkled in print with words like “hain’t ” and “sech.

“Some of the newspaper correspondents attending the trial have apparently lost no opportunity for exaggeration if not downright misrepresentation,” complained the Chattanooga Times. It was noted that in their thirst for local color, “they have seized upon the most narrow, ignorant, backward aspects of the community and harped upon them as though they were representative… Such writing is obviously unfair and unjust and beneath the ethics of anybody who adheres to an enlightened code of intellectual honesty. ”

Locally, much of the unfairness was blamed on Mencken. To this day, Mencken’s name is mentioned in Dayton with contempt; in 1925, he was anointed “the stinker.” (“Mr. Mencken did not degenerate from an ape,” one local said, “but from an ass.”) It was not, as Mencken supposed, his description of the Holy Roller meeting that caused the most fury, but his caricatures of the “Babbitts” and “backward” locals, “hillbillies,” “yaps,” “yokels,” “peasants” and mountaineers from the hills of East Tennessee that infuriated citizens who prided themselves on their intelligence…

“In a way it was Mencken’s show,” John Scopes recalled in 1967. “In the public mind today, a mention of the Dayton trial more likely evokes Mencken than it does me. His biting commentary on the Bible Belt and the trial itself was one of the highlights of the entire event.” Yet even Scopes disagreed with Mencken’s portrayal of the Dayton townsfolk as “morons”; many were his friends. Looking back at the trial years later, Scopes dismissed Mencken as “a sensationalist.” (pp. 287-288)

So there you have it. Even John T. Scopes, the hero of the Scopes trial, thought Mencken’s coverage of the trial was cheap and sensationalistic. And Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, the author of what has been called the definitive biography of Mencken, admits that he falsely portrayed the people of Dayton, Tennessee, as religious fanatics.

After these lies, can anyone trust what H. L. Mencken wrote on the Scopes trial?

My other articles on the Scopes trial can be accessed here:

H. L. Mencken: Is this your hero, New Atheists?
Six bombshells relating to H. L. Mencken and the Scopes trial
Mencken’s mendacity at the Scopes trial

As I pointed out in my earlier post, Mencken’s mendacity at the Scopes trial, William Jennings Bryan was not the author of the Butler Act; moreover, he actually opposed the fine it imposed on teachers breaking the law, believing (correctly) that it would only serve to create “martyrs” for the cause of evolution. Finally, Bryan was quite willing to tolerate human evolution being discussed in science classrooms, so long as it was presented only as a hypothesis
Bryan also wrote as follows to Tennessee Governor Austin Peay, congratulating him on the passage of the Butler Act, "The Christian parents of the state owe you a debt of gratitude for saving their children from the poisonous influence of an unproven hypothesis.", which could easily have been a line of dialogue from the character of 'Matthew Harrison Brady' in Inherit The Wind That Mencken indulged in yellow journalism and blatant propagandizing does not detract in the slightest from the fact that the Butler Act was a measure designed to prevent the teaching of part of a scientific theory with the sole purpose of protecting a particular religious belief from any kind of perceived contradiction. It was an improper entanglement of government in religious affairs. We may deprecate Mencken's and Darrow's methods - they were far less likeable in real life than their fictional counterparts in Inherit The Wind - but their cause was just nonetheless. Seversky
Over at Why Evolution is True, Professor Jerry Coyne has been busily promoting the writings of a man he describes as "The First New Atheist": the acclaimed writer, H. L. Mencken (1880-1956). Professor Coyne promised his readers one week of daily posts featuring quotes from the great essayist, on the follies of religion, and he's kept his word: he's just completed Day Seven of his postings. When I first read of Professor Coyne's choice of patron for the New Atheist movement, I quietly marveled. Professor Coyne is a very well-read man, and when he makes a choice, you can be sure that he has given it a lot of thought. It was he who officially declared Aratina Cage's logo of a red A with two horns to be the Gnu Atheist symbol, and his choice has been vindicated by the surge in the logo's popularity. I therefore have to assume that Coyne knew what he was doing when he nominated H. L. Mencken as the patron of the New Atheist movement. So far, visitors to his Web site have strongly supported Coyne's choice. Coyne has been very enthusiastic in his promotion of Mencken, even going so far as to refer to him as "the imperishable Henry". What's next, I wonder? Will we see a readers' contest for the best halo design? Now, when one nominates a patron for one's movement, one should be careful to nominate an individual whose greatness is readily apparent and whose faults, whatever they may be, are capable of being overlooked. A patron need not be perfect, but he/she should be, at the very least, an admirable person: a pioneer in whose steps others can follow. To his credit, Professor Coyne has acknowledged Mencken's vindictiveness; but this is hardly a fatal flaw. Silver Asiatic
DrTorley, Sounds like HL was born too early,he could have made a good living on cable news.Is the point, Mencken bad therefore the Tennessee law was not so bad? Just misunderstood? velikovskys
Unfortunately Inherit the Wind, first the play then the movie, has distorted the truth of Scopes for 60 years! The play debuted in 1955 and the movie five years later. The truth is no match for the power of popular culture to create and sustain a specious narrative. What we need in addition to the facts outlined here are writers and directors and producers and actors in Hollywood who actually give a damn about the truth. For many or most, their liberal ideology drives their art, and what is more foundational to that ideology than that conservative who actually believe in the Bible and in an omnipotent creator God are rubes and simpletons. Think tanks, as important as they are, will never change the dominant cultural narratives. That must happen in our country's entertainment, media and education establishments. It's a generational battle we have no choice but to engage. mdvirgilio
VJT, Thanks for continuing to expend the effort to set the record straight. KF PS: I trust PC woes are now behind you. This week, I am shaking my head over a film scriptwriter here who has had movies in the Nollywood genre, who has an iPad and tells me he leaves his keyboard at home and prefers to type on the glass screen! kairosfocus
It was not, as Mencken supposed, his description of the Holy Roller meeting that caused the most fury, but his caricatures of the “Babbitts” and “backward” locals, “hillbillies,” “yaps,” “yokels,” “peasants” and mountaineers from the hills of East Tennessee that infuriated citizens who prided themselves on their intelligence…
Sounds like the newspaper reporter was quite the -- you know what. Thank God we've evolved to a higher kind of ape!
.big·ot noun \?bi-g?t\ : a person who strongly and unfairly dislikes other people, ideas, etc. : a bigoted person; especially : a person who hates or refuses to accept the members of a particular group (such as a racial or religious group)

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