It would be reassuring to read Mencken's collected dispatches from the Scopes trial as a kind of exceptional history, the chance chronicle of a weird spasm in the American experience, knowing that the idiocy rallied around William Jennings Bryan in Dayton, Tennessee was put down once and for all. But innumerable contemporary challenges to the idea of evolution, both in the classroom and out, from the same voices that plagued us then make complacency impossible. Mencken himself foresaw it then, in 1925, saying, "it is still to early... to send the firemen home; the fire is still burning on many a far-flung hill, and it may begin to roar again at any moment."
By today's journalistic norms, Mencken would be relieved of his labors in an instant, and perhaps not entirely without cause. Nevertheless, we can take a lesson from his directness and honesty. If the man subjected his prose to any agency of self-censorship, it is hardly obvious. To whatever extent he ruffles our sensibilities, there is no denying the palpable journalistic energy of his reportage. It is invigorating to read:
The so-called religious organizations which now lead the war against the teaching of evolution are nothing more, at bottom, than conspiracies of the inferior man against his betters. They mirror very accurately his congenital hatred of knowledge, his bitter enmity to the man who knows more than he does, and so gets more out of life… What they propose to do... is to make the superior man infamous—by mere abuse if it is sufficient, and if it is not, then by law. [p. 13]In one longer report from July 13, 1925, Mencken describes a raucous Bible meeting in the night woods near Morgantown. An excerpt:
What followed quickly reached such heights of barbaric grotesquerie that it was hard to believe it real. At a signal all the faithful crowded up the bench and began to pray—not in unison but each for himself. At another they all fell on their knees, their arms over the penitent. The leader kneeled, facing us, his head alternately thrown back dramatically or buried in his hands. Words spouted from his lips like bullets from a machine gun—appeals to God to pull the penitent back out of hell, defiances of the powers and principalities of the air, a vast impassioned jargon of apocalyptic texts. Suddenly he rose to his feet, threw back his head and began to speak in tongues—blub-blub-blub, gurgle-gurgle-gurgle. His voice rose to a higher register. The climax was a shrill, inarticulate squawk, like that of a man throttled. He fell headlong across the pyramid of supplicants. [pp. 55-56]The book’s appendix includes a transcript of Clarence Darrow’s long examination of Bryan, which is impossible to put down. One curious exchange:
Darrow: You don’t care how old the earth is, how old man is, or how long the animals have been here?It is intriguing to imagine Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District with Mencken in the reporter pool. One thing is certain: it would have been much noisier.
Bryan: I am not so much interested in that.
Darrow: You have never made any investigation to find out?
Bryan: No, sir. I have never.
Darrow: All right. [p 176]