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summer for the gods

23 october 2008

"Most people who have any notions about the [Scopes] trial get them from the play, Inherit the Wind, or from the movie" (Larson 244), remarked cultural critic Joseph Wood Krutch, who witnessed the trial first-hand in 1925 and decades later saw its transformation into caricature at the hands of playwrights Jerome Lawrence & Robert E. Lee. In Summer for the Gods, his 1997 Pulitzer-Prize-winning history of the Scopes trial, Edward J. Larson weaves a much subtler text around the media sensation of the summer of '25. Lawrence & Lee, like many Americans on both sides of the Scopes-fueled "debate" between creation and evolution, saw the trial as conclusive: the forces of reason, in their view, had overpowered those of benightedness. But fundamentalist Protestants drew, and continue to draw, the exact opposite conclusion from the story. A trial that participants saw as a definitive test case not only failed to test much of anything, but marked a permanent divide in American popular thought that continues wide as ever into the 21st century.

I am certainly among those who have drawn their prevailing impression of the Scopes Trial from the film version of Inherit the Wind. It's hard not to! Frederic March, ghastly, in a William Jennings Bryan fright wig, collapsing under examination by Spencer Tracy (in Clarence-Darrow suspenders) as an avuncular white knight of the higher criticism: that's drama. The facts of the Dayton, Tennessee trial, as Larson relates them, are a good deal more mixed.

I caught up to Larson's book after reading Don Fehrenbacher's Dred Scott Case, also a Pulitzer Prize winner. It struck me that they must give that Prize to some pretty good books, and that I am chronically behind even in knowing which ones have won each year. I'm glad I turned to Summer for the Gods, a crisp mix of page-turning and expert analysis.

Far from eternal antagonists, Darrow and Bryan had been public allies more often than not, and were cordial, if maybe not the best of friends. Bryan gave Darrow a small carved monkey as a token of their friendly engagement over evolution. Bryan offered to pay Scopes's fine when the young man was charged $100 for the crime of teaching non-Biblical evolution. Scopes himself had been encouraged to stand trial by friends on both sides of the issue, who mainly wanted to attract publicity to the aspiring town of Dayton.

Among the themes in Larson's book is that Bryan's opposition to Darwinism was a left-wing stance, in the context of the prevailing American political culture of 1925 and of Bryan's own life work. Bryan's Christianity was of a piece with his progressivism (Darrow shared that progressivism, except for the theistic part). Bryan was not just appalled by the lack of fundamentalist hermeneutics in modern America. He was disturbed by the militarism that had swept the country during the First World War (he resigned from Woodrow Wilson's cabinet rather than condone that war). He was disturbed by eugenics and by social Darwinism, part and parcel of an uncaring capitalism that he had fought since his youth. As Larson insists upon, Bryan was above all majoritarian. Fear of a tyranny of the majority made little sense to him (and since he lacked it, he did condone Jim Crow, one of his greatest failings). A deeply imbued small-d democrat, Bryan could not understand why schools established by the will of the people should be able to flout the lore of the people about human origins.

Darrow (and his less-remembered but eminent Dayton colleagues Dudley Field Malone and Arthur Garfield Hays) differed sharply from Bryan on the question of majority rights. Darrow, in his practice of defense law and in his civil-liberties work, stressed the rights of the individual in the face of government and prevailing culture. Scientific truth, to Darrow and his colleagues, was truth no matter how great a majority it claimed. Individual teachers convinced reasonably of its truth should be able to express their academic opinions despite a multitude convinced otherwise.

Bryan and Darrow, in 1925, seemed to engage in genuine dialogue, despite their extreme differences. Ever since, the legacy of the Scopes trial seems to have been an abjuring of all constructive dialogue on evolution. The same dreary "debates" between evolution and creation continue to be staged every year on campuses and in churches like a Chatauqua circuit gone off the rails, almost exactly as such debates were staged in the 1920s. They have no substance. They're like watching a Harlem Globetrotters game and thinking it's real basketball, with the difference that half the audience is somehow convinced that the Washington Generals are winning every game.

Larson, Edward J. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes trial and America's continuing debate over science and religion. New York: BasicBooks, 1997.