UAVH H.L. Mencken, Scopes Trial – Tennessee in the Frying Pan (11 of 13)

Tennessee in the Frying Pan

Intro. song: Great White Way Orchestra “Yes! We Have No Bananas”
Outro song: Oliver Naylor’s Orchestra “Roaring Twenties”

Notes:

June 29th – Homo Neanderthalensis
July 9th – Sickening Doubts About Publicity
July 10th – Impossibility of Obtaining Fair Jury
July 11th – Trial as Religious Orgy
July 13th – Souls Need Reconversion Nightly
July 14th – Darrow’s Eloquent Appeal
July 15th – Law and Freedom
July 16th – Fair Trial Beyond Ken
July 17th – Malone the Victor
July 18th – Genesis Triumphant
July 20th – Tennessee in the Frying Pan
July 27th – Bryan
Sept. 14th - Aftermath

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I

That the rising town of Dayton, when it put the infidel Scopes on trial, bit off far more than it has been able to chew — this melancholy fact must now be evident to everyone. The village Aristides Sophocles Goldsboroughs believed that the trial would bring in a lot of money, and produce a vast mass of free and profitable advertising. They were wrong on both counts, as boomers usually are. Very little money was actually spent by the visitors: the adjacent yokels brought their own lunches and went home to sleep, and the city men from afar rushed down to Chattanooga whenever there was a lull. As for the advertising that went out over the leased wires, I greatly fear that it has quite ruined the town. When people recall it hereafter they will think of it as they think of Herrin, Ill., and Homestead, Pa. It will be a joke town at best, and infamous at worst.

The natives reacted to this advertising very badly. The preliminary publicity, I believe, had somehow disarmed and deceived them. It was mainly amiable spoofing; they took it philosophically, assured by the local Aristideses that it was good for trade. But when the main guard of Eastern and Northern journalists swarmed down, and their dispatches began to show the country and the world exactly how the obscene buffoonery appeared to realistic city men, then the yokels began to sweat coldly, and in a few days they were full of terror and indignation. Some of the bolder spirits, indeed, talked gaudily of direct action against the authors of the “libels.” But the history of the Ku Klux and the American Legion offers overwhelmingly evidence that 100 per cent Americans never fight when the enemy is in strength, and able to make a defense, so the visitors suffered nothing worse than black, black looks. When the last of them departs Daytonians will disinfect the town with sulphur candles, and the local pastors will exorcise the devils that they left behind them.

II

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.

But what of the rest of the people of Tennessee? I greatly fear that they will not attain to consolation so easily. They are an extremely agreeable folk, and many of them are highly intelligent. I met men and women — particularly women — in Chattanooga who showed every sign of the highest culture. They led civilized lives, despite Prohibition, and they were interested in civilized ideas, despite the fog of Fundamentalism in which they moved. I met members of the State judiciary who were as heartily ashamed of the bucolic ass, Raulston, as an Osler would be of a chiropractor. I add the educated clergy: Episcopalians, Unitarians, Jews and so on — enlightened men, tossing pathetically under the imbecilities of their evangelical colleagues. Chattanooga, as I found it, was charming, but immensely unhappy.

What its people ask for — many of them in plain terms — is suspended judgment, sympathy, Christian charity, and I believe that they deserve all these things. Dayton may be typical of Tennessee, but it is surely not all of Tennessee. The civilized minority in the State is probably as large as in any other Southern State. What ails it is simply the fact it has been, in the past, too cautious and politic — that it has been too reluctant to offend the Fundamentalist majority. To that reluctance something else has been added: an uncritical and somewhat childish local patriotism. The Tennesseeans have tolerated their imbeciles for fear that attacking them would bring down the derision of the rest of the country. Now they have the derision, and to excess — and the attack is ten times as difficult as it ever was before.

III

How they are to fight their way out of their wallow I do not know. They begin the battle with the enemy in command of every height and every gun; worse, there is a great deal of irresolution in their own ranks. The newspapers of the State, with few exceptions, are very feeble. One of the best of them, the Chattanooga News, set up an eloquent whooping for Bryan the moment he got to Dayton. Before that it had been against the anti-evolution law. But with the actual battle joined, it began to wobble, and presently it was printing articles arguing that Fundamentalism, after all, made men happy — that a Tennesseean gained something valuable by being an ignoramus — in other words, that a hog in a barnyard was to be envied by an Aristotle. The News was far better than most: it gave space, too, to the other side, and at considerable risk. But its weight, for two weeks, was thrown heavily to Bryan and his balderdash.

The pusillanimous attitude of the bar of the State I described in my dispatches from Dayton. It was not until the trial was two days old that any Tennessee lawyers of influence and dignity went to the aid of Dr. John R. Neal — and even then all of the volunteers enlisted only on condition that their names be kept out of the newspapers. I should except one T.B. McElwee. He sat at the trial table and rendered valuable services. The rest lurked in the background. It was an astounding situation to a Marylander, but it seemed to be regarded as quite natural in Tennessee.

The prevailing attitude toward Neal himself was also very amazing. He is an able lawyer and a man of repute, and in any Northern State his courage would get the praise it deserves. But in Tennessee even the intelligentsia seem to feet that he has done something discreditable by sitting at the trial table with Darrow, Hays and Malone. The State buzzes with trivial, idiotic gossip about him — that he dresses shabbily, that he has political aspirations, and so on. What if he does and has? He has carried himself, in this case, in a way that does higher credit to his native State. But his native State, instead of being proud of him, simply snarls at him behind his back.

IV

So with every other man concerned with the defense — most of them, slackaday, foreigners. For example, Rappelyea, the Dayton engineer who was first to go to the aid of Scopes. I was told solemnly in Dayton, not once but twenty times, that Rappelyea was (a) a Bowery boy from New York, and (b) an incompetent and ignorant engineer. I went to some trouble to unearth the facts. They were (a) that he was actually a member of one of the oldest Huguenot families in America, and (b) that his professional skill and general culture were such that the visiting scientists sought him out and found pleasure in his company.

Such is the punishment that falls upon a civilized man cast among fundamentalists. As I have said, the worst of it is that even the native intelligentsia help to pull the rope. In consequence all the brighter young men of the State — and it produces plenty of them — tend to leave it. If they remain, they must be prepared to succumb to the prevailing blather or resign themselves to being more or less infamous. With the anti-evolution law enforced, the State university will rapidly go to pot; no intelligent youth will waste his time upon its courses if he can help it. And so, with the young men lost, the struggle against darkness will become almost hopeless.

As I have said, the State still produces plenty of likely young bucks — if only it could hold them! There is good blood everywhere, even in the mountains. During the dreadful buffooneries of Bryan and Raulston last week two typical specimens sat at the press table. One was Paul Y. Anderson, correspondent of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and the other was Joseph Wood Krutch, one of the editors of the Nation. I am very familiar with the work of both of them, and it is my professional judgment that it is of the first caliber. Anderson is one of the best newspaper reporters in America and Krutch is one of the best editorial writers.

Well, both were there as foreigners. Both were working for papers that could not exist in Tennessee. Both were viewed by their fellow Tennesseeans not with pride, as credits to the State, but as traitors to the Tennessee Kultur and public enemies. Their crime was that they were intelligent men, doing their jobs intelligently.