Book review: ‘A religious orgy in Tennessee’

H.L. Mencken (public domain)

Editor’s note: What follows is a guest writer’s review of H.L. Mencken’s “A Religious Orgy in Tennessee: A Reporter’s Account of the Scopes Monkey Trial,” which was published posthumously in 2006.

It is not uncommon for great writers to be little-known to popular audiences. But while it is not uncommon, perhaps it is to humankind’s shame, and to the shame of Americans in particular, that H.L Mencken finds himself among them.

I recall my first encounter with Mencken at the age of 18, after having read George Orwell’s “1984.” I was a freshman at a private college in Alabama, smack-dab in the middle of the Bible Belt, and when my peers found out I was part of a student libertarian group, the looks on their faces were what I imagine a crowd of imams might give a Western woman adorned in pig-skin lingerie. I felt as out-of-place as Stuart Smalley attempting war correspondence. Naturally, this made me feel “edgy.”

I felt a decidedly different sort of isolation when, one day, I showed up to a meeting of my student libertarian group and the conversation turned to Mencken, who then I had never heard of. Revealing as much, I soon realized I was perhaps the only libertarian in recent history who was unacquainted with the eminent writer known as the “Sage of Baltimore.”

I sought to remedy the situation as quickly as possible, ordering Mencken’s “Notes On Democracy” on Amazon with next-day shipping. Upon reading that book and other material, I quickly fell in love with the writer. His distrust of institutions and government came before distrusting institutions and government was cool, and his criticism of Roosevelt and the New Deal was during a time when everyone loved Roosevelt.

As time progressed, I would develop a fascination with those who wrote with “attitude” about culture and society. I entered a Hunter S. Thompson phase, and a Christopher Hitchens phase (which has not yet yielded), but I never forgot the man who started it all for me, who birthed my fascination of writers with “attitude,” and caused me to want to be such a writer one day: H.L. Mencken.

However, while I had read much of Mencken’s political work, I knew very little about his involvement with the Scopes trial, until I was made aware of “A Religious Orgy In Tennessee,” Mencken’s account of the 1925 debacle. I bought a copy of the book with a boyish grin, and what would transpire over the next several days was a lot of laughter, a lot of mouth-gaping and the purchasing of copies for members of my family — all followed by a young writer’s determined endeavor to do Mencken justice in this review.

At the time of the Scopes trial, Mencken was a reporter, and “A Religious Orgy In Tennessee” is a compilation of articles he sent to The Baltimore Evening Sun, The Nation, and The American Mercury (now defunct), concerning the details and environment of the trial.

Chapters 1-3 are quite possibly the best diatribe against fundamentalism I’ve ever read. To give you a brief, mild taste, Mencken writes in Chapter 2: “Such obscenities as the forthcoming trial of the Tennessee evolutionist, if they serve no other purpose, at least call attention dramatically to the fact that enlightenment, among mankind, is very narrowly dispersed.”

And yet, to suggest that Mencken is snobby toward the population of Dayton, Tenn., or thinks that Southerners themselves are to be satirized, misrepresents him gravely. As one would see in Chapters 4 and 5, Mencken treats the population of Dayton with fairness and respect,maintaing his attack on their kooky beliefs, but never dreaming of degrading the townspeople themselves. Rather, he regards Dayton as “a country town full of charm and even beauty — a somewhat smallish but nevertheless very attractive Westminster or Bellair.”

Not to say that Mencken is there to play nice. He continues his fierce assault on those he refers to as the “Ku Klux Klergy,” describing their mentality to perplexed readers around the nation: “Of a given text in Holy Writ one faction may say this thing and another that, but both agree unreservedly that the text is impeccable, and neither in the midst of the most violent disputation would venture to accuse the other of doubt.”

In Chapter 7, Mencken takes a brief break from writing about the absurdities of the trial in Dayton to describe an adventure he and a friend had when they drove into the Tennessee mountains in the dead of night to observe a campfire revival deep in the hills. Mountain-dwellers and farmers danced around a fire, contorting themselves, speaking in tongues and “hooping and hollering,” while one of the flock gave testimony denouncing books because anything that was true could be found in the Bible, and anything else was of the devil.

Education, too, was denounced by another member who said that once his children were old enough to read the Bible, that was it. They continued to twist themselves, speak in gibberish and shout until Mencken and his friend, peeking through the brush and trees, left and returned to Dayton.

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan converse during the Scopes trial (photo via Wikimedia Commons).

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan converse during the Scopes trial (photo via Wikimedia Commons).

In Chapter 13, I find a comment by Mencken interesting, where he observes that “The educated clergy: Episcopalians, Unitarians, Jews and so on — enlightened men, are tossing pathetically under the imbecilities of their evangelical colleagues.” In my mind, nothing has changed on that frontier.

Chapters 8-16 detail the remarkable eloquence of Clarence Darrow, Dudley Field Malone and Arthur Garfield Hays, and their demolishing of the creationist prosecutor William Jennings Bryan — once a powerful political opportunist whom the nation ultimately rejected. While his role in the trial brought him headlines again, the attention was not in his favor, and would see the aged man leave this world with the reputation of a fool. Chapter 16 is also a summary of the trial and its end.

In Chapter 17, Mencken writes a tragically toned obituary for Bryan who, after the trial, died in his sleep as a result of diabetes. In “A Religious Orgy In Tennessee,” you can also find a transcript of the examination of Bryan by Darrow, which is worthy of posting by itself without any commentary.

With Mencken, I went to Dayton. With Mencken, I could see the faces of the townspeople just as assuredly as he described them. With Mencken, I was transported, sitting among the observers in the courtroom, feeling the hundred-degree heat, wiping the sweat off my own brow, while the thunderous speeches of Bryan, Malone, Hays and Darrow, echoed through the mountains. Mencken did this to me, transcending a 92-year gap — No easy feat for any writer. Mencken does not deserve the obscurity he has among Americans today. He is deserving of every accolade he gets. Every aspiring writer should, without a doubt, be jealous of the magic of his pen, and it is a frightening injustice that so many have never heard of him.

It is easy for us, in the age of the Internet, memes and cyber-snark, to take for granted the scope of Mencken’s intelligence, and thus, the brilliance of his work. But going back into his time, in this instance the mid-20’s, Mencken’s sharp wit and polemic should impress us more and more each second we think about it.

“A Religious Orgy In Tennessee” is a short read; the book itself is small and the print is large. Buy it today. It’s something that every American history buff must have in their collection.

In fact buy two, and that way you can set your extra copy on top of your minister’s David Barton collection.

Race Hochdorf

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

  • allegedthemovie

    For those interested in the REAL story of the Scopes Trial as contrasted with the tales told by Mencken (whom I love, in a way), see the website http://www.themonkeytrial.com or download the original trial transcript. You might want to also look at the 2010 movie on this trial starring Brian Dennehy as Charles Darwin, Sen. Fred Thompson as William Jennings Bryan, and Colm Meany as H.L. Mencken. Fun!

    • Definitely a fascinating and complex event — too much for any one article to do full justice to. Thanks for the link, though! Looks like a great site! I’ll have to bookmark it.