Journal of Southern Religion

Edward J. Larson. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. New York: Basic Books, 1997. X + 318 pages.

      A number of events have competed for the designation "trial of the century": Leopold-Loeb, Sacco and Vanzetti, and, more recently, O. J. Simpson. If Edward J. Larson is correct, however, that designation properly belongs to the Scopes trial, which took place in the steamy courtroom of the Rhea County courthouse in Dayton, Tennessee. "Indeed," Larson concludes, "the issues raised by the Scopes trial and legend endure precisely because they embody the characteristically American struggle between individual liberty and majoritarian democracy, and cast it in the timeless debate over science and religion" (265).

      The author opens with a pivotal

" Summer for the Gods goes a long way toward restoring historical perspective on the Scopes trial. "

vignette from the July 1925 trial, which pitted two of the nation's best lawyers against one another--William Jennings Bryan, icon of the Progressive Era and three-time Democratic candidate for president, versus Clarence Darrow, the liberal and agnostic attorney working on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union and the nominal defendant, a diffident schoolteacher named John T. Scopes. From that initial vignette Larson proceeds, in effect, to deconstruct the Scopes trial, to separate myth from history in one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented cases in the twentieth century.

      Larson shows, for example, how Scopes was merely a pawn in the ideological struggle between what the author calls Bryan's majoritarian beliefs that citizens had the right to dictate what their children should be taught in schools and the long-festering resentments of the Left, which believed that individual liberties had been trampled by such measures as the Espionage Act and compulsory military service during World War I. Civic boosters in Dayton, upon hearing that the American Civil Liberties Union wanted to test the constitutionality of Tennessee's Butler Act, which forbade the teaching of evolution in public schools, summoned Scopes to Fred E. Robinson's drugstore. They asked the unsuspecting teacher leading questions to determine whether or not he had actually taught evolution while filling in for the school's regular biology teacher. Scopes, whose teaching responsibilities included physics, math, and football, not biology, agreed to be prosecuted and then left the drugstore for a game of tennis. One of the boosters triumphantly declared, "Something has happened that's going to put Dayton on the map!" (91).

       Scopes himself remained a cipher throughout the trial, ceding the stage to much larger personalities: Darrow, Bryan, and the irascible H. L. Mencken, who covered the trial for the Baltimore Sun. Larson offers a complete account of the trial itself, drawing on court documents as well as newspaper stories, but his most important contribution to our understanding of the Scopes trial comes in Part III, which examines the various ways that the Scopes trial has been interpreted since 1925.

      Although Bryan has generally been regarded as the loser in Dayton, a hopeless throwback to the fundamentalist, antediluvian past, not all contemporaries saw it that way. "At the time," Larson says, "in sharp contrast with later legends about the Scopes trial, no one saw the episode as a decisive triumph for the defense" (206). Only later, beginning with the 1931 publication of Frederick Lewis Allen's Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the Nineteen-Twenties, did the Scopes trial begin to succumb to caricature, a caricature that was shamelessly perpetuated by Richard Hofstader in The American Political Tradition (1948) and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963). The main culprit, however, was the play Inherit the Wind, which appeared in 1960 and which, as Larson demonstrates, was intended not so much as a representation of the trial but as a morality tale about McCarthyism.

      Summer for the Gods goes a long way toward restoring historical perspective on the Scopes trial. As Garry Wills has shown in his brilliant essay on Bryan and the Scopes trial, Bryan was no mere fundamentalist-creationist reactionary; his concerns were deep, principled, and entirely in keeping with his Progressivism. "The Darwinian theory represents man as reaching his present perfection by the operation of the law of hate," Bryan said, "the merciless law by which the strong crowd out and kill off the weak" (39).

      Larson may not extend this analysis as far as he might, and he slights somewhat the pivotal role that the acerbic Mencken, utterly blinded by his loathing for Bryan, played in (mis)interpreting the Scopes trial. These cavils notwithstanding, Summer for the Gods is a superb book, thoroughly researched and well written. It will stand for many years as the definitive work on the trial of the twentieth century.

Randall Balmer, Barnard College, Columbia University

© 1998 by The Journal of Southern Religion. All rights reserved. ISSN 1094-5234

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