People & Events: Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956)
On a hot day in July 1925, H. L. Mencken arrived in Dayton, Tennessee, to report on the Scopes trial. "The town, I confess, greatly surprised me," he wrote that night. "I expected to find a squalid Southern village, with darkies snoozing on the horse blocks, pigs rooting under the houses and the inhabitants full of hookworm and malaria. What I found was a country town of charm and even beauty."
As editor of the American Mercury and reporter for The Baltimore Sun, Mencken was the voice of the Jazz Age. He had often described the South as an intellectual desert and though his first reaction to Dayton was one of pleasant surprise, later he called the town a "universal joke." He complained, "there is no gambling. There is no place to dance. The relatively wicked, when they would indulge themselves, go to Robinson's drug store and debate theology."
H. L. Mencken was responsible for suggesting to Clarence Darrow that he volunteer his services in the defense of John Scopes. Mencken hoped to witness a showdown between Darrow and prosecutor William Jennings Bryan. He wanted a front-row seat at an epic battle over science and religion. According to historian Kevin Tierney, "Mencken and Darrow really wanted in some sense to re-fight the Civil War. They were Northerners come down to tell the Southern yokels just how stupid they were."
Mencken made no secret of his likes and dislikes. His fame rested on his ability to write and speak outrageously -- with caustic humor. Mencken grew up in Baltimore and spent his whole life there. Early in his career he focused his attention on the literary world, but by the 1920s he had turned to social criticism. He was a coiner of terms. It was Mencken who first used the phrase "Bible Belt" and Mencken who dubbed the Scopes trial the "monkey trial."
Mencken looked forward to his Dayton assignment as a chance to bash some of the things he hated most -- the South, religion, and stupidity. According to historian Paul Boyer, "Beneath Mencken's ridicule of the ignorant hayseeds of America was a very profound suspicion of Democracy itself. Mencken really believed that there was a small elite of educated and cultivated and intelligent human beings, and then there were the masses who were really ignorant and capable of nothing but being led and bamboozled."
Throughout most of the eight-day trial Mencken's reports were syndicated nationally with equally stinging political cartoons seen by millions of Americans. A mob almost lynched him after he called the people of Dayton "yokels," "primates," morons," and "hillbillies." But Mencken saved his most potent venom for William Jennings Bryan.
"It is a tragedy, indeed," he wrote, "to begin life as a hero and to end it as a buffoon. But let no one, laughing at him, underestimate the magic that lies in his black, malignant eye, his frayed but still eloquent voice. He can shake and inflame these poor ignoramuses as no other man among us can shake and inflame them, and he is desperately eager to order the charge."
As the temperature inside and outside the courtroom soared, Mencken found an escape. He bragged to another reporter that he spent his evenings in an airy suite on Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga with bootleg liquor and a fan blowing a cool breeze over a bathtub of ice.
In the third week of the trial, after Darrow lost his temper and insulted the judge, it appeared the show would soon be over. Reporters packed away their notepads and typewriters. Even H. L. Mencken left town. He would miss the most dramatic moment of the trial, when Clarence Darrow interrogated William Jennings Bryan before thousands of people on the courthouse lawn.
But though Mencken missed the great debate, his opinions about the trial continued to make front-page news. When Bryan died in his sleep five days after the trial ended, Mencken remarked privately, "We killed the son of a bitch." But his public reaction was that God had taken a thunderbolt and threw it down to kill Clarence Darrow but missed and hit Bryan instead.
At age sixty-two Mencken looked back on a full career as newspaperman, editor, writer and reviewer. "Like any other author," he wrote, "I have suffered from recurrent depressions and despairs, but taking one year with another I have had a fine time of it in this vale of sorrow, and no call to envy any man."
Mencken suffered a stroke in 1948 from which he never fully recovered. He died on January 29, 1956.
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