What is it they say about truth in any debate?
In any case, I finished it a few weeks ago, but have been slow to get a review posted. I like to review the books I’ve finished, partly because I know that some of my fellow Toyah posters, and probably some readers too, have similar reading tastes; but mostly to remind myself later of what the book was about.
So, Summer for the Gods. It’s not a very long book, just 266 pages. It comes in three parts: the pre-trial, the trial, and the post-trial, which is to say, the myth that the Scopes Trial became. In the pre-trial section, we learn a lot about Dayton, TN: a new town, a town looking for a way to get their name on the map. Several leading men of Dayton decided that testing Tennessee’s new anti-evolution was just the ticket. Surprising to me, the discussion over whether to have a trial and whom to indict was completely cordial. It was understood from the beginning that there would be no punishment for John Scopes if he were convicted. The whole idea was to get some publicity for Dayton, TN---not to be the showdown for evolution vs. creation.
Things got out of hand, though, and the local lawyers who were initially involved proved unable to control the case, leading to the involvement of the young ACLU and Clarence Darrow for the defense, and William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution. Their involvement made the Scopes trial the circus it became. The trial itself is the most gripping part of the story, if a story about a long-ago court case can be called gripping. But certainly the people of the day thought it was. Whenever the rumor went around that Darrow or Bryan were to speak the next day, huge throngs of people showed up. When Darrow called Bryan to the stand, the judge decided to move the court out-of-doors to accommodate the crowd.
The most significant part of the Scopes trial, however, was not the buildup nor the trial itself (which convicted John Scopes but was later dismissed at the appellate level on a technicality). Scopes became important because of the myth. In this myth, the trial was a titanic collision between the forces of evolution and the forces of creation. Or between the forces of evil and the forces of good. Or perhaps it was a battle between the forces of progressivism and the forces of fundamentalism. Or maybe it was science versus ignorance. It was all of those things to everyone. At the time, however, the evolutionists thought they had lost. Tennessee’s anti-evolution law stayed on the books, and several other states in the South also passed anti-evolution laws in the following years. By 1955, when Scopes was remade into a commentary on McCarthyism in the play Inherit the Wind, the memory had changed due to Only Yesterday, a book by a 1920’s journalist named George Allen. He went through the headlines from the ‘20’s and grossly simplified them, concluding that Scopes was a decisive defeat for old-time religion. Inherit the Wind carried Allen’s interpretation on, and has become the standard source of information on the Scopes Trial, despite the fact that neither Allen nor the writers of Inherit the Wind intended to write history, and in fact changed the record to suit their purposes.
From Only Yesterday on, Scopes has endured as "the monkey trial" where evolution won and creation lost. A review of the historical record shows that the truth was hardly so simple: at the time, both sides thought that creationists were victorious. Summer for the Gods thus demonstrates that no fact is more uncertain as the one that everyone assumes to be true.
By the way, here's a lawyer's take on Tennessee v. Scopes, as told by Summer for the Gods.