Mencken on Dull Writers and William J. Bryan

With the Scopes Trial Reenactment coming this weekend in Dayton, TN, I am reposted a bit I wrote back on October 24, 2004.

H.L. Mencken biographer and terrific New York drama/music/etc. critic Terry Teachout recently learned of a piece Mencken wrote for Vanity Fair in 1923 in response to a question about boring writers. The famous critical thinker (1880-1956) listed ten authors with a few additional thoughts: “Dostoevski, for some reason that I don’t know, simply stumps me; I have never been able to get through any of his novels. George Eliot I started to read too young, and got thereby a taste against her that is unsound but incurable. Against Cooper and Browning I was prejudiced by school-masters who admired them. As for Lawrence and Miss Stein, what makes them hard reading for me is simply the ineradicable conviction that beneath all their pompous manner there is nothing but tosh.”

Speaking of Terry’s biography, I saw it in an interesting rare book and memorabilia collection at my alma mater, Bryan College. Bryan is named for William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925), an orator for progressive politics and Biblical principles as well as a former candidate for presidency and the secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson. Bryan’s name is known to many as the man who argued against Clarence Darrow in the trial of John Scopes. The Scopes Trial drew a lot of media attention by design; the men behind the lawsuit, the ones who recruited Scopes to take blame for teaching evolution in public school, hoped to make a name for themselves and business for the area. Publicity encouraged Bryan threw his hat into the ring for the prosecution’s side which spurred Mencken to urge Darrow to join the defense. Mencken said, “Nobody gives a damn about that yap schoolteacher. The thing to do is to make a fool out of Bryan.”

The trial did not accomplish the planners objectives. It became a media event beyond their control. Darrow did put Bryan to an interrogation on the stand in an effort to make a fool out of him, and he cheated him out of a final address, in which Bryan planned to make his rebuttal. If you want to know what really happened there, forget about Inherit the Wind. Start here.

Bryan College wants to collect Bryan’s personal books and those about him, so they have worked toward that goal. A couple years ago they were offered even more–a large Mencken collection through a friendly association with a member of the H.L. Mencken Society. Representatives of the society came south to view an annual reenactment of the Scopes Trial in Dayton, TN. One of the members struck up a friendship with one of my English professors which eventually resulted in the generous donations of Mencken-related books and many copies of American Mercury, a journal he published. Today, Bryan’s library houses a unique and ironic collection of Bryan and Mencken material, side by side. With Terry’s book on the right side toward the back of the room.

3 thoughts on “Mencken on Dull Writers and William J. Bryan”

  1. More Americans should know about Bryan and Populism. The great Evangelical/Populist alliance that he represented is almost entirely forgotten today, and that skews our understanding of political history.

  2. Nor do people remember the “cross of gold” speech the way they used to.

    Mind you, I’d have probably been opposed to free silver at the time (though who can tell?), but it was a stemwinder of a speech, even so.

  3. How anyone could find Crime and Punishment boring I have no idea. This doesn’t say much for Mencken. (My impression of him is that he was Far too easily bored.)

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