Mencken week: day 7

To finish off Mencken Week, I’m posting HLM’s obituary of one of his nemeses: William Jennings Bryan, whom Mencken excoriated in his reports on the Scopes Trial. Bryan died almost immediately after the trial concluded, and Mencken published this scathing obituary in the Baltimore Evening Sun on July 27, 1925. Those who think we should always speak well of the dead won’t like this—indeed, it’s almost too vitriolic for me. Reminiscent of Christopher Hitchens’s remarks about the passing of Jerry Falwell, it’s nonetheless vintage Mencken, full of bombastic and evocative language.  No widely-read newspaper would publish anything like this today.

William Jennings Bryan

It was plain to everyone, when Bryan came to Dayton, that his great days were behind him — that he was now definitely an old man, and headed at last for silence. There was a vague, unpleasant manginess about his appearance; he somehow seemed dirty, though a close glance showed him carefully shaved, and clad in immaculate linen. All the hair was gone from the dome of his head, and it had begun to fall out, too, behind his ears, like that of the late Samuel Gompers. The old resonance had departed from his voice: what was once a bugle blast had become reedy and quavering. Who knows that, like Demosthenes, he had a lisp? In his prime, under the magic of his eloquence, no one noticed it. But when he spoke at Dayton it was always audible.

When I first encountered him, on the sidewalk in front of the Hicks brothers law office, the trial was yet to begin, and so he was still expansive and amiable. I had printed in the Nation, a week or so before, an article arguing that the anti-evolution law, whatever its unwisdom, was at least constitutional — that policing school teachers was certainly not putting down free speech. The old boy professed to be delighted with the argument, and gave the gaping bystanders to understand that I was a talented publicist. In turn I admired the curious shirt he wore — sleeveless and with the neck cut very low. We parted in the manner of two Spanish ambassadors.

But that was the last touch of affability that I was destined to see in Bryan. The next day the battle joined and his face became hard. By the end of the first week he was simply a walking malignancy. Hour by hour he grew more bitter. What the Christian Scientists call malicious animal magnetism seemed to radiate from him like heat from a stove. From my place in the court-room, standing upon a table, I looked directly down upon him, sweating horribly and pumping his palm-leaf fan. His eyes fascinated me: I watched them all day long. They were blazing points of hatred. They glittered like occult and sinister gems. Now and then they wandered to me, and I got my share. It was like coming under fire.

II

What was behind that consuming hatred? At first I thought that it was mere evangelical passion. Evangelical Christianity, as everyone knows, is founded upon hate, as the Christianity of Christ was founded upon love. But even evangelical Christians occasionally loose their belts and belch amicably; I have known some who, off duty, were very benignant. In that very courtroom, indeed, were some of them — for example, old Ben McKenzie, Nestor of the Dayton bar, who sat beside Bryan. Ben was full of good humor. He made jokes with Darrow. But Bryan only glared.

One day it dawned on me that Bryan, after all, was an evangelical Christian only by sort of afterthought — that his career in this world, and the glories thereof, had actually come to an end before he ever began whooping for Genesis. So I came to this conclusion: that what really moved him was a lust for revenge. The men of the cities had destroyed him and made a mock of him; now he would lead the yokels against them. Various facts clicked into the theory, and I hold it still. The hatred in the old man’s burning eyes was not for the enemies of God; it was for the enemies of Bryan.

Thus he fought his last fight, eager only for blood. It quickly became frenzied and preposterous, and after that pathetic. All sense departed from him. He bit right and left, like a dog with rabies. He descended to demagogy so dreadful that his very associates blushed. His one yearning was to keep his yokels heated up — to lead his forlorn mob against the foe. That foe, alas, refused to be alarmed. It insisted upon seeing the battle as a comedy. Even Darrow, who knew better, occasionally yielded to the prevailing spirit. Finally, he lured poor Bryan into a folly almost incredible.

I allude to his astounding argument against the notion that man is a mammal. I am glad I heard it, for otherwise I’d never believe it. There stood the man who had been thrice a candidate for the Presidency of the Republic — and once, I believe, elected — there he stood in the glare of the world, uttering stuff that a boy of eight would laugh at! The artful Darrow led him on: he repeated it, ranted for it, bellowed it in his cracked voice. A tragedy, indeed! He came into life a hero, a Galahad, in bright and shining armor. Now he was passing out a pathetic fool.

III

Worse, I believe that he somehow sensed the fact — that he realized his personal failure, whatever the success of the grotesque cause he spoke for. I had left Dayton before Darrow’s cross-examination brought him to his final absurdity, but I heard his long speech against the admission of expert testimony, and I saw how it fell flat and how Bryan himself was conscious of the fact. When he sat down he was done for, and he knew it. The old magic had failed to work; there was applause but there was no exultant shouts. When, half an hour later, Dudley Field Malone delivered his terrific philippic, the very yokels gave him five times the clapper-clawing that they had given to Bryan.

This combat was the old leader’s last, and it symbolized in more than one way his passing. Two women sat through it, the one old and crippled, the other young and in the full flush of beauty. The first was Mrs. Bryan; the second was Mrs. Malone. When Malone finished his speech the crowd stormed his wife with felicitations, and she glowed as only a woman can who has seen her man fight a hard fight and win gloriously. But no one congratulated Mrs. Bryan. She sat hunched in her chair near the judge, apparently very uneasy. I thought then that she was ill — she has been making the round of sanitariums for years, and was lately in the hands of a faith-healer — but now I think that some appalling prescience was upon her, and that she saw in Bryan’s eyes a hint of the collapse that was so near.

He sank into his seat a wreck, and was presently forgotten in the blast of Malone’s titanic rhetoric. His speech had been maundering feeble and often downright idiotic. Presumably, he was speaking to a point of law, but it was quickly apparent that he knew no more law than the bailiff at the door. So he launched into mere violet garrulity. He dragged in snatches of ancient chautauqua addresses; he wandered up hill and down dale. Finally, Darrow lured him into that fabulous imbecility about man as a mammal. He sat down one of the most tragic asses in American history.

IV

It is the national custom to sentimentalize the dead, as it is to sentimentalize men about to be hanged. Perhaps I fall into that weakness here. The Bryan I shall remember is the Bryan of his last weeks on earth — broken, furious, and infinitely pathetic. It was impossible to meet his hatred with hatred to match it. He was winning a battle that would make him forever infamous wherever enlightened men remembered it and him. Even his old enemy, Darrow, was gentle with him at the end. That cross-examination might have been ten times as devastating. It was plain to everyone that the old Berseker Bryan was gone — that all that remained of him was a pair of glaring and horrible eyes.

But what of his life? Did he accomplish any useful thing? Was he, in his day, of any dignity as a man, and of any value to his fellow-men? I doubt it. Bryan, at his best, was simply a magnificent job-seeker. The issues that he bawled about usually meant nothing to him. He was ready to abandon them whenever he could make votes by doing so, and to take up new ones at a moment’s notice. For years he evaded Prohibition as dangerous; then he embraced it as profitable. At the Democratic National Convention last year he was on both sides, and distrusted by both. In his last great battle there was only a baleful and ridiculous malignancy. If he was pathetic, he was also disgusting.

Bryan was a vulgar and common man, a cad undiluted. He was ignorant, bigoted, self-seeking, blatant and dishonest. His career brought him into contact with the first men of his time; he preferred the company of rustic ignoramuses. It was hard to believe, watching him at Dayton, that he had traveled, that he had been received in civilized societies, that he had been a high officer of state*. He seemed only a poor clod like those around him, deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things. He was a peasant come home to the dung-pile. Imagine a gentleman, and you have imagined everything that he was not.

The job before democracy is to get rid of such canaille. If it fails, they will devour it.

_______

*Bryan was a candidate for President of the U.S. three times, and served as Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson

31 Comments

  1. Dawn Oz
    Posted May 25, 2012 at 3:39 am | Permalink

    I guess that because Jerry thought the obit was callous, I was prepared for something much worse. He was trying explain how someone who had so many opportunities to rise to the scholarly lofty intentions of the ancient Greeks, had used his language skills for the basest of reasons, namely to stop post Enlightenment thought blowing through the land. That he was a traitor to logical and scientific thought and was the kind of person who would have stirred ignorance with his arrogance to create aggression. I can see him with the vilest of dictators being their wordsmith. He was a scary dude!

    • Iggy
      Posted May 26, 2012 at 6:38 am | Permalink

      The Obit is of course one long ad hominem, but it is interesting that Bryan was Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson

      In a very honorable move, Bryan resigned as Secretary of Stare rather than support Wilson in breaking his promise to keep the United States out of the World War.

      • Tim
        Posted May 26, 2012 at 9:46 am | Permalink

        Contrast that to Colin Powell, who played the good soldier and went to the United Nations and spewed what he knew were lies in order to “support the president”. Never that his oath of office says he is bound to support and defend the Constitution.

  2. Sigmund
    Posted May 25, 2012 at 4:20 am | Permalink

    Great writing by Mencken but it comes across as far more cruel than Hitchens talk of Falwell – for the simple reason that Falwell died as he lived all of his life – as a fundamentalist opponent of progress. Jennings Bryan, on the other hand, while he may have died a religious fundamentalist, was not always in that camp. He did stand for some progressive causes in his youth, for example supporting womens suffrage. While Mencken may be correct in his verdict of where Bryan ended up as a man, he is on less steady ground when he dismisses Bryans earlier stances as purely opportunistic. Steven Jay Gould, I think, has written about this tragic aspect of the life of Jennings Bryan.

  3. Posted May 25, 2012 at 4:45 am | Permalink

    Mencken’s writings about accomodationism are worthy a look. His summary of the aftermath of the Scopes trial (http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/menck05.htm#SCOPESD) contains some gems:

    “…What the World’s [the World was a newspaper which chided Darrow and crew for chalenging Bryan's superstitions frontally--LJ] contention amounts to, at bottom, is simply the doctrine that a man engaged in combat with superstition should be very polite to superstition. This, I fear, is nonsense. The way to deal with superstition is not to be polite to it, but to tackle it with all arms, and so rout it, cripple it, and make it forever infamous and ridiculous. Is it, perchance, cherished by persons who should know better? Then their folly should be brought out into the light of day, and exhibited there in all its hideousness until they flee from it, hiding their heads in shame.”

    “What should be a civilized man’s attitude toward such superstitions? It seems to me that the only attitude possible to him is one of contempt. If he admits that they have any intellectual dignity whatever, he admits that he himself has none. If he pretends to a respect for those who believe in them, he pretends falsely, and sinks almost to their level. When he is challenged he must answer honestly, regardless of tender feelings. That is what Darrow did at Dayton, and the issue plainly justified the act.”

    • Posted May 25, 2012 at 6:25 am | Permalink

      Indeed Mencken was a “New Atheist” long before the label was coined, and a Militant one for sure (that’s a capital M). So the Gnus and their arguments are not new; we’re treading ground that has already been trod by people who are now largely forgotten. And yet religion persists and is more virulent than ever it would seem. What does that presage for the success of the New Atheist movement? What has changed that would augur success this time around? The Internet? The voices of religion have the Internet also. And it seems that people tend to seek websites that confirm their pre-existing ideas and biases.

      • Posted May 25, 2012 at 6:43 am | Permalink

        “…people tend to seek websites that confirm their pre-existing ideas and biases.”

        This bias is built into the internet now—Google and some other search engines try to predict a person’s preferences based on their past browsing history, and preferentially return search results which match these preferences.

        The DuckDuckGo search engine doesn’t do this. Maybe there are other neutral search engines as well. But they are rare.

        • Posted May 25, 2012 at 7:42 am | Permalink

          Thanks for the link, never heard of DuckDuckGo. Unfortunately the Internet has made it possible for every idea, no matter how crackpot, to acquire a critical mass of like-minded believers. This phenomenon has tended to fragment the world into camps of people who daily reinforce each others beliefs. This is the same phenomenon that makes religion so strong I think: at least once a week the religious meet with each other to pay allegiance to the same set of idiotic ideas, and in such a supportive environment it seems obvious to them that their beliefs MUST be correct. So the Internet has the ability to expose people to a wide range of ideas, but I wonder to what degree it actually achieves this.

  4. gbjames
    Posted May 25, 2012 at 5:41 am | Permalink

    “A baleful and ridiculous malignancy”. I wish I could turn a phrase like that.

  5. Posted May 25, 2012 at 5:56 am | Permalink

    A man who chooses to lie in such a way as Bryan deserves all of the ridicule and venom one can muster. There is little reason to laud a man who does that, even if to preserve what little good he did. He can serve as an example, nothing more.

  6. Claimthehighground
    Posted May 25, 2012 at 6:08 am | Permalink

    As I read this I thought, William Lane Craig has died?

  7. Tim
    Posted May 25, 2012 at 6:12 am | Permalink

    Bryan had to endure a lot of political slings and arrows to get to the pathetic state he occupied at his denouement. Rick Santorum got there a damned sight faster.

  8. Posted May 25, 2012 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    Mencken calls Bryan “the man who had been thrice a candidate for the Presidency of the Republic — and once, I believe, elected”. What’s that last bit about? Didn’r Bryan lose by substantial margins all three times, both in the popular vote and in the electoral college? Is there some clever joke here that I’m missing?

  9. TJR
    Posted May 25, 2012 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    I’d never heard of Bryan so had a look at the Wikipedia article on him.

    Hmm, similarities to Tony Blair anyone?

    • Steve
      Posted May 25, 2012 at 7:18 am | Permalink

      Similar to any number of politicians. The last paragraph of the obituary should be a warning to all in this election year.

    • Susan Ingram
      Posted May 26, 2012 at 1:43 am | Permalink

      Tony Blair came straight to my mind aswell

  10. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted May 25, 2012 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    Only in the final section does HLM criticize the earlier career of Byron, characterizing him as an opportunist. Apparently, bio-novelist Irving Stone had a similar view of Bryan. On the other hand, Harry Truman admired Bryan for “keeping liberalism alive” in America. (As I noted on the previous Mencken post, Bryan was politically a populist progressive, a pacifist, and an opponent of the gold standard and powerful banks.) See the “Legacy” section of the Wikipedia article on Bryan for more detailed account of both Stone and Truman’s account of Bryan.

    There’s an excellent excuse handy for speaking ill of Jerry Falwell. As Bill Maher put it “I don’t like to speak ill of the dead, but Jerry Falwell made a hobby of it.” Thus, Falwell’s remarks about AIDS and 9/11 make him a fair candidate for post-mortem mockery. I don’t see that in Bryan. If Mencken is right, than at the Scopes trial, Bryan was a shadow of his former self, a classic “grumpy old man”.

    I feel Mencken is too harsh on both Bryan and Arthur Eddington.

    • RFW
      Posted May 25, 2012 at 8:24 am | Permalink

      “The good that men do dies with them; the evil lives on afterwards.”

  11. Hempenstein
    Posted May 25, 2012 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    The commentary at the end of the linked obit is quite interesting. Seems that WJB’s great granddaughter Helen Hicks trawls the internet defending her g’grandfather. Who knows – perhaps she’ll surface here?

    • MadScientist
      Posted May 25, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

      Wow … isn’t that pathetic. I wonder if the Bryans have a pathetic gene.

  12. RFW
    Posted May 25, 2012 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    Mencken also wrote an obituary of Bryan, published in the October 1925 of Mencken’s magazine, The American Mercury, and reprinted in “The American Mercury Reader” (Philadelphia: Blakiston, 1944).

    In it he blames Bryan for having been the first in American politics to play the religion card and stir up the fundies, a detail not noted in the present blast.

    “The American Mercury Reader” is readily available from the usual online sources of second-hand books, and not for much money, in case anyone wants to read it for themselves.

  13. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted May 25, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    Evangelical Christianity, as everyone knows, is founded upon hate, as the Christianity of Christ was founded upon love.
    .
    Yes indeed.

    • Claimthehighground
      Posted May 25, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

      “Founded upon love??” Check how loving they were to Marcion, the Tomasines, and countless other gnostics & “incorrect believers” of the late first & second centuries. Peter, James and Paul didn’t agree on much, but they knew how to keep their brand of “love” as the only surviving dogma.

      • JonLynnHarvey
        Posted May 25, 2012 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

        Marcion was around when Peter James and Paul were all long gone

  14. MadScientist
    Posted May 25, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    “… he preferred the company of rustic ignoramuses.”

    Ah, these days that’s mostly the GoP although the other party also has its share.

  15. Derek
    Posted May 25, 2012 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

    I just read Bryan’s planned closing speech for the Scopes trial (Darrow maneuvered to end the trial w/o closing arguments, so it was never delivered).

    It’s a horror show of misrepresentations, misunderstandings, and venomous language that will be familiar to anyone who has dealt with anti-evolution screeds.

    It’s available here, http://www.csudh.edu/oliver/smt310-handouts/wjb-last/wjb-last.htm if you’ve got a strong stomach.

  16. Posted May 26, 2012 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    That was back in the day when liberal elitists were proud to be elitists (unlike today’s elitists who pretend to be ‘common’) and calling someone vulgar and common was a grave insult. Of course, Mencken’s rather biased and inaccurate description of Bryan led to the even more inaccurate and mythological portrayal of Bryan in the play/movie Inherit the Wind. Bryan was an old man during the trial and from other less biased accounted maintained a great deal of dignity and poise. He did actually win the case, after all, and even felt sorry for Scopes and paid his fine. Compared to some of Mencken’s comments about the table manners of Jewish immigrants, he was actually rather nice to Bryan and his rural ‘ignoramuses’.

  17. Posted May 26, 2012 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    That was back in the day when liberal elitists were proud to be elitists (unlike today’s elitists who pretend to be ‘common’) and calling someone vulgar and common was an insult. Of course, Mencken’s rather biased and inaccurate description of Bryan led to the even more inaccurate and mythological portrayal of Bryan in the play/movie Inherit the Wind. Bryan was an old man during the trial and from other less biased accounted maintained a great deal of dignity and poise. He did actually win the case, and even felt sorry for Scopes and paid his fine. Compared to some of Mencken’s comments about the table manners of Jewish immigrants, he was actually nice to Bryan and his rural ignoramuses.

  18. sailor1031
    Posted May 26, 2012 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    “The job before democracy is to get rid of such canaille. If it fails, they will devour it.”

    I guess, in 2012, democracy has failed and the canaille have indeed devoured it.

  19. gerard26
    Posted May 26, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    What a great series of articles by HLM they entertaining as well as informative.

  20. Hoodoo
    Posted June 1, 2012 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    I find that Huffingtonpost contributor Karl Giberson provides a balanced caveat to this post. Here’s his post: .


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] Coyne just wrapped up “Mencken Week” over at Why Evolution Is True by posting Mencken’s excoriating obituary of William Jennings Bryan. Bryan, who failed three [...]

  2. [...] prominent new atheist blogger has just completed a week-long series paying homage to the great journalist H. L. Mencken, best known for his coverage of the 1925 Scopes Trial. The series represents ongoing efforts to [...]

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