H.L. Mencken, "To Expose a Fool."
Mencken was a prominent journalist and author during the 1920s. Noted for his acerbic wit and sarcastic tone, he defended modern innovations in science, the arts, and society while attacking those who sought to return America to older times and simpler ways. Rural evangelicals and religious fundamentalists were a favorite target, and he championed the cause of evolution in the famous Scopes monkey trial. Mencken persuaded influential attorney Clarence Darrow to take the case against William Jennings Bryan, the failed presidential candidate and now defender of creationism. Mencken’s obituary of Bryan reveals the author’s acid pen and dislike for Bryan.
“Has it been marked by historians that the late William Jennings Bryan’s
last secular act on this earth was to catch flies? A curious detail, and not
without its sardonic overtones. He was the most sedulous flycatcher in American
history, and by long odds the most successful. His quarry, or course, was not
Musca domestica but Homo neandertalensis . For forty years he tracked it with
snare and blunderbuss, up and down the backways of the Republic. Wherever the
flambeaux of Chautaqua smoked and guttered, and the bilge of Idealism ran in
the veins, and Baptist pastors dammed the brooks with the saved, and men gathered
who were weary and heavy laden, and their wives who were unyieldingly multiparous
and full of Peruna--there the indefatigable Jennings set up his traps and spread
his bait. He knew every forlorn country town in the South and West, and he could
crowd the most remote of them to suffocation by simply winding his horn. The
city proletariat, transiently flustered by him in 1896, quickly penetrated his
buncombe and would have no more of him; the gallery jeered at him at every Democratic
National Convention for twenty-five years. But out where the grass grows high,
and the horned cattle dream away the lazy day, and men still fear the powers
and principles of the air--out there between the corn-rows he held his old puissance
to the end. There was no need of beaters to drive his game. The news that he
was coming was enough. For miles the flivver dust would choke the roads. And
when he rose at the end of the day to discharge his Message there would be such
a breathless attention, such a rapt and enchanted ecstasy, such a sweet rustle
of amens as the world has not known since Johannan fell to Herod’s headsman.
There was something peculiarly fitting in the fact that his last days were spent in a one-horse Tennessee village, and that death found him there. The man felt at home in such scenes. He liked people who sweated freely, and were not debauched by the refinements of the toilet. Making his progress up and down the Main Street of little Dayton, surrounded by gaping primates from the upland valleys of the Cumberland Range, his coat laid aside, his bare arms and hairy chest shining damply, his bald head sprinkled with dust--so accoutred and on display he was obviously happy. He liked getting up early in the morning, to the tune of cocks crowing on the dunghill. He liked the heavy, greasy victuals of the farmhouse kitchen. He liked country lawyers, country pastors, all country people. I believe that this liking was sincere--perhaps the only sincere thing in the man. His nose showed no uneasiness when a hillman in faded overalls and hickory shirt accosted him on the street, and besought him for light upon some mystery of Holy Writ. The simian gabble of a country town was not gabble to him, but wisdom of an occult and superior sort. In the presence of city folks he was palpably uneasy. Their clothes, I suspect, annoyed him, and he was suspicious of their too delicate manners. He knew all the while that they were laughing at him--if not at his baroque theology, then at least at his alpaca pantaloons. But the yokels never laughed at him. To them he was not the huntsman but the prophet, and toward the end, as he gradually forsook mundane politics for purely ghostly concerns, they began to elevate him in their hierarchy. When he died he was the peer of Abraham.... His place in the Tennessee hagiocracy is secure. If the village barber saved any of his hair, then it is curing gall-stones down there today.
But what label will he bear in more urbane regions? One, I fear, of a far less flattering kind. Bryan lived too long, and descended too deeply into the mud, to be taken seriously hereafter by fully literate men, even of the kind who write school-books. There was a scattering of sweet words in his funeral notices, but it was not more than a response to conventional sentimentality. The best verdict the most romantic editorial writer could dredge up, save in the eloquent South, was t the general effect that his imbecilities were excused by his earnestness--that under his clowning, as under that of the juggler of Notre Dame, there was the zeal of a steadfast soul. But this was apology, not praise... The truth is that even Bryan’s sincerity will probably yield to what is called, in other fields, definitive criticism. Was he sincere when he opposed imperialism in the Philippines, or when he fed it with deserving Democrats in Santo Domingo? Was he sincere when he tried to shove the Prohibitionists under the table, or when he seized their banner and began to lead them with loud whoops? Was he sincere when he bellowed against war, or when he dreamed himself into a tin-soldier in uniform, with a grave reserved among the generals?... Was he sincere when he pleaded for tolerance in New York, or when he bawled for the fagot and the stake in Tennessee?
This talk of sincerity, I confess, fatigues me. If the fellow was sincere, then so was P.T. Barnum. The word is disgraced and degraded by such uses. He was, in fact, a charlatan, a mountebank, a zany without any shame or dignity. What animated him from end to end of his grotesque career was simply ambition--the ambition of a common man to get his hand upon the collar of his superiors, or, failing that, to get his thumb into their eyes. He was born with a roaring voice, and it had the trick of inflaming half-wits against their betters, that he himself might shine. His last battle will be grossly misunderstood if it is thought of as a mere exercise in fanaticism--that is, if Bryan the Fundamentalist Pope is mistaken for one of the bucolic Fundamentalists. There was much more in it than that, as everyone knows who saw him on the field. What moved him, at bottom, was simply hatred of city men who had laughed at him so long, and brought him at last to so tatterdemalion an estate. He lusted for revenge upon them. He yearned to lead the anthropoid rabble against them, to set Homo neandertalensis upon them, to punish them for the execution they had done upon him by attacking the very vitals of their civilization. He went far beyond the bounds of any merely religious frenzy, however inordinate. When he began denouncing the notion that man is a mammal even some of the hinds at Dayton were agape. And when, brought upon Darrow’s cruel hook, he writhed and tossed in a very fury of malignancy, bawling against the baldest elements of sense and decency like a man frantic--when he came to the tragic climax there were snickers among the hinds as well as hosannas.
Upon that hook, in truth, Byran committed suicide, as a legend as well as in the body. He staggered from the rustic court ready to die, and he staggered from it ready to be forgotten, save as a character in a third-rate farce, witless and in execrable taste. The chances are that history will put the peak of democracy in his time; it has been on the downward curve among us since the campaign of 1896. He will be remembered, perhaps, as its supreme impostor, the reduction ad adsurdum of its pretension. Bryan came very near being President of the United States. In 1896, it is possible, he was actually elected. He lived long enough to make patriots thank the inscrutable gods for Harding, even for Coolidge. Dulness has got into the White House, and the smell of cabbage boiling, but there is at least nothing to compare to the intolerable buffoonery that went on in Tennessee. The President of the United States doesn’t believe that the earth is square, and that witches should be put to death, and that Jonah swallowed the whale. The Golden Text is not painted weekly on the White House wall, and there is no need to keep ambassadors waiting while Pastor Simpson, of Smithville, prays for rain in the Blue Room. We have escaped something--by a narrow margin, but still safely.
That is, so far. The Fundamentalists continue at the wake, and sense gets a sort of reprieve. The legislature of Georgia, so the news comes, has shelved the anti-evolution bill, and turns its back upon the legislature of Tennessee. Elsewhere minorities prepare for battle--here an there with some assurance of success. But it is too early, it seems to me, to the firemen home; the fire is still burning on many a far-flung hill, and it may begin to roar again at any moment. The evil that men do lives after them. Bryan, in his malice, started something that will not be easy to stop. In ten thousand country town his old heelers, the evangelical pastors, are propagating his gospel, and everywhere the yokels are ready for it. When he disappeared from the big cities, the big cities made the capital error of assuming that he was done for. If they heard of him at all, it was only as a crimp for real-estate speculators--the heroic foe of the unearned increment hauling it in with both hands. He seemed preposterous, and hence harmless. But all the while he was busy among his old lieges, preparing for a jacquerie that should floor all his enemies at one blow. He did the job competently. He had vast skill at such enterprises. Heave an egg out of a Pullman window, and you will hit a Fundamentalist almost anywhere in the United States today. They swarm in the country towns, inflamed by their pastors, and with a saint, now, to venerate. They are thick in the mean streets behind the gasworks. They are everywhere that learning is to heavy a burden for mortal works. They are everywhere that learning is too heavy a burden for mortal minds, even the vague, pathetic learning on tap in little red schoolhouses. They march with the Klan, with the Christian Endeavor Society, with the Junior Order of United American Mechanics, with the Epworth League, with all the rococo bands that poor and unhappy folk organize to bring some light of purpose into their lives. They have had a thrill, and they are ready for more.
Such is Bryan’s legacy to his country. He couldn’t be President, but he could at least help magnificently in the solemn business of shutting off the presidency from every intelligent and self-respecting man. The storm, perhaps, won’t last long, as times goes in history. It may help, indeed, to break up the democratic delusion, now already showing weakness, and so hasten its own end. But while it lasts it will blow off some roofs and flood some sanctuaries.
American Mercury, October 1925, pp. 158-160.