95 of 102 people found the following review helpful
Edward Larson has accomplished something wonderful with this book. In only 266 pages (318 including footnotes and index), he has captured the flow of cultural issues surrounding science, education, and religion in the early twentieth century, the political goals and maneuvering of the parties involved, the actual Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee with the dénouement of the appeal, the falsifying of the events involved in the popular culture, and the ongoing cultural impact of the issues involved in this trial.
As I read I found myself marveling at how Larson so richly captures the cultural forces coming together like tectonic plates and crashing into the Scopes trial. I haven't seen as fair a treatment of the issues involved for all the varying parties (there were many more self-interested folks than Darrow and Bryan) on any other subject. To have that time before the trial captured in such a beautiful way is very valuable.
As others have noted, the notion of the trial started as a publicity stunt to promote the hard luck town of Dayton, TN. The ACLU wanted a narrowly defined test case to overturn the laws forbidding the teaching of evolution. Darrow and his crowd wanted to attack religion more than work out the civil liberties issues involved, Bryan cared more about the rights of the parents as taxpayers to control what their children were taught. Remember, universal public education was still a rather new thing in 1925 and parents then, as now, want to have the education support them in raising their children. The education establishment then, as now, feels a responsibility to teach what they think best.
Bryan and many others were also concerned about the political uses to which evolution had recently been put in the name of survival of the fittest. It isn't a simple issue and shouldn't be turned into a cartoon. Especially since we are in some ways still grappling with these issues.
Yes, Bryan was also a Fundamentalist (although some were more Fundamental than him because he didn't insist on the strict 6 days of 24 hours for the Creation), but imposing that belief wasn't his goal.
Clarifying the truth of the trial versus the popular perceptions in our culture provided by "Only Yesterday" and "Inherit the Wind" is a very valuable service provided by this book. However, the culture seems to want the oversimplification and distortions of "Inherit the Wind" more than the truth of Scopes being a willing participant in a test case more or less on a lark. Or that Scopes never really "taught" evolution. He had used the textbook provided to him by the school and it discussed evolution, but he may never have gotten to that section since he wasn't the regular biology teacher. He taught physics, math, and football and was substituting in the biology class.
The book has a number of very nice pictures that also help capture the period of the trial and the characters involved.
One especially small quibble is that the book does not address the difference between the anti-clerical activities in Great Britain and their political nature because of the state power of the Church and the anti-clerical activities in the United States that were really anti-religion. In fact, a great deal of the fundamentalist backlash against evolution came out of this anti-religion sentiment.
I think it a reasonable view to say that most of the reaction against evolution wasn't from a considered rejection of the theory, but a reaction against being attacked by those who wanted to free America of religion. We didn't have a state church, although most in power were also believers (or publicly posed as believers). The anti-clerical movement was transplanted but to somewhat different effect here than in Europe where evolution was not seen as necessarily inconsistent with Faith (as it has become to be viewed here). But this is a trivial point compared to many wonderful insights this book provides.
28 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on September 9, 2006
The Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 combined two great American virtues: 1.) Individual Rights and 2.) The need to make a quick buck. One of the aspects of Larson's book that really comes through is how staged the whole trial was. From the initial meeting of the town fathers with Scopes to convince him to be a Defendant, to the State's decision to nolle prosse the conviction after it was overturned on a technicality, most everything was merely thespian. One of the most insightful stories that Larson relates is when the team of ACLU defense lawyers arrived in Dayton for trial preparation, a young man started to help them with their luggage out of the trunk. One of the lawyers shouted: "Hey boy, what are you doing with those suitcases!" Little did the lawyer know that that boy was John Scopes, the teacher that was charged with teaching evolution in a Tennessee public school. As Larson writes: "The defenders, along with everyone else, had forgotten the defendant." The author writes in this great concise book that the Scopes Monkey trial was less about Scopes, Darrow or Bryan and more about emerging fundamentalism versus a growing American concern of individual rights and liberties. As such, Dayton and John Scopes were essentially bit players in a staged battle between forces that still determine how Americans feel and think to this day. Not only does Larson concern himself with the broader sociological effects of the trial, he also talks about the ACLU's and the prosecutions trial strategy, which, as a lawyer, I found fascinating. Contemporary history has interpreted the Scopes Trial as the high water mark of Fundamentalism, being that the Butler Act and other similar legislation has been struck down as unconstitutional. "Summer" makes this very plain that this in fact was the opening salvo in the Fundamentalist battle and not the death throes. It is not a stretch to argue that the beginnings of the Mega-Church and the Fundamentalist college movement began in Dayton in 1925. Thus, as H.L. Mencken wrote that year: the fundamentalists and "Bryan started something that it will not be easy to stop."
22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
This Pulitzer Prize winning book is a careful attempt to dispell the myths surrounding the Scopes Trial. As Larson points out, these misconceptions stem largely from popular accounts of the trial, such as the play Inherit The Wind, which tend to present the conflict as one between dogmatic and oppressive fundamentalist religion and enlightened liberal rationalism. History, as usual, is much more complex, as shown in the nuanced and fair minded account. The book is essentially divided into 3 parts; a description and analysis of the social and intellectual currents that lead to the trial, a narrative of the trial itself, and an account of the short-term and long-term impact of the trial.
All sections are very well written with ample documentation from primary sources and a nice combination of the author's narrative and quotations. This book is relatively short but covers all the important features and a lot of telling detail in thorough manner. Perhaps the most interesting portions are the initial chapters describing the genesis of the trial. Far from being a straightforward conflict between dogmatic religion and liberal rationalism, the trial occurred because of a nexus of semi-independent currents. One important feature was the existence of strong conflicts within American Protestantism between so-called modernizers and more traditional elements, though these traditional elements developed some aspects of a more radical reaction. The foes of evolution were far from dogmatic literalists. William Jennings Bryan, for example, espoused non-literal interpretations of key aspects of Scripture and a theistic view of evolution, several of whose key features he accepted as true. Bryan and many of his allies were driven by concerns that evolution related doctrines, such as Social Darwinism, were anti-democratic. They were concerned, however, that materialist doctrines like evolution were undermining the status of religion and a source of moral corruption. Bryan was concerned also with majoritarian views on public education, consistent with his long-standing populism. At the same time, the trial occurred at a time when the scientific community was becoming increasingly convinced of the validity of Darwinian positions, fueled by recent developments in genetics and paleontology. The consolidation of the scientific consensus did narrow the ground on which scientists could meet religion. The trial was mounted as test case by the nascent ACLU, which was concerned less with the religous aspects than with its efforts to expand 1st amendment rights and academic freedom. In some respects, the Scopes Trial was less a conflict between right and left than a family feud between different components of the Progressive movement that had fractured during WWI. The ACLU underwrote both prosecution and defense expenses and the trial was conducted in a relatively collegial atmosphere. Contrary to the impression from Inherit The Wind, if anyone succeeded, its was the anti-evolution side as the trial was followed by anti-evolution statutes in other southern states and revision of high school biology texts to soft-pedal evolution.
Larson closes by discussing how some themes of the Scopes Trial persist in our society. Again, this is a even handed discussion. Evangelical concerns about the corrupting effects of materialist ideas continue, and again, there is some sense among evangelicals that basic principles are under siege. A point not mentioned by Larson is that research of the last 20-30 years has strongly supported crucial features of evolutionary theory and the theory is much stronger and more complete than it was in 1920s. Entangled with these issues are perennial American conflicts over majority rule versus minority rights and what constitutes the boundaries of free speech and academic freedom.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on January 26, 2010
I was rather disappointed by this book, especially since it was Larson's fascinating series of lectures Theory of Evolution: A History of Controversy (6 audio Cassettes) (The Great Courses Teaching that Engages the Mind), issued by the Teaching Company, that first interested me in the general subject.. It is divided into three sections: a look at American society before the trial, the trial, and the aftermath.
The first section gives an account of American society at the time of the trial. It seems to reflect a wealth of study and knowledge, but the attempt to put such an enormous amount of detailed information into such a small space, 73 pages, makes it a bit cryptic. I remember sections of it as a numbing barrage of names.
The second part is an account of the trial itself, a much better written subject. Here it depends on how much the reader wants to know. The best account that I have seen of the trial is L. Sprague de Camp's The Great Monkey Trial. That is narrowly focused on the trial itself, and greatly exceeds this account in detail, 493 pages versus 107 pages for Larson. De Camp provides careful analysis, but he also quotes from contemporary documents at length, and allows the reader to draw some conclusions. There are differences in the authorial stance. Larson attempts to reveal as little as possible about his own attitudes here and throughout the book, while de Camp is quite frank that he believes in evolution and is no fundamentalist. I do think that de Camp makes a great effort to be fair, however. Interestingly enough, Larson does not mention this book in his review of writings about the trial.
The third section, about the history of controversy after the trial is the best part of the book. It is a bit more narrowly focussed and less dense with detail than the first section. It is, of course, somewhat out of date now in 2010, but that is inevitable. I do heartily recommend tracking down his The Theory of Evolution : a History of Controversy tapes if you have any interest at all in the larger controversy.
The book is illustrated with editorial cartoons, portraits and other pictures. There are bibliographical notes and an index.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on January 25, 2001
Larson's book is an interesting historical review of the Monkey Trials and the events that led to it. As a history of the trial itself, the book is wanting. As a fan of Inherit the Wind, the legal confrontation between Darrow and Bryan was a prime reason for my picking the book in the first instance. However, Larson seems to concentrate more on the hows and whys of the trial rather than what actually happened.
Where the book excels is in the description of the historical context of the trial and the results. For instance, the description of how the trial helped led to the development of both the ACLU and the Christian Right is a strength. Furthermore, the interplay between Darrow, who was not wanted by the ACLU, and the ACLU was fascinating. The bottom line is that Larson does a fine job of placing the Monkey Trial in the proper historical context.
All in all, this was a good read. The writing is excellent and flows easily.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on March 6, 2001
The Scopes Monkey Trial of July, 1925 must surely be one of the most misunderstood events in American history.
Numerous school district reading lists (on the Internet) describe the play/film "Inherit the Wind" as though it were an historically accurate account of the trial.
Worse yet, an American professor of law, interviewed by Australian radio station ABC Radio National, in March 1999 (transcript is on the Internet) managed to get wrong:
The way in which Scopes became involved
The length of the trial
How Bryan and Darrow got involved
And even the decade ion which the US Supreme Court handed down the Arkansas decision on the constitutionality of teaching creationism!
So thank the Lord and pass Edward Larson's "Summer for the Gods", a supreme work of scholarship, yet written in the kind of high-readability style of a John Grisham thriller.
The only other attempt to make a thorough, FACTUAL study of the Scopes Trial was Ray Ginger's 1958 book "Six Days or Forever?". Unfortunately the validity of that earlier work was seriously undermined by Ginger's very obvious bias, especially against William Jennings Bryan.
Larson's book suffers from no such flaws, as far as I can tell, treating both defense and prosecution in a thoroughly even-handed fashion. Having said that, Larson does uncover the truth about several myths surrounding the trial - such as the "real" reason why the defense experts only gave their evidence in the form of affadavits.
(It wasn't as simple as the Judge refusing to allow expert testimony.)
There's much, much more I could say in praise of this book, but it all boils down to this:
If you have any interest whatever in the Scopes Monkey Trial, you won't find a better book on the subject than this.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on December 24, 2005
I had to do a research project on the Scopes Trial last year, among the 30+ resources I consulted, this was by far the best. Larson did what many others failed to do: he went back far enough. Many other books on this topic tend to give only a brief background to this trial, but Larson traces the devlopments of fundamentalism and the ALCU, as well as the creation/evolution debate.
This whole trial is very fun to study, and shows the fallability of both sides in the trial. The rich language makes it very enjoyable to read the interiews and court speeches which one would have thought would be very boring. Lots of hell talk and heated discussion, and not a few insults were hurled back and forth. All in all, a very interesting read, and some good history to know, with culture being given an EXTREMELY distorted version of the trial in Lee's "Inherit the Wind," a truly awful representation of the trial, which has almost no historical base.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on November 15, 1998
Like many of my generation, I learned of the Scopes "Monkey" Trial through the Lawrence and Lee play, "Inherit the Wind." Edward J. Larson's Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion is a fine and lively historical account of the trial and its aftermath. Winner of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize, Larson's book sets the battle between fundamentalist religion and the "modern" science of Darwinism in both an historical and cultural context. In the 1920s, several states attempted to pass anti-evolution laws, and Tennessee finally succeeded in 1925. Thereafter, the ACLU found a test plaintiff in teacher John Scopes, and a test venue in the sleepy town of Dayton, Tennessee, which hoped to use the trial to "get on the map" and increase tourism. Using newspaper accounts, memoirs, and other contemporaneous sources, Larson displays in vivid detail both the seriousness and naivete of the battle between religion and science, William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow. He also argues, convincingly for me, that the trial did not -- contrary to the Lawrence and Lee depiction -- leave Bryan a broken man (although he died within a week of the verdict). Going beyond the trial and its immediate aftermath, the final section of this book examines how later historians and writers -- including Lawrence and Lee -- have interpreted and often mis-interpreted the trial for later generations. In particular, Larson argues that "Inherit the Wind", like the Arthur Miller classic "The Crucible", must be viewed as both a product of and attack upon the McCarthy era of the 1950's. This is an insightful and enjoyable account.
19 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on June 12, 2002
It is incredibly ironic that the Scopes trial, promised by both the prosecution and the defense to be a battle for the truth, is represented in popular & religious culture and, most unfortunately, taught in classrooms in a largely false manner. This book won the Pulitzer Prize in History for good reason; it is the first (and best) attempt to accurately reflect not only the Scopes trial but also the events before it and the three-quarters worth of a century that followed.
As one who fell asleep while trying to watch "Inherit the Wind," I find the truth far more rivetting. The bredth of the defense team.. and the strong convictions and performances of Arthur Garfield Hays and Dudley Field Moore are entirely bypassed in popular history.
The only fault with the work is Larson's apparent effort to be so objective that no one is offended. This causes him to refrain from defending Darrow from years of attacks for his "cross-examination" (outside the presence of the jury and ultimately stricken from the record) of Bryan. The prosecution-- and Bryan in particular-- had promised/threatened/guaranteed a showdown.. to prove that evolution was false, especially if one accepts a literal reading of the bible. The reason Bryan was called to the stand and Darrow was able to question him as he did without the jury present is because the PROSECUTION changed strategies. Unable to find a single competent scientist to support its view, the prosecution was forced to argue against Malone's efforts to show that christianity and evolution were compatable. By keeping out the evidence of the defense's religious and scientific experts, the only defense left was to demostrate the absurdity of Bryan particular views. Though Darrow no doubt enjoyed it, his treatment of Bryan was the third line of defense, not the first.
The manipulation of the facts surrounding Scopes and a rise in the number of so-called scientists pushing creationism demonstrates that, in spite of our supposed rapid intellectual growth as a nation, there are more individuals than ever willing to say, do, or believe whatever will give them control, power, or money. It is a shame that after more than 75 years, Bryan would today have no trouble finding an "expert" witness.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on October 13, 1999
A very well written account of not only the historical aspect of but also the legacy of the Scopes trial. I thoroughly enjoyed every page of the book. Edward Larson writes in a style that is easy to follow and understandable. He divides the book into three sections: Before, during and after the trial. In each section he guides and lays out the historical background of the events and players involved in the Scopes trial. He begins with Darwin and the Origin of Species and lays out how it developed into a controversy in the States. He also introduces to us all the major players involved in the case. He does not simply bring the players in for the trial, but helps us to understand who they are with their background information. He does a very good job of helping the readers grasp the agendas as well as emotions and agendas that each players brought to the trials. He has made me understand the Scopes trial in a much better light.
In 1925, Tennessee passed a law banning the teaching of human evolution in public schools. The ACLU quickly jumped in with their agenda of individual freedom. Dayton jumped in with getting their name placed on the map. Bryan got involved with majoritarianism and Christian fundamentalism. The scientists got involved with academic freedom. Darrow got involved with ridding America of bigots. Scopes got caught in the middle of all this. In the end, Larson writes that both sides achieved moral victory.
In the last section of his book, Larson covers the legacy and the legend of Scopes trial in the American cultural scene. He clearly lays out that Only Yesterday and Inherit the Wind provided false impression of the Scopes trial on the minds of American public for over half a century. However, he states that it was not only Broadway that added to the false impression but also both historians and academians who further fueled the false impression of the Scopes trial. He states that it is these false impressions that have contributed to the ongoing culture war between science and religion.
No historian or writer can be truly objective. Given that, I believe that Larson has written an objective account of the Scopes trial as is possible. I did not get the feeling that he was writing for or against either side. If Larson had an agenda or a bias in writing this book, it appeared to me that he wanted to put out a more balanced account of the Scopes trial than the one proposed by Only Yesterday and Inherit the Wind (although I personally have not seen either of the plays or screen version of them). He saw the Hollywood, the media and the academia misunderstanding the central issue of the Scopes trial from Inherit the Wind, and it appeared that he wanted to write a more accurate account of the trial. To me, it appeared that he did so. He seemed to have done an extensive research of biographies, newspaper accounts and interviews. He cites and critiques many accounts of the trial on both sides. He also critiques and provides his own analysis of the players involved in the trial. I believe that Summer for the Gods is a well balanced account of the Scopes trial and should be read by all who are interested in the continuing debate over science and religion in America.