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on September 27, 2014
My motivation for tackling this fine piece of historical trenching hopefully overlaps with the dear reader tackling this review: my sole exposure to the celebrated “Scopes Monkey Trial” of 1925 was through a piece of historical interpretation called "Inherit the Wind", a celebrated stage play from the ‘50s, ported to Hollywood in 1960, then apparently studied by every American high school student for at least a generation. The promise of reading "Summer for the Gods" could be ripped right from the book jacket: to scoop “America’s continuing debate over science and religion” and in the process air out a straight record of the trial itself.

As for the latter, I needn’t have worried; Edward Larson has done his homework – and probably everyone else’s. "Summer" gives us a complete historical lead-in with excellent asides on anti-evolution legal history, the rise of religious fundamentalism (including a fascinating background sketch of William Jennings Bryan), a nearly hour-by-hour account of the trial itself, and a scrupulously neutral description of the aftermath. There’s more to digest here than is probably necessary (the color of Clarence Darrow’s suspenders?), but Larson – probably buried in old newspaper clippings at some point – could *never* be accused of missing a trick. Through this process alone the author thoroughly eviscerates "Inherit" and its colorful “interpretations” of the trial record – though it’s certainly a credit to Hollywood (not to mention high school educational rigor) that the images from that version so fiercely resist dislodging. He notes that by 1967 the well-aged trial correspondent Joseph Wood Krutch could “rightly comment ‘most people who have any notions about the trial get them from the play … or from the movie’”.

Alas, this tsunami of historical data doesn’t add up terribly well. In his attempt to frame the decades-long argument as “atheistic (or at least agnostic) evolutionary science” vs. “religious fundamentalism”, Larson takes for granted that government institutions of *some* sort will be picking the winner where schools are concerned – they *are* public, after all. This angle inevitably careens off into deep legal waters: should a local populace “get what it’s paying for” in state-funded schools (even if it’s “unscientific”, religiously-based, or just flat-out wrong)? Should democracy (or Larson’s ungainly term “majoritarianism”) dictate school lessons and policy, as envisioned by populists like Bryan?

These aren’t poor questions – merely tangential to the “continuing debate over science and religion”. Public schools will likely *never* get to teach the truth here as they have no charter to uncover it; none of the protagonists in the Scopes trial or anyone invested since (e.g., proponents of “intelligent design”) even feigns interest. Larson points out the even the prestigious National Academy of Sciences (in 1998!) punts the question: “whether God exists or not” (this being “a question about which science is neutral”).

With no alternative in sight, the author is resigned to a lengthy academic history of both “sides”, ending his afterword sighing that the fight is still going on (in the 21st century!). So if you want some very thorough data on the Scopes trial, with a healthy dollop of Hollywood myth-busting throw in, by all means enjoy this research. (A delicious discovery for me was the well-supported revelation that Mr. Bryan – the celebrated orator, “commoner”, and thrice presidential candidate for the American Democratic Party – was one of the first to drag fundamentalism into national politics.) But don’t expect any strong conclusions, especially those filtered through the highly-distorted lens of public schooling.
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on April 13, 2016
A detailed, thorough, and authoritative look at the clash between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan during the Scopes "Monkey" Trial. The author discusses the background contexts of the cultural forces that culminated in the trial, in the backgrounds of each of the major (and several of the other) participants in the trial, and the ongoing struggles over cultural and legal issues raised in the trial. Of course, the trial itself is brought to life in accurate detail that maintains the drama and excitement of more fictional takes on the clash. Whether one is interested in American history, the question of evolution or creationism in schools, the roll of fundamentalism in the past and future, critical chapters in the biographies of Darrow and Bryan, or a myriad of other subjects, this is a must read. If one simply wants an enjoyable, engaging read that happens to be factual rather than fictional, you've found the right book. I cannot say enough good things about this work.
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on May 15, 2012
Larson's Pulitzer Prize winning work is careful, clear, and revealing.

Book thesis: A book solely about the [Scopes] trial and its place in American history; America's continuing debate over science and religion.

This book does precisely what it sets out to do: take a look at the Scopes trial and evaluate what it has meant for American society since that time. In fact, as one reads the book, one finds that Larson accomplishes exactly what he intends to with each chapter. Is it written so clearly that the reader never has to wonder where Larson will be going in the respective chapter--the chapter thesis is almost always placed at the end of the first paragraph, and summarizes to the reader the happenings during the chapter. Of course, the remainder of the chapter is not redundant, but merely substantiates the initial claim. Although one might determine the first section ("Before...") to be a bit dry, this section is crucial to understanding the remainder of the book and the significance of the trial even at the onset. Truly, the way Larson sets up the arguments for both sides of the case (chapters 2 and 3), create an immense amount of tension within me as I wrestled with the validity of both claims. It really does make sense for the majority to determine what is taught to their children, but it also makes sense to have the experts determine what should be taught in their field. So, even though the first section may be a bit dry, it is essential to understanding what this trial represents.

Of course, it represents different things to different peoples--to some it merely means money. Larson does an excellent job of pulling back the curtain to reveal the actual events that occurred; he is not influenced by later recapitulations of the trial (but in fact devotes a whole chapter to explain these and why they are misguided). His recounting is measured and accurate, and he does not allow subjective interpretation or framing of the events (indeed, throughout one is hard pressed to find evidence for which side they believe Larson himself agrees with!). The interpretation which he eventually does offer is merely more historical recounting--what people thought and believed about the trial after it was over. Larson is a careful historian who is truly interested in clearing up the dust surrounding one of America's most famous and influential trials.

For those who grew up hearing the legends of the Scopes trial, this is for you.
For those of a younger generation who have never heard "Scopes" except in passing reference, this is for you too--it helps not only understand history, but understand today and our trajectory.

(Responding to what another reviewer has said regarding Intelligent Design, Larson answers in the new Afterword.)
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on August 2, 2012
'Summer of the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's continuing debate over Science and Religion' by Edward J Larson.

Hardcover Edition: used

This is an excellent account of the Scopes Trial from beginning to end. When I went to school in the 50's and graduated from High School in 1960. The subject was not presented in US Schools, or at least I don't remember ever reading anything about it. I remember having heard later there was a theory that man descended from apes in the mid 60's, but will admit at the time it sounded preposterous. Mostly, because I was not aware of the discovery's that had already been made in the field. It was not due to any large amount of religious belief, I never bought into it as a child either. I was raised by Christian parents to be skeptical of the world. Which may sound a little strange, because they both bought into the creation myth wholeheartedly. So I will have to plead ignorance at the time. But, having since then gotten heavier into evolution, it almost seems preposterous now that was the belief of the day.
I bought the book wanting more information on that aspect of the controversy over evolution, that is still raging today in various ways between science and Fundamentalist Christian's who do not want their children hearing any other version than creationism. That is something I found a great amount of in this book was information. That includes discovery's of man's origins at the turn of the century. The author paints and excellent well balance portrait and background as to the atmosphere of the day, political happenings and those people who were involved in the trial. It doesn't take either side of the issue, just gives the reader the details to decide for themselves what they want to believe. It made the whole story come to life. I bought this book used, received in a timely manner and it was in excellent condition. I will be keeping it for future generations of my family. So far I have had good luck buying a few used ones.
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on February 11, 2017
This is a very good book and I assume like many people I really learned a lot. I like detailed history books that also spend time providing context. My rating is due to the fact that I did think the last section really drug on a bit. I understand why the author did it, and I really given the overall theme of the book it was important. Yet just as a reader it seemed like an afterword that was a second book and I was just done with it at that point. Is re reduction of a star fair - maybe not. If it was a book I was reading for my academic life I would react differently, but this was a book I read for pleasure.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon January 26, 2009
On July 10, 1925 America witnessed the most famous misdemeanor trial in the annals of the nation's story. It occurred in tiny Dayton Tennessee located midway between Knoxville and Chattanooga. It was a short trial with high school teacher and part time football coach John Scopes being fined $100.00 for violating the state's anti-evolutionary law.Scopes had been using a science textbook which included chapters on Darwin's theory of natural selection and the evolution of man. The monkey trial was the result. Did man evolve from an ape?
The trial drew to Dayton two monumental men. Clarence Darrow, the Chicago agnostic lawyer and his ACLU team of barristers against three time Democratic party presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan.
The trial was more circus than sober judicial process. WGN in Chicago covered the trial over the airways; famous journalists such as Baltimore's H.L. Mencken and scads of other reporters sweltered through an east Tennessee summer to see all the courtyard drama being played out before their eyes.The trial held the newspaper public's attention for a short while in the sweltering summer of the middle year of the roariing twenties.
Larson won a Pulitzer Prize in History for this detailed book. He dispenses with many myths popularized by the famous "Inherit the Wind" play by Lawrence and Lee. For instance:
Bryan and Darrow did not hate each othere.Bryan presented Darrow a wooden monkey keepsake and offered to pay Scopes' fine!
Bryan died only five days after the trial.
Scopes was never in jail or in danger of imprisonment. He left teaching and became an engineer. Supporters paid for his graduate school education.
Darrow stood alone against Bryan in his defense of individual liberty and academic freedon-in fact the ACLU was deeply involved in the case; many of their lawyers were at the defense table with Darrow.
Bryan was an ignorant bumpkin. In fact he championed many liberal causes throughout his life. He believed in the gap theory of evolution in which each day in the Genesis account could represent several centuries. The fundamentalist movement would later turn against his memory for the great commoner's support of liberal social beliefs.
Playwrights Lawrence and Lee wrote in the McCarythy era misunderstanding the less hateful times of the 1920s.
The people of Dayton were bigots. In fact while most of the Daytonians were fundamentalists they were welcoming and kind to their visitors for the trial.
Larson has several chapters setting the scene for the trial by discussing the rise of religious fundamentalism and the development of Darwin's evolutionary theory. He also discusses how the case was appealed to the Supreme Court. Larson brings the book to the present day by seeing how the warfare between fundamentalists and evolutionary defenders continues to vex the national dialogue. Most of the conflicts revolve around what textbooks are used in high school biology classrooms.
The book is written in a dry academic style
Also the legal procedures are not that interesting to the non-legal layperson. The book does set the record straight on what happened in Dayton correcting many myths about the trial. If you want to read a sober, well balanced account of the Scopes trial the book will be to your profit.
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on January 18, 2013
This book does a great job of clearing away many of the myths that have grown up around the Scopes trial. Perhaps the most surprising thread running through the book is the varied motivations of the usually unnamed people who started the controversy: Dayton, Tennessee's political and economic leaders' belief that town fortunes could be made by hosting the "Trial of the Century." It is striking how much was at stake--intellectually, at least--and how absolutely no person or entity really achieved anything from the "Monkey Trial."

I also found the book to be very careful not to ignore the religious, scientific, and political positions and controversies -- all of which are still strongly held -- without being prejudiced toward any side. Those on the side of evolution and those against it will feel at home reading this book.
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on March 7, 2013
Historical dramas "Argo" and "Lincoln" dominated the Academy Awards this year. I'm not sure that is a good thing, although I very much enjoyed those fantastic movies. It seems to me that there is an inherent danger in allowing the theater to tell history, as artistic license is sure to modify the storyline for dramatic effect, a fact that will almost certainly be lost on the viewing audience. The wildly popular mid-twentieth century play and film "Inherit the Wind" based on the 1925 Scopes trial - "the most widely publicized misdemeanor case in American history..." - is an excellent case in point.

Thanks to the Spencer Tracy and Gene Kelly classic, I had a vague familiarity with the infamous "Monkey Trial," an event that pitted (so I was led to believe) closed- and simple-minded obscurantist Christian fundamentalists against sympathetic, open-minded progressives in a decisive battle over religious freedom in America, a clash in which the latter triumphed clearly and completely. Edward Larson demonstrates in this brilliant 1998 Pultizer Prize-winning piece that the truth of the trial is far different, far more subtle and profound, than the story the entertainment industry delivered for popular consumption half-a-century ago.

To begin with, the trial began (and ended) mainly as a cheap publicity stunt orchestrated by a few leading out-of-towners in the sleepy east Tennessee hamlet of Dayton. The defendant, local high school biology teacher John Scopes, was approached about volunteering to challenge the new anti-evolution legislation in response to an open offer of support from the recently established ACLU in far away New York City. Scopes readily agreed, seeing the trial as a fun summertime lark, while other town citizens saw dollar signs associated with hosting a high profile, controversial trial. The actual issue at hand - the teaching of Darwin's theory of evolution in public schools - was of limited matter to the main participants. This is a far cry from the scene depicted in "Inherit the Wind," where the Scopes character is dragged out of the classroom and thrown into jail, a howling town mob supposedly looming around him, threatening to lynch him for his blasphemous lectures.

Larson also puts the views of William Jennings Bryan - the lead celebrity prosecutor, known to many liberals and Christian conservatives alike as "The Commoner" and "The Peerless Leader" - into fuller relief and perspective. The author shows that his opposition to teaching Darwin in public schools and the fundamental question he wanted addressed in the trial are far deeper than a simple literal interpretation of Genesis. First, Bryan and many leading anti-evolutionists believed that Darwinism had a pernicious effect on society, not only undermining traditional Christian beliefs, but also positively degrading the moral fiber of the nation. One of the great turn-of-the-century liberals, Bryan championed women's right to vote, unionized labor, and various anti-colonial, anti-war causes. He opposed the teaching of evolution because of the mentality and behavior he believed it promoted. The barbarity of colonialism and the First World War was for him and his supporters a clear and dreadful example of what happens when men and nations live by the laws of Darwin rather than Christ. "The Darwinian theory," he wrote, "represents man as reaching his present perfection by the operation of the law of hate - the merciless law by which the strong crowd out and kill off the weak." Darwinism was, in his view, a "cruel doctrine" that robs civilization of pity and mercy. And, he was always quick to point-out, it was still a theory and should not be taught as "fact."

His second point - and the central issue of the trial in his opinion - was the basic and essential question: who decides what is taught in the public schools? "The real issue," he noted, "is not what can be taught in public schools, but who shall control the education system." He later commented: "The right of the people speaking through the legislature, to control the schools which they create and support is the real issue as I see it." In other words, if 90% of Tennesseans believed in Creationsim at that time, which they did, and if Darwin's theories are both deleterious and an unproven hypothesis (obviously highly debatable), why shouldn't the people of Tennessee be able to at least contain the teachings of evolution in the schools that that they fund? That is, teach Genesis along side Darwin, while noting that evolution is a theory.

I live in Northern California. My friends and neighbors are universally progressive. I've introduced this topic in casual conversation (I like to talk about the books that I am reading) and have sought to challenge knee-jerk reactions. I like to present this hypothetical case: In 1996 Harvard authors Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray whipped up a firestorm of controversy with their study "Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life," that argued (and I'm simplifying here, so don't tear me apart in the comments) that Asians are, on average, naturally more intelligent as measured by IQ than Caucasians, who are, again on average, more intelligent than Blacks and Hispanics. Many, quite naturally, found these findings repugnant and rejected them out-of-hand no matter the rigor of the research methodology. Now imagine if the state of California decided to teach this racial IQ theory in high school biology class, citing the overwhelming scientific and statistical evidence to support it. What would you do? Bryan's basic argument was "that the majority should oversee content of public school instruction, at least with the respect to the teaching of `unproven' theories that profoundly influenced social and spiritual values." If this statement concerned the example above, would you disagree?

Let's move from the prosecution to the defense. "Inherit the Wind" portrays Darrow as the hero, a great lawyer and an even greater humanist, who, in the final act, after defending Bryan and his right to maintain his "fool religion," thoughtfully weighs the Bible and "The Origin of Species" in his hands and, after some deep contemplation, thrusts them both into his briefcase. In reality, Larson writes, Darrow's participation dramatically upset the ACLU's entire plans for the trial and, if anything, undermined the position of the defense. "Neither Scopes in particular nor free speech in general mattered much to Darrow," Larson writes, "and this troubled many within the ACLU leadership." If Bryan saw recent history as the danger of Darwinian competition, the ACLU was troubled by the threats on civil liberties introduced during the First World War and by the Red Scare of the early 1920s. The Scopes trial offered them an opportunity to strike an early blow in defense of individual freedom. But once Darrow volunteered to participate in the trial - an offer the publicity-seeking folks in Dayton couldn't possibly refuse given Darrow's national reputation as the most controversial and celebrated defense lawyer in the land, like OJ Simpson's legendary defense team all wrapped into one - he dictated the theme and tempo of the trial; the ACLU lost all control over "their" trial. The ACLU wanted to win an important case for academic freedom; the pugnacious and stridently atheist Darrow wanted to publically eviscerate the hated Bryan and his Christian faith. Worse still, for many Americans at the time Darrow embodied the awful end-state of a world without Christian charity and principles: a rude, mean-spirited, amoral ogre who most recently saved Leopold and Loeb from the death penalty in Chicago by arguing that they were not responsible for their horrific murder-for-fun of Bobby Franks because they were helplessly swayed by the writings of Nietzsche. In the end, the epic interrogation of Bryan by Darrow on the trial's final day, which was planned and not extemporaneous as depicted in "Inherit the Wind," merely exposed "Bryan's empty head and Darrow's mean spirit."

In closing, I learned a lot - an embarrassingly lot - from this book. It was a stark and sobering reminder to question popular, cinematic tales. For anyone upon whom "Inherit the Wind" has left a lasting impression, you owe it to yourself to read this book. It is far more than simply a matter of a which type of "fish" - Jesus or Darwin - you have stuck on the back of your car.
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on June 21, 2009
Summer for the Gods, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for history, is a rare and enthralling read. This book about the famous Monkey Trial is probably THE authoritative book on the subject, with 38 pages of references giving testament to author Edward Larson's astoundingly comprehensive approach to what is often referred to as "the trial of the century".

Comprehensive research is always admirable, but is not sufficient to create an outstanding book. Summer for the Gods is far more than a recitation of compulsively excavated historical fact, though if that is what floats your boat, you'll love the book for that alone. What sets the book apart is that slowly, gradually, as you read the tangled web of forces that eventually coalesced to weave the "trial of the century", one realizes that Larson's book is not simply about evolution versus religion: it is about the most populous, complex, and cantankerous of all the primates: Homo sapiens.

The Scopes trial had so many wagons attached to its star (Emerson: "Hitch your wagon to a star") that the rumbling made by their passage raised a dust cloud that has still not settled today. States rights, North versus South, the militant atheism of Clarence Darrow, William Jennings Bryan's grasping at receding fame, intellectual freedom, the upsurge of the novel concept of Biblical literalism, the ACLU ferociously defending civil liberties....the list of issues swirling around the town of Dayton as the trial convened was both long and fascinating.

It might be possible to argue that all GREAT literature serves as a mirror, as opposed to literature that merely informs, titillates, or helps pass a pleasant interlude on a summer day. Summer for the Gods is a high definition mirror, an exquisite reflection on the nature of being human, and a potent reminder that however much we laud our left brain rationale, it is inextricably linked to the mysterious tides of the right brain. A bit too hokey for you? Let me try again: Larson's Summer for the Gods might be the best proof ever that whenever a gargantuan controversy arises, it is NEVER solely about the stated issues. The richness and pathos of Summer for the Gods far transcends the very worthy debate about science versus religion.

Who will like this book? Those who take pride in having a world view that has both depth and breadth will find Summer for the Gods adds considerably to both of these dimensions. Who might not? This book, though quite readable and accessible, is a serious work of scholarship. It is not Inherit the Wind in book form. Some serious reworking of synapses will occur. This can be uncomfortable....and deeply rewarding for the effort expended.

Legal beagles: you'll love it. Historians: you will bow down before it in awe. Champions of academic freedom: you'll both cheer and grind your teeth. Seekers of wisdom: drink this one in to your heart's content. Member of the human race: look in this mirror with both anticipation and trepidation.
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on August 8, 2014
I recently visited Dayton, TN and attended the annual Scopes Trial Play & Festival. One of the festival events was a discussion session featuring descendants of key trial participants together with historian Dr. Edward Larson, the author of this Pulitzer Prize winning book. Immediately after hearing his talk, I downloaded and began reading this remarkable work.

Many other reviewers have commented at length on Larson's achievement, and their praise doesn't need repeating. Let me just add that if you are interested in American history, in the relationship between science and religion, in the protection and limitations of free speech, or simply in a fascinating story well told, then this is a must read.
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