A recapitulation of the celebrated 1925 Scopes "Monkey Trial" in Dayton, Tenn.--but one that goes far beyond the courtroom in its analysis.
We can't be blamed if we think of the Scopes trial solely as a battle of two titans, Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, representing a collision of new thought and old faith that was bound to happen somewhere. That reason-vs.-superstition scenario comes to us thanks to books like Frederick Lewis Allen's Only Yesterday and Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's play Inherit the Wind, which present the trial with what lawyer and historian Larson (Trial and Error, 1985) calls "cartoonlike simplicity." It was much more than that, he shows, illustrating his history of the trial with editorials and reports from contemporary newspapers that had a far clearer view of the stakes. The Chicago Tribune rightly opined that the trial was truly about making the beliefs of fundamentalist Christians mandatory in the classroom, thus violating the separation of church and state. Darwinian concepts had been introduced into schools long before, writes Larson, but the explosion of the secondary-school population after a postWW I baby boom gave those ideas currency among a large number of students (50,000 in Tennessee at the time of the trial, a state that had only 10,000 high schoolers 15 years earlier). Larson neatly examines other issues that bore on the Scopes case: academic freedom, the right of states and local bodies to control the content of education, the growth of evolutionary theory in the wake of hominid fossil discoveries of the period. He also probes the mythmaking tendencies of the American media, which created what biologist Stephen Jay Gould calls a "realm of nostalgic Americana" evoked in the course of more recent creationist controversies.
A learned and absorbing book, especially in its account of the reverberations of the Scopes trial in recent American history.