Born Henry Louis Mencken on Sept. 12, 1880, H.L. Mencken’s storied career began at the Baltimore Herald. In 1906, he moved to the Baltimore Evening Sun. Mencken interests and erudition took him to a wide range of subjects, but he is especially well known for his coverage of the John T. Scopes trial (“The Hills of Zion”) in 1925. Considered by many to be the real trial of the century, the “Monkey Trial” pitted modernists and fundamentalists against each other in legal battle over Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Mencken is also known as an important magazine editor. With George P. Nathan, he founded the Smart Set (1914-1923). In 1924, he launched the American Mercury. Both magazines expanded the American audience of modernist literature. Mencken is also known for his influential and still widely used history, defense, and compilation of “Americanisms,” The American Language (1919).
After the Great Depression, Mencken’s stock rose again with the release of his autobiographical trilogy: Happy Days (1940), Newspaper Days (1941), and Heathen Days (1943). An ardent and iconoclastic critic, Mencken drew inspiration from Mark Twain, Nietzsche, and George Bernard Shaw.
“The Hills of Zion” appeared first in The Evening Sun and later in the fifth series of Prejudices. Mencken’s eyewitness account is scathingly critical of the fundamentalism of Dayton, Tennessee and the South more generally, which he referred to as the “Sahara of the Bozart.” His irony is unrelenting: “Sin stalked the cities. Dayton itself was a Sodom.”
He does offer some sympathy for a country girl who is afraid to have single glass of Coca Cola while visiting town on a hot day. Her husband and pastor have warned her against not just soft drinks, but also “coffee and tea—and pies!” Prohibition, Puritanism, and hypocrisy are Mencken’s larger targets. He slyly suggests, for instance, that interpretation of the frenzied talking in tongues he witnesses at a nighttime revival be left to “infidel pathologists, privy to the works of Ellis, Freud and Moll.”
Essay’s Immediate Context
Soon after the Butler Act was signed into law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in Tennessee’s public schools, John T. Scopes, a high school coach and occasional substitute teacher, agreed to be the object of a test case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and sponsored by Mencken’s paper (which paid Scopes’ bond). Scopes was indicted on May 25, 1925 for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution.
The trial’s main characters would be former presidential candidate, populist, and Presbyterian prosecutor William Jennings Bryan, ACLU defense attorney Clarence Darrow and Mencken.
Scopes was found guilty and fined $100, Bryan died five days after the trial concluded, Darrow’s arguments influenced millions, the ACLU gained the publicity it wanted, and Mencken’s reporting gained him a wider audience than ever before.
“The Hills of Zion,” as it appeared in the Evening Sun on July 13, 1925 was acerbic and yet more “objective” than Mencken’s later version.
Mencken may or may not have composed the original headline in the Evening Sun: “Yearning Mountaineers’ Souls Need Reconversion Nightly, Mencken Finds,” or the subhead, “Single Experience Far Too Little To Satisfy, He Says. Visits ‘Holy Roller’ Session And Catches Spirit Of Weird Performances.” But, he most assuredly gave the essay the title we know it by now – “The Hills of Zion” – when it appeared in Prejudices: Fifth Series.
The main differences between the two texts can be found in the beginning and end. Mencken added some introspective portions to the second version.
“The Hills of Zion” is included in The Best American Essays of the Century, ed. Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Atwan (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000).
Larson, Edward J. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. New York: Basic Books, 1997.
Mencken, H. L. “Yearning Mountaineers’ Souls Need Reconversion Nightly, Mencken Finds.” The Evening Sun [Baltimore] 13 July 1925.
The Vintage Mencken. New York: Vintage, 1955.
Prejudices: Fifth Series. New York: A. Knopf, 1926.
Text and images: Adam Clement.