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William Jennings Bryan’s One Worthwhile Achievement

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William Jennings Bryan died 78 years ago today, July 26, 1925. One time senator and even presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan famously dropped over dead just days after the Pyrrhic victory of being the winning prosecutor in the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial.

This was detailed in slightly fictionalized form in Inherit the Wind. Bryan’s doppleganger in the movie rates as one of my top movie villains.

Now, this guy was just shit, another hack demagogue politician. I wouldn’t notice much less write about him. One little accomplishment, however, partly redeems his life: his death inspired HL Mencken to write an obituary that might be the most beautifully caustic obit ever written, which concludes:

Bryan was a vulgar and common man, a cad undiluted. He was ignorant, bigoted, self-seeking, blatant and dishonest. His career brought him in contact with the first men of his time; he preferred the company of rustic ignoramuses. It was hard to believe, watching him at Dayton, that he had traveled, that he had been received in civilized societies, that he had been a high officer of state. He seemed only a poor clod like those around him, deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things. He was a peasant come home to the dung-pile. Imagine a gentleman, and you have imagined everything that he was not.

I would like get it down that cold someday.

Of course, hearing of the arrest in Tennessee, Mencken famously hooked the accused up with a fancy shyster, and personally rushed south to cover the trial/mock the rednecks. Gene Kelly played his character in the movie.

Sparking all that is an above average accomplishment for someone of Bryan’s ilk, even if it was unintentional. This sudden death bit did graciously give Mencken a good punchline for the whole Scopes thing. That’s one worthwhile achievement.

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  • Mencken was a dime-store asshole who was always at his best shooting fish in a barrel.

  • Au contraire. Mencken was a premium grade high-class Park Avenue asshole.

  • Eric Olsen

    Vicious, sour, anti-Semitic, Nazi-loving prick, but a good writer!

  • Eric, you’re all messed up about Mencken. First, he was absolutely NOT sour. He was typically most JOYFUL. He was filled with glee.

    Now you might reasonably describe him as “vicious.” I would say simply that he did not suffer fools gladly.

    The anti-Semitic and Nazi-loving charges are really, really unfounded, though. He may have said some things critical of Jews, but he said things critical of pretty much every group imaginable, religious groups of all persuasions, businessmen, blacks, Irish, country folk, city folk, southerners, everybody.

    He was particularly harsh with Germans, his own ethnic stock. He was not at all pro-Nazi, and such accusations are a blood libel from people who hate his outspoken, freethinking ways.

  • Eric Olsen

    I am mostly going by secondary sources, I freely admit, but this NY Times review of his most recent bio makes these same accusations.

  • Not much in the way of direct supporting quotes in that NYT piece to back up those charges. “Liberals” as that term is used today would be the most hateful group toward Mencken today, though he was just as roundly hated and denounced by the clergy in his day.

    Again, if you go through all his probably millions of published words, you could find a few individual quotes that sound bad. People who are easily offended will have their tender sensibilities flame-broiled by Mencken.

    Nonetheless, Mencken was an equal-opportunity skeptic. In my reading, he didn’t talk about Jews as bad as he did about Germans or, Rand knows, Christians. It was Mencken who coined the phrase “bible belt.”

    Mencken was a Nietzchean elitist, and was receptive to talent and real virtue wherever he found it.

  • Aon

    Weird. I just found this and realised it’s the 80th anniverary of Bryan’s death.

  • Nancy

    Mencken was not bigoted: a bigot despises only selected groups of persons; Mencken lambasted everyone. Either that, or I guess one could say he was an equal-opportunity curmudgeon. But he sure did have a way with words.

  • Yes Nancy, but apparently you’re not quite up to date on the meaning of the word “bigot.” Let me update you. “Bigot” noun- Someone who rejects any significant part of the Correct Policy Opinions officially formulated at pinko HQ.

  • I hate to even get into this, but Bryan was not exactly the failure and retrograde moron Mencken made him out to be.

    Yes, he was not a genius, and he was a religious and not terribly imaginative man. However, Bryan embodied the spirit of his times with great success and gave birth to a grass roots political movement which ultimately resulted in the modern Democratic party which we have today. Bryan had a unique ability to inspire and unite people which went beyond his personal limitations.

    Now some people would say that legitimizing populist, watered down socialism wasn’t a great accomplishment, but if nothing else it was politically important in creating the politicial environment of the 1960s.

    Bryan also had three other achievements. He was the best looking man who ever ran for president. Look for pictures of him when he was young and compare them with other presidential candidates. He made absolutely fantastic speeches. See if you can find the recording of the “Cross of Gold” speech. It’s complete nonsense, but nonsense never sounded so good. And finally, he’s got a town or a county or both named after him in every state in the union. That says something about his success in the popular imagination.


  • Yes, Bryan was pretty successful at being a demagogue, bumping the boobs with willful nonsense.

  • This was actually something worth reading, which I think is a first for Al, if only for the excerpt from Mencken’s obit of Bryan, which I’d never read before.

    Although you conservative types may be right that Mencken was one of the first equal-opportunity offenders, his remarks criticizing and stereotyping Jews qualify him as anti-Semitic. He may have been an elitist toward various other minority and immigrant groups as well, but hating Jews makes you an anti-Semite by definition.

    Mencken would have hated you, Senator Al Barger.

    That is all.

  • You stole this reference from Jan Hermann on this site, a few months earlier. As usual, he did it with much more background knowledge, comparative context, and taste.


    Just as I figured. I was shocked that you’d cited something of interest that showed actual learning, Senator Al. I apologize for presuming that was possible.

    What courage it must take to beat up on such a controversial figure 80 years after his death — way to go out on a limb there and take on the vast majority who support punishing teachers who don’t teach religous fundamentalism and creationism in schools.

    Who’s next to taste that sharp wit and the bite of your poison pen? George Wallace and Orval Faubus? Oh wait, maybe that’s pushing too far past your courageously forward views.

    Again, I wonder if you could possibly be so lacking in self-awareness. You really think you can compare yourself to Mencken? Especially when you’ve never read anything by him before your BlogCritics colleague brought him to your attention. Stick to your Ayn Rand and SciFi reading list — anyone whose favorite authors are Rand and Heinlen could not possibly understand anything Mencken had to say. Mencken would hate sheep like members of the Ayn Rand cult.

    That is all.

  • scott

    hi this is a great site!

  • Sean

    I would recommend watching the video “The money masters” to put things into perspective.