From the Archives: Trials of the monkey: An accidental memoir by Matthew Chapman

Nov 13 2010 Published by under book review, education, science books

I have a whole pile of science-y book reviews on two of my older blogs, here and here. Both of those blogs have now been largely superseded by or merged into this one. So I'm going to be slowly moving the relevant reviews over here. I'll mostly be doing the posts one or two per weekend and I'll occasionally be merging two or more shorter reviews into one post here.

Since I did a science/religion review earlier this week, I thought I'd continue the theme this weekend with a couple of older reviews of books by Matthew Chapman.

This one, of Trials of the Monkey: An Accidental Memoir, is from August 8, 2007.

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Sometimes, you just get lucky with books. What with the Dover, Pennsylvania trial only a couple of years a ago and the opening of various creationist museums, the evolution vs. creationism controversy is never far out of the news. Of course, I've seen publicity for a lot of books about the issue and Matthew Chapman's 40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, OxyContin, and Other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania is one that I've been looking forward to reading. While waiting for the paperback of that one to come out, I was browsing at the discount table at the local bookstore when what should I encounter, but the hardcover Chapman's first book, Trials of the Monkey, about the original creationist trial spectacle, the Scopes Trial. For $7. My lucky day. So, I bought it. It hung around the house for a few months, as usual, and then one day I just picked it up and started reading the first few pages, on a whim. I had no plans to start reading it seriously as I was about 100 pages into another very interesting book. Best laid plans and all, I was hooked and raced through Chapman's fascinatingly complex and interrelated account of the twistings and turnings of his own life and the story of the Scopes trial.

The book really has three narrative threads going. First of all, Chapman's biography, the evolution of his life, a troubled and mixed up childhood through to odd jobs and finally as a successful Hollywood screenwriter and director. The first parallel thread is his plan to visit the site of the Scopes Trial (Dayton, TN) and attend the annual dramatic reenactment of the trial; this takes two parts, the first being a trip to Tennessee to research the trial and scout out the area and the second to attend the reenactment. The final thread that Chapman weaves into a couple of the middle chapters is the story of the Scopes Trial itself.

A few words about the sections dealing with Chapman's biography. Chapman has a gloriously checkered past. The great, great grandson of Charles Darwin, he first chronicles the devolution of his family line from the lofty heights of the great man to his own mediocrity (ie. What's more mediocre than Hollywood) via the alcoholism of his own mother. His childhood, adolescence and young adulthood were certainly ones of very little accomplishment and many brushes with authority as well as a few bizarre sexual obsessions and entanglements. His climb to a happy family life, albeit struggling with the pressures of Hollywood and his own hard drinking, is a happy way to end this particular thread.

His trips to Tennessee to take in the annual dramatic reenactment of the original trial takes up probably half the book. He visits with many creationists, interviewing them and following them around to gather information and get a feel for the ambiance of the place; the same with some of the local bigwigs. It's very interesting that he really makes no attempt to demonize any of them, almost going out of his way to present their best side as well as their lack of scientific rigour and their eccentricities. He often comes off as liking them personally, almost admiring their convictions. This thread ends rather strangely and I won't spoil the surprise. Needless to say, given his own biography, Chapman isn't able to end the book anywhere near the way he'd like.

The chapters where he describes the history of the Scopes trial begin with the story of George Rappleyea, the local businessman who dreamed up the whole mess as a way of promoting tourism and business for Dayton. It follows with a fairly straightforward description of the trial itself and it's aftermath. Well worth reading for a lot of the colourful interactions between the two camps, William Jennings Bryan and his merry band of creationists against Clarence Darrow and the evolutionists. While it was a bit more bare bones than I hoped, this section will lead me to the bibliography to find other works to fill in the blanks.

Which of the threads is the most interesting and compelling? Easily, Chapman's life story is the best part of the book, followed by the story of his visits to Dayton. I often found myself skipping ahead to the next relevant chapter to see what happens next in his various adventures. The story of the Scopes Trial itself is somewhat played down, not given the attention of the other two threads. But that seems appropriate in the context of the story Chapman wants to tell. He covers the details well enough, but just not with the elan of his more personal adventures.

Over all, this is a worthwhile and compelling story, filled with intimate and telling biographical detail and local Southern colour. Not strictly a science book, more of a cultural history mixed with biography. It didn't end up being what I expected at all from the book; I expected more straight reportage and less personal anecdote and cultural commentary. But on the whole, the unexpected combination worked well, being both entertaining and enlightening. If I ended up understanding a little less about the Scopes Trial than I'd hoped, I think I ended up understanding a little more about what makes Southern Christian fundamentalists tick.

I would recommend this book for any public library and any academic library that collects popular science. Of course, any library that has an interest in the evolution vs. creationism controversy can't do without this book. I look forward to reading his second book, the one about the Dover, PA trial, Forty days and Forty Nights.

Chapman, Matthew. Trials of the Monkey: An Accidental Memoir. New York: Picador, 2001. 367pp.

2 responses so far

  • Susan Ferguson says:

    I read this book a few years ago and I loved it. I highly recommend it.

  • TheBrummell says:

    Thanks for putting this up. A friend of mine gave me this book when he moved away, and it's been sitting on my shelf since. I really enjoyed your review, you made me want to read the book without giving too much away.

    When I get home tonight, I'll have to pull it down from the shelf.

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