Trials of the Monkey

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Trials of the Monkey: An Accidental Memoir is one man's examination of personal faith and personal evolution, combining the author's memoirs with a discussion of the 1925 "Monkey Trial" wherein high school teacher John Scopes was arrested and tried for teaching evolution in a public school. The trial attracted the great orators William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow as lawyers for the prosecution and defense, and became a touchstone of the debate between evolution and creation, science and faith.

Screenwriter Matthew Chapman, a great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin, traveled to Dayton, Tennessee, to gather material for a book about the trial. Chapman planned to center his book on Dayton's yearly reenactment of the Scopes trial, lampooning the fundamentalist Christians who had argued against evolutionary theory in 1925 and in 2000 still stood the same ground. However, Chapman found himself simultaneously writing an unplanned book about his childhood, how he became a writer, and about his mother, an extraordinary woman whose alcoholism permeated the family's relationships until her death from lung cancer in 1992.

The fundamentalists Chapman wanted to make fun of are nice people, making it difficult for him; he even falls in briefly with a group of college students whose intellectual curiosity and lives of service closely reflect his personal ideals. Confusing the date of the trial reenactment, Chapman missed it by a week and was forced to focus his book elsewhere. The result is an absorbing and sometimes difficult account of the Scopes Trial (largely based on the trial transcript) combined with Chapman's own struggle to position himself between intellect and faith.