In his mid thirties, E.K. Hornbeck is a brilliant newspaper columnist for the Baltimore Herald and is sent to Hillsboro to cover Cates' trial. His character shares traits with H. L. Mencken, a newspaper columnist for the Baltimore Sun who covered the Scopes trial. Although Hornbeck, like Mencken, is cynical, insolent, and flippant, he is not malicious. He is, he admits, "admired for his detestability." In addition, Hornbeck's character is insightful, finding humor in sensitive issues such as evolution and religion. His sense of humor provides comic relief throughout the trial, alleviating the tension that builds as the townspeople try to hold onto traditional beliefs.
Hornbeck is contemptuous of the bigotry and ignorance that seems to exist in southern society. From the moment Hornbeck arrives in Hillsboro, his air of superiority is obvious. He "sneers politely at everything," and his clothes are "those of a sophisticated city-dweller." He speaks haughtily, as though he is reciting poetry; in fact, Lawrence and Lee use verse for Hornbeck's lines. Hornbeck is a chorus character. His wisecracks are comments on the action in the play, as well as a representation of progressive ideas and beliefs held by people from the North. He mocks the people of Hillsboro for their fundamentalist beliefs and their narrow-minded views about evolution. He acknowledges that "a few ignorance bushes" exist in Hillsboro, but no "tree of knowledge." He sees a monkey and calls it "Grandpa" and buys a hot dog instead of a Bible because he chooses to feed his stomach rather than his soul.
Hornbeck ridicules Brady for his bigotry and backwardness. Because Brady was a politician and ran for the presidency of the United States three times before becoming a staunch defender of fundamentalism, Hornbeck calls him "a shouter," "an also-ran," "a might-have-been, an almost-was." He claims that Brady came to Hillsboro to find a stump to shout from, not to be the "champion of ordinary people." Hornbeck thinks Brady is a fraud and continues to denounce him even after Brady dies. Hornbeck also enjoys informing the citizens of Hillsboro that the agnostic, Henry Drummond, " . . . the most agile mind of the Twentieth Century," will be defending Cates.
In contrast to his feelings towards Brady and the people of Hillsboro, Hornbeck, who supports evolutionary theory, is supportive of Cates and his courage to stand up for his beliefs. Feeling smug, Hornbeck also pays Cates' bond of $500 at the conclusion of the trial.
Hornbeck's character is static. He is as opinionated and iconoclastic, attacking institutions and firmly held beliefs, and he does not change throughout the course of the play. His character is also shallow and one-dimensional. Because he is first and foremost a newspaper columnist, he is talkative and always in everyone else's business, asking questions and speaking his mind. At the end of the play, when he realizes that Drummond just might be more religious than Brady claimed to be, his immediate reaction is to locate a typewriter to "hammer out (a) story."