One Summer: America, 1927
Bill Bryson is a great renderer: he can take you anywhere in time—or space, for that matter, as he proved in his seminal 2003 work, A Short History of Nearly Everything. His most delectable gift to that somewhat mythic league known as “general-interest readers” is the consistent empowering of his own curiosity. Bryson’s is a synthesizing intellect, capable of translating myriad data into a digestible narrative—rare currency in an increasingly atomized society—and from this, he’s endeavored to make his life’s work. His writing is snappy and suspenseful, artfully stacking fact upon fact to create maximum delight as subplots interweave and unfold. Were he a politician, he would undoubtedly be among our most beloved, so inclusive and incantatory is his gift for explanation.
If Bryson, at home with practically any set of ideas, has a major theme, it is ingenuity—a quality that is always present, so long as life is. If his major theme is ingenuity, his major subject, then, is life itself, in whatever iteration is most prone to captivate and enthrall. In One Summer: America, 1927, Bryson’s 17th volume, he explores the interaction of several major figures during one of the most tumultuous and incredible seasons in American history. This is Bryson’s brazen America, set at the climax of the roaring twenties, rendered like no other living author could have done, with an old-timey voice, but a thoroughly contemporary and progressive consciousness. A typical passage brings the past alive with humor and pathos:
That [Babe] Ruth was locked in a seesaw battle with the youthful upstart Lou Gehrig for the home run championship brought the kind of excitement that made people crush their hats in distraction.
In our own age, which has seen the return of Jay Gatsby to the silver screen, it's worth taking a look at America's ongoing obsession with the ultra-rich, no better embodied than in the figure of that irresistible 1920s anti-hero. Bryson's work helps provide deep context. Bryson takes pains to depict America in the 1920s in all its rancor, insanity, optimism, and dynamism. It was a decade addicted to mass media, especially to books, newspapers, magazines, and tabloids. The Book-of-the-Month Club, Time magazine, Reader’s Digest, and the New Yorker all debuted in the 1920s, as did jazz and radio. Flappers did the Charleston. American aviation itself was a new wild west: it had virtually no regulation; indeed, there were barely any runways or landing strips in the country at the time. One day in May 1927, an unknown Minnesotan, 25-year-old Charles Lindbergh, performed the impossible, and in so doing, captured America’s imagination. Crossing the Atlantic in a single solo flight from New York to Paris, Lindbergh showed the world new possibilities for progress in the 20th century. It’s an irony of life that he was also one of our most reactionary and glibly racist figures. The history of America in the 1920s, as Bryson relates, is, often despite itself, a history of exploration, innovation, and fumbling progress. “In many ways,” Bryson says, “Charles Lindbergh’s greatest achievement in 1927 was not flying the Atlantic but getting a plane built with which to fly the Atlantic.”
Prohibition, hitting its stride in the 1920s, was poisonous to national culture and ruinous to the U.S. economy. It fueled an atmosphere of profligacy, lying, and corruption (in addition to simply not working). During this time the government also began denaturing available alcohol with cyanide so that many of those who imbibed paid not with a legal penalty, but with their lives. In certain key, legislative ways, America was the snake eating its own tail. As Bryson writes:
Prohibition was in its eighth year and was a spectacular failure. It turned ordinary citizens into criminals and created a world of gangsters and rattling tommy guns…The Metropolitan Life Insurance Corporation reported in 1927 that more people were dying of alcohol-related causes now than at any time before Prohibition was introduced.
Also afoot at the time was the burgeoning enterprise of human electrocution, practiced as a form of capital punishment. It was through this grim method, in the summer of 1927, that Italian immigrants (and scapegoats) Nicola Sacco and Bart Vanzetti met their untimely end. The history of America in the 1920s is a history of bigotry and zealotry. This is the era, after all, which saw the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and the rise of the dastardly (and markedly anti-scientific) pursuit of negative eugenics.
The extraordinary life, and extraordinarily vapid, aggressive, and priggish personality of President Herbert Hoover also figures into these pages. The portrait of President Calvin Coolidge, whom Hoover succeeded, is no less demoralizing. In Bryson’s book, Coolidge comes across as an effete, terminally-lazy opportunist who ought never to have stewarded the office of the presidency. Bryson opens the chapter on Coolidge in 1927, the last year of his presidency, with a particularly cool vote of no confidence from his mother-in-law, Lemira Barrett Goodhue: “I’ve never liked that man from the day Grace married him, and the fact he’s become President of the United States makes no difference.”
Bad qualities were prevalent at the highest levels of success in America then, as now. Bryson takes a long look at automobile manufacturer Henry Ford’s unstudied racism, including his rather unlettered newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, which was a mouthpiece for Ford’s bigoted views. “Henry Ford,” Bryson writes, “had the additional distinction of being the only American mentioned favorably in Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler’s memoir of 1925. Hitler, it was said, kept a framed photo of Ford on his wall.”
A great tabulator of facts and statistics who certainly knows his way around a microfiche machine, Bryson is treasured for his intrepid generalism. His steady voice keeps us in communion with our past, delighting us with story, but also serving like post-it notes left on the fridge: constant reminders of our duties going forward. The history of America in the 1920s is a history of the wealthiest country on earth trying to come to terms with its immense size, an incredible influx of immigrants, innovation both unprecedented and unimagined, and the new industries borne to back these initiatives. It was a frenetic period, defined as much by acts of hypocrisy as by moments of deep insight, obscured as much by racism and recklessness as it was clarified by acts of heroism and valor. No season in no other year would be as exemplary of that era than the summer of 1927. No other writer puts together a history so sweetly as Bill Bryson.
But is this book important? It is charming and informative, no doubt, but is it an important book? Is it a must-read? If so, important for whom? A must-read for whom? Gore Vidal was fond of pointing out that in the United States, one subject we consistently fail to master is the history of civilization, its developments in the East and in the West. If this is true, it means that as Americans we do not understand our own history. Therefore, we do not properly understand ourselves. Seen in this light, Bryson’s seemingly quaint little book about the summer of 1927 becomes a crucial, if seemingly modest piece of the pie. Like all great historical writers, Bryson shines a light into the dark corners. He makes a decade come alive again, and in doing so, opens the lock on one segment of history’s great rivers, and allows the entire surge to flow forward, full bore.
ContributorAllen Guy Wilcox
ALLEN GUY WILCOX was born in Cooperstown, N.Y., and grew up on his parents' farm in the Mohawk Valley. He has lived in Brooklyn since 2005