If you are looking for a whirlwind journey through America during the summer of 1927 Bill Bryson’s ONE SUMMER, AMERICA, 1927 is for you. If you are interested in the minutiae of the period and want to be entertained by some of the most important and amazing characters of the twentieth century this is a book that will be a wonderful read. As a historian who is very familiar with most of the subject matter I found very little that was new. There are neither citations nor footnotes and the only attempt at providing the reader any source material is a chapter by chapter brief bibliography of the most important secondary sources on a particular subject. A part from this issue the book should prove to be very satisfactory to the general reader.
Bryson’s goal is an attempt to present the historical importance of the summer of 1927. This he achieves as he discusses the “many notable names of that summer—Richard Byrd, Sacco and Vanzetti, Gene Tunney, even Charles Lindbergh—[who] rarely encountered now, and most of the others [who] are never heard at all. So it is worth pausing for a moment to remember just some of the things that happened that summer: Babe Ruth hit sixty home runs. The Federal Reserve made the mistake that precipitated the stock market crash. Al Capone enjoyed his last summer of eminence. The Jazz Singerwas filmed. Television was created. Radio came of age. Sacco and Vanzetti were executed. President Coolidge chose not to run. Work began on Mount Rushmore. The Mississippi flooded as it never had before. A madman in Michigan blew up a school and killed forty-four people in the worst slaughter of children in American history. Henry Ford stopped making the Model T and promised to stop insulting Jews. And a kid from Minnesota flew across an ocean and captivated the planet in a way it had never been captivated before.” (427-8)
It was that kid from Minnesota, Charles Lindbergh who seems to be Bryson’s central character. Though the book begins with a gruesome murder on Long Island dubbed the Sash Weight Murder case involving a Mr. and Mrs. Albert Snyder whose story disappears and reappears throughout the book, a device Bryson uses with all of his characters. Once the reader’s interest is enjoined, Bryson presents one of his major themes, the history of American aviation. Through the eyes of Charles Lindbergh and other aviators the author recounts the trials, tribulations and overwhelming success of the flyers of the period. We are presented with intimate details as Lindbergh prepares and carries out his historical flight from New York’s Roosevelt Field to Paris. Bryson dissects Lindbergh’s life as tries to cope with his popularity, which he did not seek, and a personality that came across as awestruck but was much more complicated. Lindbergh’s role in the launching of the American aviation industry is not in doubt as was his hero status that soon became tainted in the 1930s as he was linked to pro-Nazi views and he pursued an extremely isolationist platform before the United States entered World War Two. The development of eugenic theory receives coverage and it is interesting to explore these extreme racial views that were widely accepted in the 1920s and juxtapose them to those of Charles Lindbergh.
The second most important character Bryson presents is that of Babe Ruth. The author’s discussion of the “Great Bambino” uncovers no new details of his life and baseball career. Bryson intertwines a history of Broadway Theater in his discussion as the owner of the New York Yankees, Jacob Ruppert purchases Ruth’s contract in 1920 from Harry Frazee, the owner of the Boston Red Sox who was more of a theater impresario and needed the money to help pay off some of his loan payments. The reader is treated to details of figures such as Al Jolson, Clara Bow, Oscar Hammerstein, the theater sensation, Show Boat and many others. It is part of Bryson’s technique to bring up a character or topic and then fit in a number of other areas of interest that he spins off from. So with Ruth we get the burgeoning entertainment industry with the first “talkie” film, The Jazz Singer, the rise and fall of prohibition, the growth of organized crime centering around Al Capone, and the race situation in America that grew increasing nativist in the United States and allowed the author to extrapolate on immigration and anarchism resulting in the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti that summer. Speaking of executions, the reader is offered a mini-biography of Robert Elliot who developed the electric chair execution process making it less tortuous for its victims. In fact, Elliot became so popular that most federal prisons competed for his services and he had the responsibility of executing most if not all of the major criminals of the era.
The summer of 1927 was also part of a period of cultural change. We learn that the Book of the Month Club came into being the year before and was soon followed in 1927 by the Literary Guild. Tabloid journalism reached new levels that summer as new magazines and newspapers appeared. America seemed to be reading much more and Bryson does not neglect the likes of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and others who influenced America’s literary culture.
The mood that existed that fateful summer of course is approached politically and economically through the lives of Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge, Mayor “Big Bill Thompson of Chicago and others. We see the lassaiz-faire capitalist approach of Hoover as he responds to the disaster that befell Middle America as the Mississippi River overflowed its banks in what John Barry describes in his book, RISING TIDE: THE GREAT MISSISSIPPI FLOOD OF 1927. The reader witnesses decisions by economic leaders worldwide that will contribute to the collapse of the Stock Market shortly thereafter and the role, or lack of a role of government in policing the titans of Wall Street. In fact had Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in 1927, not a century earlier, instead of writing a book entitled DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA, it may have been entitled, UNCONTROLLED LARGESS IN AMERICA. The reader is presented the expanding manufacturing industry as new appliances, entertainment vehicles, and other inventions that enhanced the home appeared.
Bryson does include some of the most outrageous occurrences of the times. My favorite was in discussing prohibition, under pressure from the Anti-Saloon League led by Wayne Wheeler the government put poison in random liquor bottles to enforce laws against drinking. Bryson quoting the book, EATING IN AMERICA “that 11,700 people died in 1927 alone from imbibing drink poisoned by the government.” (161). A further example that struck me was the acceptance of certain racial views by prominent figures of the period. Herbert Hoover was a strong believer in eugenics and even Supreme Court Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes, former president, William Howard Taft, and the liberal Louis D. Brandeis voted in favor of sterilization in Buck v. Bell.
If you are a practitioner of trivial pursuits, circa the 1920s, it would enhance your game by reading Bryson’s journey through that age. All in all I reiterate this nook is an entertaining and at times fascinating look at the period for the general reader and I am certain as with all of Bryson’s works it will be a commercial success.