Book Review: One Summer, America 1927 by Bill Bryson
Populist author takes readers on a journey across the American landscape at the peak of the Roaring Twenties.
“There are two kinds of readers: those who love Bill Bryson and those who haven’t met him yet.”
For reasons I can’t fully explain, I have fallen into the latter camp of readers as defined above by People magazine. So when I saw One Summer on the shelf at my local library, I figured it was time to become better acquainted with one of the most successful non-fiction storytellers in the English language. Besides, the subject matter was of genuine interest: not only do I enjoy reading about United States history, but 1927 has a particular place in my heart, as I chose to start my book about the New York City music scene, All Hopped Up and Ready To Go, that same year.
My own reasoning for honing in on 1927 was that it marked the height of the Jazz Age; Bill Bryson’s book verifies this and more. Coming towards the end of a decade of “pure energy and crazed optimism,” as one newspaper review of the book puts it, the summer of 1927 saw Charles Lindbergh achieve the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic, Babe Ruth complete a record-breaking sixty home runs in a season, accused immigrant Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti executed amidst a massive European outcry, Al Capone enjoy his last year of prosperity and freedom as America’s best-known (and curiously beloved) gangster, Al Jolson appear in the first talking movie, Jack Dempsey fight his last bout before 150,000 spectators in Chicago, Gutzon Borglum commence the sculpting of Mount Rushmore, Andrew Kehoe kill 37 children and seven adults by blowing up an elementary school in Bath, MI (still America’s worst school massacre), and Calvin Coolidge appear to sit out the entire sequence of events by retiring to his ranch in South Dakota. And those are only some of the more familiar names and events to have graced the headlines.
Yet this tale can never be only about the summer of 1927. For Bryson to fully justify his subject matter, he has to constantly unravel the back-story. In the early part of the book, at least, he does so with evident glee, his own apparent astonishment at what he uncovers proving readily infectious, as in this set-up to explain the sudden use of airplanes in battle.
Up to 1914, the total number of people in the world who had been killed in airplanes was about a hundred. Now men died in their thousands. By the spring of 1917, the life expectancy of a British pilot was put at eight days.
Such a statistic fills me with great admiration for my grand-father, who emerged from a series of World War I dog-fights minus only one leg, but it appears additionally pertinent given the many ambitious fools who thought they could cross the Atlantic with little training or foresight. As Bryson recalls one comically yet tragically disastrous attempt after another, it is hard not to see the newsreel spinning in the mind’s eye, much like the opening sequence of the movie Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.
Bryson is equally effusive in his CliffsNotes history of baseball and boxing, which became closely entwined in the 1920s, once it was discovered how much money there was in the latter, largely banned sport. (Baseball was, until such times, popular but not prosperous.) In New York State, boxing was legalized in part to enable Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert to promote major bouts in his Bronx stadium as an extra revenue stream, a move that coincided, with almost magical serendipity, with Ruppert’s acquisition from the financially bereft Boston Red Sox of their star player, Babe Ruth.
Bryson loves nothing so much as a few biographical paragraphs to set up his heroes and villains, and Babe Ruth’s upbringing proves almost archetypally noteworthy:
Six of his eight siblings would die in childhood, and both his parents would follow while George was still young, his mother of tuberculosis, his father in a knife fight outside his own saloon.
Bryson is a breezy writer, and facts are not always not enough for him; he often feels the need for a wry if unnecessary statement of the obvious. And so:
This was not a family that had a lot going for it.
Certainly, Bryson does an admirable job of explaining the Babe’s momentous impact on baseball, his ever larger zest for life, and the contented shadow under which his team-mate Lou Gehrig challenged Babe Ruth for most home runs throughout that momentous 1927 season, in which the New York Yankees ran so rampant that they won the pennant with fifteen games left. (They subsequently clinched the World Series in a 4-0 rout.) But he is at his most infectious tracking the remarkable story of the year’s other major hero, Charles Lindbergh, who enters the book, almost from nowhere, announcing his entry into the Atlantic crossing competition in a plane so light and flimsy that it appeared certain to be torn apart by the first stray gust of wind, a plane that additionally had no forward visibility. And yet while most of his competitors were taking to the air (and either falling to the ground, or disappearing into the ocean) in twos and threes, Lindbergh flew the Spirit of the St. Louis across the Atlantic single-handedly, and absolutely perfectly, hitting everyone of his intended targets over 33 hours and 20 minutes spent strapped into a miniscule seat, navigating by the maps and compass on his lap, with barely a sandwich and a bottle of water for sustenance, even as at times he flew as low as just fifteen feet over the ocean.
Lindbergh’s immediate status as an international hero was based in large part upon having achieved the seemingly impossible: as Bryson notes, “the thought that an airplane could leave New York and reappear hours later in Paris, as if materializing from thin air, seemed almost the stuff of science fiction.” Even five days after he landed in Paris, crowds of a million people lined the streets for but a glimpse of him. (A few months later, the Parisians would erupt in anti-American riots following the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti.) Lindbergh was the antithesis of Babe Ruth, which appeared him to make him none the less fascinating: he didn’t drink caffeine, let alone alcohol (Bryson does a fine job of ridiculing Prohibition, which was all but meaningless in cities like New York and Chicago but for the fact that it enriched mobsters such as Capone), didn’t smoke, weighed just 128 pounds despite standing 6’ 2”, and had never been on a date. He was, to all visible intents and purposes, the archetypally wholesome Minnesota farm boy – though in reality, his father was a Republican Congressman, and the young Charles grew up in a wealthy household with three servants, possibly instilling a sense of superiority that would play into his subsequent downfall.
That part was in the future. In the immediate aftermath of his successful Atlantic crossing, Lindbergh readily undertook a victory tour of Europe, and then one of the United States – and then another of Central America, even though he appeared to have little to say (for now), was clearly overwhelmed by the attention and thoroughly exhausted by the scheduling. He appeared most content than when climbing back into the St. Louis and flying from one heroes’ parade to another, setting one new air-time record after another. His journey to Mexico City from Washington DC, was especially notable: “unable to find a good map of Mexico, he flew with one that was little better than a page torn from a high school geography book.” When he arrived at his destination, hours late after missing the metropolis by following errant train lines in lieu of notable landmarks (the map proved largely useless), a crowd of 150,000 “rushed forward in such jubilation that it picked up the plane and carried it to the hangar.” Bryson does not state whether the pilot was still on board.
It is not Bryson’s edict to explain how or why Charles Lindbergh turned from American hero to Nazi sympathizer, apologist and, according to at least one quoted observer, party member – but the author attempts to do so all the same. He commits ample space in his epilogue to recount Lindbergh’s anti-Semitic, pro-Axis speech in Des Moines, Iowa, in September 1941, which served to turn the pilot from hero to villain. (And just as well, as only three months later, Pearl Harbor was attacked and any last vestiges of American isolationism crumbled overnight.) Bryson additionally points largely to a certain Alexis Carrel as the most overtly corrupting influence on Lindbergh, yet in the process paints Carrel as only one of the more egregious proponents of eugenics, the belief in which saw the forced sterilization of some 60,000 “inferior” Americans through the 1920s and 30s. The Nazis, evidently, were not the only ones who believed in a master race.
It’s that kind of book. Every heroic, humble or honorable action by an American seems compromised by one of cowardice, corruption or outright cruelty. Every significant achievement is matched by one of comparative shame. In letting us know that at one point in the 1920s, “up to half the white men” in the State of Indiana “were fee-paying Klansmen,” for example, Bryson also lets us in on the Klan’s subsequent downfall. In 1925, its self-appointed, self-righteous leader, David C. Stephenson, took “a young woman of good character” on a date, and when she finally made it home three nights later, “she had been beaten and savagely abused… skin had been torn from her breasts and genitals… in shame and desperation, (she) had swallowed a fatal dose of mercuric chloride… she took two weeks to die.” To his apparent surprise, Stephenson was convicted of kidnap, rape and second-degree murder, and in revenge released documents exposing corruption at the highest levels in Indiana. When the dust settled, the nation’s repugnance was such, says Bryson, “the Klan retreated into the shadows of American life.” Sadly, the racist notions that fueled it have never fully disappeared.
The above story, evidently, is not part of “One Summer, 1927,” but Bryson can’t help himself; he’s running riot through American history, sharing all manner of tangential facts and anecdotes, and for a while, we’re all learning from him. One of the more humorous paragraphs is quoted below, both as an example of Bryson’s easy, witty, informative style, but also as evidence of how far veers off track. Eventually, it all becomes somewhat overwhelming, as each chapter opens with a new bout of superlatives (“of all the figures who rose to prominence in the 1920s in America…”) and every new character is given the regulatory “gee whiz” back story. By the time Bryson gets to Babe Ruth’s 60th home run, he seems more exhausted than the batsman, and the crowning glory of the 1927 season proves oddly anti-climactic. “Practically speaking,” he quickly launches the subsequent paragraph, as if recognizing his own disappointment that his story might be over, “there’s no saying when the summer of 1927 ended,” before rounding up all the major incidents of the last few months and 400 pages, just in case we’ve forgotten them.
“Whatever else it was,” Bryson concludes, before an epilogue that quickly turns into a roll-call of the deceased, “it was one hell of a summer.” Whatever else it may be, it is the only such dreadfully composed sentence in a joyfully rollicking, highly educational and hugely entertaining book.
In 1923 the most surreally improbably rumor of all emerged – that the pope planned to move his base of operations from the Vatican City to Indiana. According to several accounts, when residents of the town of North Manchester heard that the pope was on a particular train, 1500 of them boarded it with a view to seizing the pontiff and breaking up his conspiracy. Finding no one recognizably papal, the mob turned its attentions to a traveling corset salesman, who was nearly dragged off to an unhappy fate until he managed to convince his tormentors that it was unlikely that he would try to stage a coup armed with nothing but a case of reinforced undergarments.