Monday, November 18, 2013

One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson

To learn what happened in the summer of 1927 - perhaps your parents or grandparents were born that year - you could go to a library that still has newspaper microfilm, which you could slowly scan reel by reel. It might take you weeks to read it all. As an alternative, you could read the 1927 issues of Time magazine*, which was a fairly new publication. That would save you a little time over the newspapers. What I suggest, however, is that you read or listen to Bill Bryson's One Summer: America, 1927. You'll save much time and be humorously entertained.

The ever-bright Bryson presents 1927 as a pivotal year in American history, showing that many great events did occur during the warmer months of that year, which Bryson stretches from May into October. That stretch of the idea of summer may seem beyond dictionary definition, but it is fair as none of the major summer stories really resulted from the action of just one day or even week. Most took months to settle. Cheerfully Bryson introduces, develops, and eventually concludes many of the most-reported stories of that summer:

  • Charles Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic and his struggle with fame
  • the murder trial of husband-slayer Ruth Snyder 
  • the lengthy Western States vacation of President Calvin Coolidge 
  • Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig's season-long home run contest 
  • the no-government-funds-will-be-used relief campaign for Mississippi River flood victims directed by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover 
  • the somewhat-disputed outcome of the second Dempsey-Tunney "exhibition" (prize fight) in Chicago 
  • Henry Ford's abruptly stopping of production of the Model T to retool his factories for a new unnamed automobile which led to a shortage of stock in showrooms across the country
  • Al Jolson's starring in the first talkie, The Jazz Singer 
  • Al Capone's public appearances and his statements about the popularity of vices in Chicago 

That is not all. There are too many story lines to mention all here, but this list gives you an idea of how many big splashy headlines there were that year. (There was also one important unreported story -
four international bankers, representing the U.S., Great Britain, France, and Germany, secretly establishing policies that would lead to the 1929 crash of stock markets.) Bryson works his way through the summer, dealing out entertaining installments of all of these stories.
I especially liked a change-of-pace chapter Bryson devotes to the books of 1927. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, and other authors that we still read were writing, but bestseller lists were dominated by authors who we no longer recognize, except for Zane Grey and William Rice Burroughs. Grey and Burroughs get detailed Bryson-style biographical profiles. Bryson also concludes the book with obituaries of major and minor figures from the year. The last to die was Anne Morrow Lindbergh in 2001.

I lived in Bryson's 1927 for about a week, and 2013 seems very futuristic now. Not everything has changed, however. Bankers are still causing lots of trouble.

Bryson, Bill. One Summer: America, 1927. Doubleday, 2013. 509p. ISBN 9780767919401. 

Audiobook. Books on Tape, 2013. 14 compact discs. ISBN 9780804127356.

* Bryson gleefully reveals the repetitively bad writing in 1927 issues of Time magazine at several points in his book.

No comments: