One Summer a Great Book about American Culture in the 1920s

One Summer: America, 1927. By Bill Bryson. New York: Doubleday, 2013. ISBN: 978-0767919401.

Book_Review_One_Summer-09467Travel, science, humor, language, memoir, history–in the past thirty years few writers have matched Bill Bryson’s observational skills, acerbic wit, sense of wonder, or appreciation for irony. For his twenty-second book, Bryson takes an in-depth look at the summer of 1927 when,

“Babe Ruth hit sixty homeruns. The Federal Reserve made the mistake that precipitated the stock market crash. Al Capone enjoyed his last summer of eminence. The Jazz Singer was 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.” (Chapter 30, Location 38 of 39)

That’s extraordinary by any measure, yet it’s shocking how many scholars have rendered it prosaic under a mountain of turgid prose. Not Bryson–his account surpasses even Frederick Lewis Allen’s classic Only Yesterday (1931) as an accessible, lively account of the 1920s. He does so by putting the story back into history. Bryson skillfully weaves a cogent narrative of events rooted in biography, drama and melodrama–often using the figures above (and others) as the vehicle for unveiling the period. He’s aware that historical forces precipitate social change more than individuals, but what could be more appropriate than putting hyped heroes at the center of a study of the 1920s? As Warren Susman reminded us in his path breaking Culture as History (1984), the 1920s was when American culture began to value personality over character. The bigger that personality the better–the Roaring Twenties has long been configured as the Age of Ballyhoo.  

Bryson appropriately opens a book about excess with the lionization of Charles Lindbergh. His May solo flight across the Atlantic has become so legendary that it’s easy to overlook just how dangerous and audacious it was. He was indeed “Lucky Lindy,” as both sides of the Atlantic were littered with the bodies of those who sought the $25,000 Orteig Prize and vanished without a trace. Just 24 years had passed since the Wright brothers, plane bodies were still made of fabric, no one had yet invented an accurate fuel gauge, and most pilots–Lindbergh included–were dubbed “experienced” by virtue of having survived numerous crashes. Lindbergh couldn’t even see where he was going without leaning over the side of the fuselage. If nothing else, Bryson’s account is a superb short history of aviation.

As Bryson also shows, though, with the possible exception of President Calvin Coolidge, one could hardly have picked a less likely hero than Lindbergh. Bryson refuses to fall prey to hype. He honors Lindbergh’s bravery and pities the ordeal the agoraphobic Minnesotan was forced to endure, but he also explores Lindbergh’s misanthropy, authoritarian tendencies, and his vicious anti-Semitism. These two sides of the coin make up a subtheme of One Summer. The same month Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic witnessed the trial of Judd Gray and Ruth Snyder for the garroting death of Snyder’s husband. Likewise, the same summer that saw Babe Ruth slug 60 home runs and Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney slug each other, also saw anarchists plant bombs, Al Capone be hailed as a civic model, Ku Klux Klan members elected to Congress, eugenics classes taught in American universities, and all manner of bigotry thrive–especially in rural America, the last bastion of Prohibition believers.

Bryson’s nuanced view of 1927 is one of the book’s many pleasures. Another is his attention to small details such as Coolidge’s 4 ½ hour naps, the final hours of Sacco and Vanzetti, and the delicious comment (from John Reed) that baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis had the “face of Andrew Jackson three years dead.” Bryson also excels at summary–his epilogue manages to extrapolate the future implications of all that happened during the summer of 1927 into twenty-eight pages: Lindbergh’s fall from grace, Philo Farnsworth’s redemption, Herbert Hoover’s hubris, the collapse of prosperity walls built upon hope and sand….

It’s rare to find a book that’s at once historically sound, witty, and fun to read. One Summer is now available in paperback and e-text. I can’t wait to assign it–it’s one of the better books on American politics and culture that I’ve read in some time.

Robert E. Weir

Smith College

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