January 8, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 2

Arts & Entertainment

Summer of loving

Book Review - One Summer: America, 1927 / By Bill Bryson

An author explores how five jam-packed months in 1927 were some of the most pivotal in U.S. history

Illustration by Derek Gundy

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Bill Bryson — bestselling author, American anglophile and assembler of fascinating minutiae — noticed something remarkable about a single summer that took place in this country back in 1927.

“An extraordinary number of important things happened that summer,” he writes in “One Summer: America, 1927.” “You could make a good case … that it was the most eventful summer in modern American history. Yet nobody seems to have noticed that all these things happened at the same time and influenced each other.”

As Bryson deftly elucidates in his characteristically rambling, eclectic and charming style, “all these things” included Babe Ruth’s record-setting season of 60 home runs, Charles Lindbergh’s historic flight from New York to Paris, the advent of “talking” motion pictures and a nascent form of television, the official appearance of Mount Rushmore on the American landscape and the discovery that all of a sudden and “peacefully, by accident, and almost unnoticed, America had just taken over the world.”

Who knew the summer of 1927 was so eventful?

It was the summer that Americans discovered that their country was now dominant in nearly every field imaginable, including technological innovation, military prowess, financial power, cultural influence and overall optimism. And yet, the U.S. also had the second highest divorce rate in the world, rampant and overt classism, sexism and racism, and murder rates in major metropolitan areas that are astonishing even today: 13.3 violent deaths per 100,000 people in Chicago, 16.8 in Detroit, and a nearly unfathomable 69.3 in Memphis (by comparison, 21st century cities average six murders per 100,000 people).

The summer of 1927 that Bryson unfolds was a season (technically May to September) filled with political maneuvering, inexplicable national crazes and a public obsession with violent crime. Flagpole sitting, consisting simply of perching atop a flagpole for days at a time, became wildly popular. President Calvin Coolidge unexpectedly announced that he would not seek a second term of office, while Herbert Hoover, future eponym of the Great Depression’s Hoovervilles, plotted his own candidacy. He became a hero for organizing relief efforts for flood-stricken residents of the Mississippi River basin. The period also ushered in the eighth year of Prohibition, a reduction in the average yardage of women’s dresses from nearly 20 yards to just 7 and mass media coverage of a now-forgotten “murder of the century” involving a corset salesman, his married lover and a deadly sash weight that must be filed under “improbable and archaic murder weapons.”

“One Summer: America, 1927” is, at its core, a highly readable love letter to Bryson’s native country. The long-gone period that he deftly evokes feels familiar yet foreign. People called each other on the phone, took their families on summer vacations in their cars, went to the movies and followed the latest scandals in the tabloids. At the same time, the population of the United States was far smaller than it is today and remarkably rural, with half of all Americans living on farms or in small towns. Baseball was a satisfyingly speedy game, often clocking in at 90 minutes or less. And here in Seattle, attachment to home and hearth was aggressively promoted by the Clean Books League, which tried to ban a series of travel books for inciting unnecessary “wanderlust.”

Though the text is steeped in a cozy nostalgia that is seductive, Bryson never allows himself to indulge in a revisionary “good ol’ days” interpretation of history. As he notes, “of all the labels that were applied to the 1920s … one that wasn’t used but perhaps should have been was the Age of Loathing. There may never have been another time in the nation’s history when more people disliked more other people from more directions and for less reason.” Amid the cheerful anecdotes about celebrities of yesteryear and factoids about Ford’s popular Model T, Bryson does not neglect to include details about the still-controversial execution of Italian anarchists-cum-fall-guys Sacco and Vanzetti, starkly contrasted with the Bath Massacre, a school bombing that Bryson unflinchingly observes “was the largest and most cold-blooded slaughter of children in the history of the United States, yet it was quickly forgotten.”

Though there is an easy flippancy inherent in “One Summer: America, 1927” and the Roaring Twenties it describes, both the book and the era offer guideposts as well as warning signs for the 21st century, often at the most unexpected moments.

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