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One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson

March 4, 2014

one_summer

Bryson can find an interesting story in the most mundane occurrence, charm in the most dull chap. His early books were travel books, which allowed him to organize his observations by geography. More recently, he’s tried other organizing themes. As my friend Sarah pointed out, Bryson’s At Home isn’t always about his home. It’s more of  “an excuse for him to write about whatever he wants.” In that book, his house is just a starting point. Likewise, One Summer is about 1927, but loosely. It’s as if, surveying the landscape of American history, he decided to take a core sample of summer, 1927, found the sample rich and then explored the various veins that passed through that moment. Most of the stories in this book start before 1927 and many extend after it. But organization be damned. I love this book.

1927 found the United States nearing a crossroads. It was full of optimism and outrageous ideas. The market was good. Cars were becoming more common on the streets. Hollywood was getting a real foothold. Those who were paying attention to baseball were witnessing what many would argue was the greatest team in history (although baseball as a business was near insolvency). There was a race for the first solo flight across the Atlantic. Someone had a notion to carve the giant heads of four presidents into the side of a mountain.

There was also political and civil unrest. The anarchist terrorist bombers Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested and sentenced to death. Prohibition was in full effect, meaning that organized crime had an enormous revenue stream.The Mississippi overran its banks and submerged 27,000 square miles of land, still the most destructive river flood in the history of the United States.

In short, if you’re looking for a year in American history that just had a lot of really interesting stuff going on, you could do much worse than 1927. It marked a time when America was realizing the potential of its great wealth and innovative spirit, but before the tempering of the Great Depression, before the real test of World War II. 1927 is near enough in the past as to still seem relevant to life today, but also strange and unfamiliar in its details.

I recognized most of the characters in this book, but rarely did I know the full story of what made them famous. In Bryson’s hands, their stories are not just remarkable, they’re fantastic yarns. The characters come to life, thanks to Bryson’s trademark wit and keen knack for pointing out the idiosyncrasies of the human condition.

For me, the description of Charles Lindburgh’s gutsy, historic flight and subsequent arrival in France is alone worth the price of admission. Lindburgh had expected to land his plane at a quiet, empty airstrip, then have to figure out how to find a hot meal and a place to stay. What instead awaited him was a mob of thousands of French, so excited about his arrival that they nearly crushed him in their celebration. Some even attempted to tear his plane apart for souvenirs. Only then was he starting to get an inkling of how much he had just changed his life, and the world.

Some have criticized Bryson for not adequately analyzing the impact of 1927 on the rest of American history. Again, I don’t really care. The significance of many of the events is self-evident. But moreover, Bryson doesn’t put forth any kind of thesis that he needs to support—say that 1927 was the most important year in American history. His goal is more trivial than that. It’s as if he’s saying, “You want to hear something interesting about America? Why don’t we start with 1927…”

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