Bill Bryson, One Summer: America 1927 (2013)
A historical timeline entry for May-October, 1927 might read something like this:
- Floods devastate the Mississippi valley
- Charles Lindbergh makes first solo flight across the Atlantic
- Sacco and Vanzetti executed
- Calvin Coolidge declines to run for another term as president
- The Jazz Singer filmed
- Babe Ruth hits a record sixty home runs in a season
Ho, hum. . . does this list take you back to the droning of your tenth-grade history teacher? In Bryson’s latest work of nonfiction, he tries not to numb us with facts but to illumine what it was like to be an American in the summer of 1927, midway between two world wars, enjoying unprecedented prosperity and on the brink of the Great Depression. The summer’s events are taken as a starting point for a narrative that ranges forward and backward in time, exploring everything from the development of aviation to the rise and fall of Prohibition to the tribulations of the motion-picture industry. In the process we meet a staggering array of athletes, criminals, actors, politicians, explorers, writers, anarchists, scientists, entrepreneurs, and inventors, with their idiosyncrasies played up to the fullest extent.
Bryson’s style here is somewhat more subdued than in the writings that made him popular (such as A Walk in the Woods, reviewed here), in which he writes of his own life and travels in such an engaging and humorous way. Since Bryson was unfortunately unable to time-travel back to 1927, his writing takes on a more distant quality, but still has wonderful touches of sly commentary, as in this passage about the anti-Catholic activities of the Ku Klux Klan:
Many in the state [of Indiana] believed that Catholics had poisoned President Harding and that priests at Notre Dame University in South Bend were stockpiling armaments in preparation for a Catholic uprising. 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.
There’s an impressive number of narrative threads to keep track of here, and in general I found the hopping about between time periods and topics to give a pleasantly lively effect. This works best at the beginning when Lindbergh’s flight (and the accompanying antics of his rivals) acts as an anchor for the story. Toward the end, though, the book starts to unravel with too many short, undeveloped episodes: the origins of television; the birth of the modern musical theatre; the unfortunate rise of eugenics (which brings us back to Lindbergh again). . . the events of a single summer truly can’t be separated out neatly, but tie into everything else that comes before and after, and that gets complicated. Where does one stop? The final chapter of the book proper ends on a somewhat feeble note with a mere listing of the key events, as if attempting to regain control of the proliferating historical themes by reducing them to manageable facts again — an understandable, if somewhat disappointing impulse.
It’s possible to get all snooty about works of popular history such as this and sneer at them as intellectually inferior.* It’s true that there are some infelicities of language in One Summer, with certain words seemingly not clearly understood, and an overuse of the term “literally.” The invariable use of the word “America” when referring to the United States, as in “America went to war with Germany,” also betrays a certain imprecision. If I were writing an academic paper or delivering a speech at a historical society I would not be using Bryson as my primary reference. But I was grateful to him for breaking through some of my historical blind spots, and giving me a summer full of characters and events as colorful, absurd, and eccentric as any in fiction. Unlike my tenth-grade history lessons, I won’t soon forget them.
*As did an incredibly vitriolic review in the Washington Post, which I won’t dignify with a link (but you’ll find it easily if you look).