One Summer: America 1927 (Nonfiction November Review)

Bill Bryson, One Summer: America 1927 (2013)

America 1927 history

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.

plane pilot Lindbergh
Charles Lindbergh

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).


Two from the Trail: A Walk in the Woods and Wild

Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail (Broadway Books, 1998)

Cheryl Strayed, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Knopf, 2012)


At about the same time in the mid-nineties, two very different people — a successful, 44-year-old author and family man, and a 26-year-old aspiring writer “with a hole in her heart” — decided to take a hike: a long hike, using two of the longest footpaths in the country. Through their accounts, published almost 15 years apart, we learn about the transformative power of simply taking a walk. By relinquishing the possessions that usually weigh us down, we have an chance to experience nature and ourselves without intermediaries. Even in our tech-obsessed culture, this is clearly a topic that fascinates us — both books were bestsellers and are currently being made into Hollywood movies. What’s the draw?

Bryson is well known as a humorist, and A Walk in the Woods is most often remembered and recommended as a funny book. There are indeed many hilarious moments, often involving his not-exactly-fit friend Stephen Katz. Katz is not perhaps the person one would choose to take along on such an adventure, being prone to throwing away important items from his pack to lighten it, getting lost, and being completely dismissive of the serious danger of bear trouble, but as he bumbles along he becomes dear to us. In his struggle to throw off an addiction, he reminds us that small acts of bravery can be meaningful, and that sometimes facing our demons means just putting one foot in front of the other. Since these are two middle-aged men traveling together, this emotional subtext is not overtly displayed, and never becomes annoyingly maudlin, but it adds poignancy and purpose to the book. (Bryson dedicated it “To Katz, of course.”)

In addition to making us laugh, A Walk in the Woods also lives up to its subtitle Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, bringing us insights into the history, geology, and ecology of the area covered by the trail, as well as the past, present and future of the trail itself. It’s not always a happy story, since human exploitation and greed are decimating the forests Bryson walked through to such an extent that they may soon be gone. But it’s information everyone should know, and when it’s delivered in such a lucid, readable way, there’s no excuse not to.

Bryson never set out to be a “through hiker,” though he memorably describes some of the many who attempt this achievement and the few who actually accomplish it. After a section describing the all-important gear acquisition phase and the first weeks on the trail in Georgia with Katz, the narrative breaks up somewhat, as Bryson has to return home to family and work obligations. He does short hikes or day trips to other sections of the trail, mostly alone, and brings in more of his research and reflections. At the end the pair team up again to try to make it through Maine’s Hundred Mile Wilderness, but the spell has  somehow been broken. Some have found the book disappointing on these counts, but that’s just the way circumstances shaped the experience, and to me doesn’t detract from its interest.

Having myself struggled up a near-vertical mile or so of the AT this summer, without even having to carry a load, I’m quite impressed by what Bryson and Katz managed to achieve in midlife, even if they hiked only a fraction of the complete trail. And I’m definitely in awe of Cheryl Strayed’s walk of over 1000 miles with a pack nicknamed Monster. (Ever the humble one, she says, “If I could do it, anybody can.” Um…maybe.) Wild starts in mid-journey with an arresting image: Strayed losing one of her boots as it accidentally falls off a mountain, and angrily flinging the other after it. How did she get to this point and how on earth is she going to get out of it?

To answer this question, Strayed moves back and forth between descriptions of her months on the trail, and the circumstances in her life that led up to her decision to pack up Monster and go. Hammered by the sudden death of her mother from cancer, the collapse of her marriage, and a nascent heroin addiction, she took up the trail less as the result of a conscious decision than through a blind instinct for the kind of experience that would enable her to move forward in life. Without training or any particular aptitude as a long-distance hiker, and with a much-too-heavy pack and too-small boots, she nevertheless keeps going through her own doubts, fears, and ineptitude as well as external dangers. Wild is definitely not a how-to manual for walking the PCT — unlike Strayed, one might want to learn how to read a compass first, and not be quite so cavalier about the dangers of a woman hiking alone — but I found it funny, harrowing, and heart-wrenching by turns.

Even as both narratives are grounded in very practical matters — finding food, avoiding bears and rattlesnakes, what to do when your boots make your toenails fall off — there’s something in this picture of staying on the trail because one has no other choice, because one has to in order to survive, that is true to a very profound aspect of the human spirit, and to all of our journeys whatever form they may take. No wonder these books resonate with so many readers. I’m grateful to both writers for taking us along with them on their walks, and sharing their trials and triumphs; even if I never spend a month or a week on the trail, I feel as though I learned something important there.

Review copy source: E-books from library