Published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group on 2013-10-01
Source: the library
The summer of 1927 began with one of the signature events of the twentieth century: on May 21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the first man to cross the Atlantic by plane nonstop, and when he landed in Le Bourget airfield near Paris, he ignited an explosion of worldwide rapture and instantly became the most famous person on the planet. Meanwhile, the titanically talented Babe Ruth was beginning his assault on the home run record, which would culminate on September 30 with his sixtieth blast, one of the most resonant and durable records in sports history.
In between those dates a Queens housewife named Ruth Snyder and her corset-salesman lover garroted her husband, leading to a murder trial that became a huge tabloid sensation. Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly sat atop a flagpole in Newark, New Jersey, for twelve days—a new record. The American South was clobbered by unprecedented rain and by flooding of the Mississippi basin, a great human disaster, the relief efforts for which were guided by the uncannily able and insufferably pompous Herbert Hoover. Calvin Coolidge interrupted an already leisurely presidency for an even more relaxing three-month vacation in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The gangster Al Capone tightened his grip on the illegal booze business through a gaudy and murderous reign of terror and municipal corruption. The first true “talking picture,” Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, was filmed and forever changed the motion picture industry. The four most powerful central bankers on earth met in secret session on a Long Island estate and made a fateful decision that virtually guaranteed a future crash and depression.
All this and much, much more transpired in that epochal summer of 1927, and Bill Bryson captures its outsized personalities, exciting events, and occasional just plain weirdness with his trademark vividness, eye for telling detail, and delicious humor. In that year America stepped out onto the world stage as the main event, and One Summer transforms it all into narrative nonfiction of the highest order.
I love the way Bryson wanders down interesting byroads as he writes. He rarely stays on one topic for very long. And yet his books are so readable, and so packed with wonderful tidbits of historical information, that the very process of wandering around becomes a large part of the charm.
In One Summer: America, 1927, Bryson weaves together many different strands: aviation, baseball, radio, television, boxing, Broadway, the Mississippi flood, anarchist violence, eugenics, bigotry, Prohibition, automation, banking – and ends up with a tapestry encapsulating the 1920s. He moves back and forth through time, exploring each topic in turn, but always circling back to the amazing summer of 1927 and to Lindbergh and Babe Ruth – the two ‘heroes’ of his narrative, if either could really be called that. Their stories become the threads tying the entire book together.
Readers familiar only with the “Lucky Lindy” myth and perhaps the Lindbergh baby’s kidnapping will be surprised and even saddened by the contradictions of the man himself. Equally compelling are the stories of Babe Ruth and Lou Gherig, anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, Jack Dempsey, Henry Ford, Philo Farnsworth, and scores of others.
I listened to the audiobook, and if you’re an audiobook fan, I do recommend listening rather than reading the book. Bryson reads his work well, and I find his voice pleasant. His years in England have left him with not with a British accent, but a clearer, more precise diction than that of many Americans, and his sometimes wry delivery had me chuckling more than once.
Recommended for: anyone with an interest in early 20th-century American history and culture
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
- 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge