The Fourth River

Book Review: One Summer: America, 1927, by Bill Bryson

By on March 31, 2014

Bryson

Doubleday
528 pgs/ $16.86 hardcover


Review by Ryan Rydzewski

“A most extraordinary summer was about to begin.”
-Bill Bryson

Hundreds of thousands of people gather to watch a New York skyscraper burn. Thousands more crowd Charles Ponzi’s Boston office, desperate to hand their life savings over to an investor who can do no wrong. Yet another airplane falls from the sky. The President, working his usual four-and-a-half-hour day, sits in the Oval Office with his feet in an open desk drawer, watching the window and counting passing cars. One in six people head to the movies. In Mississippi, black workers man their posts at gunpoint as the worst flood in American history approaches. The government, in the throes of Prohibition, lethally poisons batches of booze to deter would-be drinkers. Minnesota considers changing its name to Lindberghia, and bombs explode in almost every major American city.

Welcome to the summer of 1927, beautifully reconstructed by bestselling travel writer and historian Bill Bryson. In his new book, One Summer: America, 1927 (Random House), Bryson tells the story of America at the height of the Roaring Twenties—or, as he calls it, the “Age of Loathing.” It’s a country wild for mass spectacle, where anarchists lurk in the shadows and almost everybody gets rich. Where misfits and criminals run the cities and towns. It’s a country teeming with paranoia and hatred and some of the most fascinating characters ever produced.

The names here are familiar—Charles Lindbergh, Al Capone, Babe Ruth, Calvin Coolidge—but Bryson weaves them together to show an America that was, in many ways, just beginning to come into its own. It’s easy to draw modern political parallels, and readers of One Summer will almost certainly do so. But Bryson himself stays close to the facts, focusing on narrative rather than reflection, emphasizing the surprising and sensational rather than the damning or prescient. It’s as if he wrote One Summer to mirror the fast-paced, gawking ethos of the age—a speeding newsreel that gives only the highlights.

In classic Bryson fashion, One Summer covers a lot of ground, from the history of aviation to the development of modern sound projection. When he introduces a new character or event, Bryson veers off course to dig deeper and give his readers a closer look. The section on Henry Ford, for example, begins with a description of Ford’s mind-blowing ignorance, which, as Bryson notes, “was a frequent source of wonder.” (Ford believed that the weight of so many buildings on the Earth’s surface would eventually cause the planet to implode.) He was ridiculed by his contemporaries for his infamous stupidity, yet his Model T changed the world more than anything that came before or after. The section goes on to explore Ford’s early life in Detroit, the founding of the Ford Motor Company, the mechanics of the Model T, the basics of the assembly line, Ford’s insufferable management techniques, his burning hatred of the Jews, the rise and fall of Ford’s newspaper, the history of mining in Brazil, rubber production, Ford’s failed colony in the Amazon (called Fordlandia), and finally back to Detroit.

There aren’t many writers who could pull this off without losing their audience, especially for 528 pages. But Bryson’s gift for careful narrative almost always shows us only what’s most interesting and relevant. Everything he writes about a man like Ford, no matter how tangential, eventually serves to illuminate both the inventiveness and recklessness of 1920’s America. The resulting story, so gripping and full of trivia-night facts, makes you want to shake the person next to you with every new page and say, “You’re not going to believe this.” One Summer is a large book, to be sure, but Bryson’s narrative is so rapid and to-the-point that it reads like a book a third of its size.

Is it pop history? Sure. But it’s also a hell of a lot of fun: Charles Lindbergh was so precise about the weight of his plane that he cut the margins off his maps. He subscribed to a newspaper-clipping service so that his mother could keep up with his adventures. After a few weeks, the clippings weighed over a ton and had to be delivered to his mother’s house by a series of trucks. A series of people climbed atop flagpoles, many of which capped very tall buildings, and sat there as long as they could, creating the art of flagpole sitting—one of the Jazz Age’s most popular fads. Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly didn’t come down from an Atlantic City flagpole for 49 days.

What isn’t here, though, and what might disappoint readers of Bryson’s other works, is a personal connection to the material or an attempt to find a larger story. Bryson’s most popular book, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, is just as stuffed with intriguing history and humor as One Summer, but it’s also about his best friend trying to walk his way out of alcoholism.

Bryson’s father’s death sparks his journey in The Lost Continent. Even Bryson’s other history, At Home: A Short History of Private Life, examined the evolution of human residence through the lens of his own home.

Unlike his other books, Bryson avoids the first person almost entirely here, coming through only in his clear enthusiasm for the material. Yet he writes with such eagerness and humor that you can almost sense him smiling at the story unfolds:

“Herbert Hoover lived to be ninety, and never in the whole of that time, so far as can be told, experienced anything approaching a moment’s real joy.”

“New York had more saloons in 1927 than it had before Prohibition, and drinking remained so transparently prevalent that the mayor of Berlin on a visit reportedly asked Mayor Jimmy Walker when Prohibition was to begin.”

“Moral decline was evident everywhere…Even the hesitation waltz was deemed to contain some element of sultriness that made it tantamount to musical foreplay. Worst of all by far was jazz, which was widely held to be a springboard for drug taking and promiscuity. ‘Does Jazz Put the Sin in Syncopation?’ asked an article in the Ladies Home Journal. You bet it did…”

Lack of analysis aside, a book this large—both in length and scope—is bound to have some flaws. One Summer showcases its share, the first and most obvious being the dead-end rabbit holes that Bryson seems to tumble through almost out of habit. While his asides are almost always worthwhile, occasionally we get a glaring dud. Take this one on Miller Higgins, manager of the 1927 Yankees:

“Forty-eight years old in 1927, he had grown up in Cincinnati. His parents were English immigrants; his father had been an excellent cricket player.”

You sometimes get the feeling that Bryson includes these because, well, he’s introduced a new character, and that’s what Bill Bryson does when he introduces a new character. But there are hundreds of characters in One Summer, many of them resurrected from limited source material. Bryson offers what he can, but a few stark moments make us wish we’d been spared Historical Aside #347. (To Bryson’s credit, though, it’s only because Historical Asides #346 and #348 were so fascinating.)

Another flaw—and this may seem small unless you’re an avid Bryson fan—is his overuse of the phrase, “The upshot is…” A problem in every book Bryson has ever written, One Summer is no exception (at least five upshots by my count).

The upshot is that despite its flaws and a tendency to stay at the surface, One Summer: America 1927 remains one of the most charming nonfiction books I’ve read all year. For anyone with even a passing interest in American history, it’s an essential read that’ll keep you smiling as you turn its pages, stopping strangers, telling anybody who’ll listen that really, they simply won’t believe this.

***
Ryan Rydzewski is a first-year graduate student at Chatham University, where he’s pursuing an MFA in nonfiction writing. His work has appeared in the Atticus Review and Three Rivers Review. He lives in Pittsburgh, Pennylvania.