Bill Bryson’s newest book has the most splendid title. It’s One Summer: America, 1927. An admirably succinct description of a wonderful book. It’s about, yes, the summer of 1927, and about what happened in America during that summer. It extends each of its main stories forward and backward in time, giving each narrative an appropriate beginning and end. It’s a funny book, with the usual Bill Bryson wit, but it’s not quite as laugh-out-loud funny as, say, his The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, or A Short History of Nearly Everything. Bryson’s approach this time is more journalistic, more ‘here’s what happened, here are the facts.’ He’s not really an historian, per se. As always, he’s attracted to the quirky human details of the stories he tells. But it makes for a wonderful read.
The book primarily focuses on these stories. First and foremost, it’s about Charles Lindbergh, his flight to Paris, and, more broadly, the state of aviation in the US and world-wide. It’s also about Babe Ruth, and the 1927 New York Yankees, and the rise of the (carefully marketed) American sports hero; specifically the Babe and Jack Dempsey. It describes the Presidency of Calvin Coolidge, and a typically odd summer vacation he spent in South Dakota. It tells about the Ruth Snyder murder trial, and the phenomenon of flagpole sitting, and the rise (and fall) of Al Capone in Chicago, and the emergence of The Jazz Singer and talking motion pictures.
Bryson seems primarily to follow these stories as they appeared in the newspapers of the era. As such, then, the book’s main topic would be the earliest stirrings of what we call celebrity culture. Charles Lindbergh was the biggest celebrity of his era, his popularity very much transcending his own personality, which was distinctly non-charismatic. Babe Ruth was a sports celebrity, Al Jolson an entertainment celebrity, and Ruth Snyder a murder suspect celebrity of the kind featured nowadays by Nancy Grace’s show. We are inundated with each of these still today. On the other hand, Al Capone was a uniquely 20s phenomenon; a gangster celebrity. And Capone was celebrated primarily because he represented rebellion against the single most foolish public policy fiasco in American history; Prohibition. And Bryson explores the dimensions of that peculiarly American idiocy in lengthy, loving detail.
That’s part of what makes this book so compelling; the contrast between the 1920s and the 2010s. The Babe Ruth phenomenon strikes us as eminently relateable; our sports entertainment culture nurtures the images of sports heroes every bit as assiduously today as newspaper writers did back then. But then there’s this:
Remarkably, the Ku Klux Klan was not the most dangerous outpost of bigotry in America in this period. That distinction belonged, extraordinary though it is to state, to a coalition of academics and scientists. Since early in the century, a large number of prominent and learned Americans had been preoccupied, almost to the point of obsessiveness, with the belief that the country was filling up with dangerously inferior people, and that something urgent ought to be done about it.
That amazing paragraph comes early in a chapter about racism, xenophobia and eugenics, a chapter that will make you proud to be an American. And yet, I did find it a bit encouraging, honestly. Because of all the preposterous crackpot ideas widely believed in American society today, at least eugenics no longer seems intellectually fashionable. Some small progress has been made, I suppose.
It’s about about popular enthusiasms. It’s a book about the rise of an industrial entertainment complex, still in its infancy, but certainly recognizable today.
And it’s a book about the uses and misuses of popularity and publicity and celebrity itself. It’s a book that notes, with bemused detachment, that Al Capone gave frequent press conferences, and a book that tells us what he said in them. It’s a book that describes precisely how enterprising South Dakota businessmen got President Coolidge hooked on fishing, how they transformed a confirmed non-outdoorsman into an avid angler, and why. It tells us of Herbert Hoover, the most energetic and efficient member of Coolidge’s cabinet, and of his strenuous and successful campaign to make sure everyone in the country knew just how good he was at his job, and why he might make a dandy choice for an ever higher one.
Anyway, check it out. Give it thirty pages. I promise, you won’t be able to put it down.