Thursday, December 5, 2013

Bill Bryson's One Summer: America, 1927

Bryson, Bill.  One Summer: America, 1927.  New York: Doubleday, 2013. 453 p.


            Bill Bryson’s One Summer is one of those rare popular histories that, with its rich, nostalgic vignettes, could single-handedly seduce readers into more in-depth studies.  In light, engaging prose, Bryson takes readers on a chronological journey through one of the most memorable summers in our nation’s history.  In 1927, Bryson reminds us, Americans boasted of an internationally-famous aviator (Charles Lindbergh), baseball players (Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig), tennis player (Bill Tilden), and boxer (Jack Dempsey).  The primacy of so many Yanks was important collectively as well, since “Americans in the 1920s had grown up in a world in which most of the most important things happened in Europe.”  However, in One Summer, the stories of the not-so famous, or not-so remembered, perhaps, make the tale especially engaging.  Richard Byrd’s feats of aviation, Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray’s murderous peccadillo, and the teenaged Philo Farnsworth’s development of that other national pastime – television – all make appearances, enriching the more familiar stories of flying and baseball that anchor the work. 

In retrospect, the summer of trans-Atlantic flights and home run battles seems a bright, quaint spot just before the fall, and Bryson does well to examine the questionable banking practices leading to the 1929 market crash.  But this was a summer, too, of obsessions: prohibition and killer “gin,” of Al Capone, Percy Fawcett’s ill-fated Amazonian search for the Lost City of Z, the nationwide promotion of eugenics, and anarchist bombings.  One Summer gives readers a glimpse of the macabre, dark side of the glittering 1920s, exploring complexities of the era with the readability of a best-selling novel.

One Summer provoked a fustian and aggrieved review by David Brinkley in the Washington Post’s pages, while David Shribman of the Boston Globe called into question Bryson’s characterization of Calvin Coolidge.  Brinkley’s poorly researched polemic leaves propriety and light at naught, calling into question both the temper and validity of his comments, while Shribman’s lone negative remark relies on a fairly recent and mostly unexamined reading of Coolidge’s legacy.  Other than these, however, the work has been well-received by the academy and armchair historians alike. 

Bryson’s aim in One Summer is to paint a picture of a singularly “extraordinary summer,” and with few exceptions, he succeeds.  The work moves handily from character to character, and though Bryson struggles to close these stories neatly in the epilogue, the larger challenge is contextualizing the fascinating stories and alternately lovable and despicable cast of seeming thousands.  For readers who wish to explore the copious primary and secondary sources cited, there is a 119-page online appendix of notes to the work, but one might wish too for a “recommended reading” section to round out the era.  Among a handful of scholarly monographs, Lynn Dumenil’s The Modern Temper: American Society and Culture in the 1920s serves well to help sate the hungry reader whose appetite is whetted here.  Even alone, One Summer should make its way onto the to-read list of anyone with a passing interest in the history and culture of the inter-war years.  Put on some Hammerstein, Kern, and Gershwin, pour yourself a French 75, and settle in for a fascinating romp through the summer of 1927.  -  Kristy Howell

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