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One Summer: America 1927, by Bill Bryson, Doubleday, RRP£20, 560 pages
A classic Bill Bryson sentence flies like a curveball, never landing quite where you’d expect. “For Warren G Harding, the summer of 1927 was not a good one, which was perhaps a little surprising since he had been dead for nearly four years by then.” Excellent. Here’s another: “Thompson was an oaf from head to toe and ear to ear, but his supporters never held that against him.”
Harding, the 29th President of the United States, would be disgraced after his sudden death by the revelation of scandal after scandal in his government; William Hale Thompson was the mayor of Chicago who presided over the city’s fall into the hands of organised crime, so that “Chicago was to corruption what Pittsburgh was to steel or Hollywood to motion pictures”.
Does Harding’s name ring any but the vaguest of bells – and Thompson’s none at all? Don’t worry. Bryson will set you right in this canter through one summer of one year that – once you’ve turned the final page – will seem more critical to American history than you might have reckoned before.
At first glance, 1927 would appear to be an eccentric choice. Think of US history in the Jazz Age and 1929 springs to mind: the year of the stock market crash that led to the Great Depression; the year of the St Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago, when Al Capone’s gangsters slaughtered their rivals; Martin Luther King Jr was born in 1929 too.
But Bryson is a master of the sidelong, a man who can turn obscurity into hilarity with seemingly effortless charm – and One Summer: America 1927 is an entertaining addition to a body of work that is at its best when it celebrates the unexpected and the obscure.
There are, it should be said, two famous anchors to hold this tale in place – though the name of one may be better known than the other to readers outside North America.
One Summer begins in May – each month of the season gets its own section of the book – with “The Kid”, better known as Charles Lindbergh, whose solo flight across the Atlantic changed aviation history. Lindbergh was an unknown 25-year-old airmail pilot when he took off from Long Island’s Roosevelt Field on May 20, 1927; but when the Spirit of St Louis touched down at Le Bourget, just outside Paris, on the evening of May 21, he was the most famous human being in the world.
In June we meet “The Babe”, George Herman “Babe” Ruth, perhaps the greatest baseball player the world has ever known. In the summer of 1927 “the Sultan of Swat” hit 60 home runs for the Yankees in a single season, a record that remained unbeaten until 1961 – when it was broken by Roger Maris, another Yankee right fielder, as it happens. Babe Ruth was to baseball what Lindbergh was to powered flight: a figure who altered the landscape of his field forever, changing the game for all who followed.
The stories of these two men give Bryson’s book a kind of unity but one senses that the author isn’t aiming to draw any real conclusions. Instead he paints a portrait of a vanished era, before America’s citizens saw their fortunes tumble with the stock market, when they were drinking bootleg liquor in hundreds of speakeasies throughout the land, when the cardboard Westerns of Zane Grey and the overripe yarns of Edgar Rice Burroughs outsold books by the little-known F Scott Fitzgerald by 10 to one. In this long, hot summer you’ll find the Great Mississippi Flood (still the most destructive in the history of the US), the execution of anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, and the dedication of Mount Rushmore.
It would, of course, be possible to become better-informed about almost any of these events by reading other books. There’s A Scott Berg’s brilliant biography of Lindbergh; Babe Ruth’s own autobiography; Paul Averich’s great study of the Sacco and Vanzetti case. And Bryson would be happy for you to read them: at the end of One Summer come not boring old footnotes but “Notes on sources and further reading” that positively encourage you to dig deeper.
This is a jolly jalopy ride of a book; Bryson runs down the byways of American history and finds diversion in every roadside stop. If there’s a flaw, it’s that he wants to pack so much in that there’s little time for reflection. He claims that Alcock and Brown, who flew the Atlantic before Lindbergh, are now “sadly forgotten”; many would disagree – not least Colum McCann, who begins his latest novel TransAtlantic with their flight.
Bryson has little inclination to look too deeply into difficult matters. Babe Ruth could never remember anyone’s name, nor could he learn lines for a radio broadcast; he was terrible with money. Bryson doesn’t wonder at a cause, such as dyslexia – Ruth’s brain simply has, he says, “wondrous gaps”. Dwight Morrow, a banker with JPMorgan who would become Lindbergh’s father-in-law, isn’t described as an alcoholic: he is “a hopeless souse”. Well, that’s probably how they’d have put it in 1927.