One Summer: America, 1927

Bill Bryson‘s books — travel, memoir, historical and scientific compendiums — share three characteristics: They are witty; they show a connoisseur’s pleasure in the audacious and the crackpot; and they tend to proceed through networks of free association and coincidence. They are also marked by a mood of joy and acerbity I find especially engaging. All of these  are again on display in One Summer: America, 1927, a  title, you will notice, that dispenses with the marketer’s nostrum “That Changed the World,” though the summer in question did in fact change it — as did, of course, every summer before and to come. Still, this particular summer is exceptionally good to write about, not only for its celebrated events but also because it comes in the last half of the 1920s, a decade that is, as Bryson declares, “in many ways the most strange and wondrous…in American history.”  

In the first place, that summer, like the decade as a whole, was stamped by the corrosive effects of Prohibition: “At one stroke it shut down the fifth-largest industry in America. It took some $2 billion a year out of the hands of legitimate interests and put it in the hands of murderous thugs. It made criminals of honest people and actually led to an increase in drinking in the country.” As to specific events, the summer of 1927 witnessed what can be justly described as mass hysteria over Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight from Long Island to Paris and to a lesser, though still fanatical extent, the Dempsey-Tunney fight, Babe Ruth’s sixtieth home run, the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, and, very weirdly, the so-called Sash Weight Murder Case, the bludgeoning and garroting to death of a man called Albert Snyder by his wife, Ruth, and her lover, Judd Gray. Only unstoppable press and radio momentum can explain the violent interest taken in this murder, for, as Bryson observes, there were “[p]lenty of other, better murders…available to excite attention that year.”

It was also the summer (and spring) of the Great Mississippi Flood, a catastrophic deluge that submerged over 16.5 million acres across ten states. Though it had a devastating impact on hundreds of thousands of people and far-reaching historical consequences for the entire country, it just didn’t provide the right sort of spectacle for mass consumption, not least because those most affected were poor and mostly black. “It is a shocking fact,” writes Bryson, “that a closer count was kept of livestock losses than of human ones. It is perhaps only slightly less shocking to note that outside the affected areas the flood received less coverage on most days than the murder trial of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray.”  

Still, the limelight rarely strayed from one actor in this tragedy, and that was Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, a man whose talent for organization was surpassed only by his gift for self-promotion. His administration of flood relief, combined with his relentless touting of his achievements, real and asserted, made him — as he admitted himself — a shoo-in for the presidency. Happily, there would be an opening, for that was also the summer Calvin Coolidge, attended by some baffling hugger-mugger, released the gnomic statement “I do not choose to run.” Bryson makes a most entertaining meal of both Hoover (“dazzlingly short on endearing qualities”) and Coolidge, who could not stand the former, calling him Wonder Boy. Where Hoover never stopped, Coolidge, according to Bryson, worked no more than four and a half hours a day and was given to naps. (“When not napping, he often sat with his feet in an open desk drawer…and counted cars passing on Pennsylvania Avenue.”) Unlike Hoover, Silent Cal did have a sense of humor, even if it was, in Bryson’s words, “that of a slightly backward schoolboy — one of his favorite japes was to ring all the White House servant bells at once, then hide behind the drapes to savor the confusion that followed.”

Bryson has enriched these pages with many other mischievous sketches of great and not-so-great historical figures and ornamented them with oddball facts. He begins one chapter with an especially pleasing one: “Of all the figures who rose to prominence in the 1920s in America, none had a more pugnacious manner, finer head of hair, or more memorable name than Kenesaw Mountain Landis.” He goes on to note that John Reed described the adamantine judge “as having ‘the face of Andrew Jackson three years dead” and explains that Landis got his curious name as a commemorative gesture on the part of his father, who had lost a leg in the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain during the Civil War.

Many of the events of that spring and summer represented only the seeds of things to come: A crude version of television was first demonstrated to the press, the first image broadcast being none other than Herbert Hoover’s self-satisfied mug. Later, Philo T. Farnsworth, “the greatest inventor of whom most people have never heard,” filed his first patent for the television technology that eventually triumphed, though credit (and profit) was seized by an overweening RCA. This melancholy story strays into the years following, but Bryson delivers it briskly in all its perfidy. That summer, too, set the clock ticking for Al Capone’s exit from public service when the Supreme Court ruled that those who profited through illegal activities could be prosecuted for tax evasion. Another, greater downfall was set into motion when the Federal Reserve reduced the discount rate from 4.0 to 3.5 percent, thus further inflating the stock market bubble whose collapse ushered in the Great Depression.

Other events, were, all unknown, swan songs: the silent movie Wings, a masterpiece of innovative cinematography was one such. It appeared in August, but two months later, the silent era was dealt its death blow with the release of The Jazz Singer, the first feature-length talking picture. The newspapers, which attracted more readers than ever before that year, began their long, winding exit from relevance, the number of readers declining from then on.

Further, and perhaps more important for the character of the nation, the number and diversity of newspapers themselves began to diminish. This is a point made by Frederick Lewis Allen in his brilliant Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s (referred to by Bryson, though not to this end): Big cities began to lose competing papers, and local ones were increasingly gathered into centrally owned chains. Though it is not Bryson’s stated intention to show it, his book demonstrates throughout that this is the decade during which mass media and public relations consultants gained a firm hold over public awareness, determining what was important, even what might be said to exist.

This colorful bouquet of popular history is lighthearted for the most part and serves as a seductive introduction to a pivotal decade. Most helpfully, Bryson has backed up each fast-paced chapter with snappy little bibliographic essays to lure the reader into greater and even more astonishing depth.