Bill Bryson’s latest — summertime and the living is, well, something

The prolific Bill Bryson has another book out called One Summer: America, 1927 (Random51g1xBpU19L._SL500_AA300_PIaudible,BottomRight,13,73_AA300_ House Audio, 2013). Bryson performs the reading of the book itself, which, as I have mentioned in previous posts, I usually don’t like. It’s especially embarrassing when writers who narrate their own books for the audio version make mistakes. I think Bryson does make a few mistakes. But the combination of authority, wonder, joy and exuberance he brings to the reading more than makes up for any pronunciation errors he may have committed. It’s gotten so I can’t imagine anyone else narrating one of Bill Bryson’s books.

As the title suggests One Summer focuses upon activities going on in the United States (mainly) during the summer of 1927. Of course the book ranges far afield of that specific timeframe as well. For example it’s not clear to me what Henry Ford specifically did during 1927 that qualifies him for inclusion in the book. I think perhaps he stopped production of the model T. He also may have begun construction of a planned community/rubber plantation in Brazil called, preposterously enough, Fordlandia. I’m not exactly sure on that. The same is true of the Sacco and Vanzetti material. Sacco and Vanzetti committed their crime I believe in 1920 or 1921 so we get a lot of information about that period of time including the trial, the public reaction  to the crime (as Bryson points out this was a period of significant prejudice against radicals and immigrants) and the follow-up activities. On the other hand, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed in 1927, so I guess they fit into that year.

Certainly the two most famous people in the book that do merit inclusion because of their activities in 1927 include Babe Ruth, and Charles Lindbergh. Of course as everyone knows Babe Ruth had his career year with the Yankees in 1927 when he hit his record (at the time) 60 home runs, and Lindbergh made his solo flight across the Atlantic in the same year. From these two cornerstone events the book proceeds to talk about a wide variety of other activities that take place during 1927 that make it a sort of pivotal year in the history of United States.

Along the way we get quite a bit of Bill Bryson’s trademark devotion to detail, statistics and background information. For example, did you know that Babe Ruth’s swing applied 8000 pounds of pressure to the ball when he connected? Did you know that it takes four tenths of a second for a baseball to reach home plate from the pitcher’s hand? Did you also know that Babe Ruth still holds the record for left-handed pitchers for shutouts in a season with nine. I didn’t know this stuff either, but I do now, after reading this book. I also know that Calvin Coolidge liked to wear cowboy outfits and that Herbert Hoover was a publicity hound.

All of this and much more is revealed in American Summer. In fact there is so much contained in this book, as is typical of a Bill Bryson account, that it is hard to summarize it in a review. In addition to the folks I have already mentioned, we learn a lot about Jack Dempsey, for example, whose career was actually winding down in 1927 when he lost to Gene Tunney in a heavyweight boxing match. We learn about the making of “The Jazz Singer,” the “official” first talking motion picture and the invention of television (yes, it goes back that far). We get a lot of information about prohibition, although how specifically 1927 is involved in prohibition is not clear to me. In addition to the people and events I’ve already mentioned we get accounts of various depth on Lou Gehrig, Bill Tilden, Al Capone, Charles Ponzi, Richard Byrd, Clara Bow, Zane Grey and Edgar Rice Burroughs, the Ku Klux Klan, eugenics . . . even pole sitting (Bryson focuses on a gentleman called Shipwreck Kelly, who was apparently one of the more prominent flagpole sitters of the era and, presumably, of 1927).

We learn that the weather was very wet in 1927. In addition to the Sacco and Vanzetti controversy there is coverage of other crimes, especially sensational murders like wives killing their husbands so that they can run off with their lovers and a particularly gruesome incident in the city of Bath, Michigan, where a man blew up a school, killing 37 children and 44 people in all.

Today we are kind of inured to violence such as this but in 1927 these were spectacular events and, as Bryson points out, the public in 1927 had an appetite for spectacle (although at which period in human history didn’t people display an appetite for spectacle?). That’s why Lindbergh’s flight was such a huge draw. Bryson gives us a sense of this excitement (100,000 people greeted Lindbergh’s plane when it landed in Paris) and the extraordinary celebrity that Lindbergh enjoyed (although from Lindbergh’s point of view it was anything but enjoyable) following his successful flight.

Conspicuous by their absence in One Summer are people of color. I don’t think this is an omission by Bryson, intentional or otherwise so much as it is a reflection of American society in 1927, an indication of the lack of opportunity for and, well, downright suppression of minorities. In the midst of the frenzy of the summer of 1927, one of the more sinister undertones is the prevalence of intolerance. Of course, that’s probably another book altogether. Maybe Bill Bryson will take it on.


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