- One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson (Doubleday, 2013; Random House Audio narrated by the author)
- In 40 words or less: 1927 was chock-a-block full of events that changed history. From May to September, Bryson weaves together economic, political and cultural upheavals that shaped the world as we know it. It can be comforting when contemporary events leave us shaken.
- Genre: History
- Locale: Primarily U.S.
- Time: May to September 1927
- This book has something for everyone. There’s sports, aviation, politics, industrialization and, yes, more politics. When one questions whether so much had ever changed so quickly, a well-written panoramic view of the times is very helpful.
I’d been meaning to read Bill Bryson’s book on the summer of 1927 for a while. The timing seemed ideal, this being the 90th anniversary of the events of that summer. On a personal note, my father was just days old when the book opens. What better way to get a sense of the America into which he was born. And for those of us trying desperately to temper today’s cataract of news with other information, listening to Bryson’s calm voice laying out the history was a fine choice.
Calvin Coolidge was president. The economy was strong, and industry was growing. Taking advantage of the good times, he chose to spend three months on an extended trip to South Dakota, channeling his inner cowboy. At the same time, Herbert Hoover was dealing, on his behalf, with the results of catastrophic Mississippi River flooding that displaced thousands and disrupted river commerce. Hoover proved himself equal parts skilled manager and self-promoter in directing the relief efforts.
For many, 1927 is of note for Charles Lindbergh’s historic nonstop flight from New York to Paris. Lindbergh was focused on the technology and the task at hand. Temperamentally a loner, he was ill-suited for the fame and interest his achievement brought. Bryson’s careful research synthesizes the information about the man, his single-minded attention to the flight, and the forces that shaped his later life and brief entry into politics.
This was summer that brought Al Jolson to the screen in the first broadly released talking picture. It transformed the entertainment business and made and broke many stars, and studio owners in the transition.
The newsreels of the day featured the New York Yankees, the dominating force in baseball. This was the year that Babe Ruth set the mark for home runs with 60. While his feats on the field were famous, his off-field activities were also unmatched.
Based on these events alone, the book would be worthwhile. This was the summer that the Model A was introduced by Henry Ford, changing the automobile industry in America. Sacco and Vanzetti were put to death after a trial focused as much on their anarchist politics and immigrant origins as it was on the murder. And a titillating true crime story of adultery and murder was also in the headlines. The Dempsey-Tunney fight captured America well beyond the boxing world.
Finally, in a measure of hubris, the central banks of the US and its major allies put into place monetary policies that paved the way for the stock market crash that heralded the Great Depression. It was a very busy summer.
Whether your preferred method of reading is paper, e-book or audiobook, Bill Bryson’s ability to interconnect all these events will carry through. Having an escort through all these aspects of history is rare indeed. It is the kind of education most can only appreciate long after leaving the classroom.