Book review: ‘One Summer: America, 1927,’ by Bill Bryson

Karina Wetherbee
Special to the Daily
"One Summer: America, 1927," by Bill Bryson.
Special to the Daily |

Few writers can tackle the intricacies of history in as comprehensive a fashion as Bill Bryson, who is best know for his hilarious book “A Walk in the Woods,” as well as the very thorough and hugely popular read “A Short History of Nearly Everything.” Though not as encompassing in historical scope, Bryson’s most recent release, “One Summer: America, 1927,” nonetheless, manages to recount in astounding detail the extraordinary events of one special summer in American history.

It is easy to forget that Bryson has some serious writing chops, as it is his sense of humor that has carried his books to the top of best-seller lists. But the expat American author shines a very thoughtful light upon the woven tapestry of events that took place in his native country during the summer of 1927, detailing moments that helped change the course of modern history.

Advancements in Aircraft

Bryson uses Charles Lindbergh’s extraordinary, record-breaking flight across the Atlantic as the focal point around which he builds a comprehensive snapshot of that very pivotal summer. World War I had brought aviation to the forefront nearly a decade before, and as Bryson points out, when war is the motivation, advancements in any new industry are quick.

The number of aircraft built in the four years of the war was staggering. Soldiers who had never before flown planes were put into them to wage war, and they died in large numbers. To be a volunteer pilot in WWI was to be an automatic hero, as the chances of survival were very slim. Yet men turned out in droves for what they saw as the adventure of a lifetime. So when the war came to an end, there were many new pilots and planes that had no sense of purpose. This is when stunt flying and record-breaking attempts became all the rage.

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The motivation for Lindbergh — and many other eager adventurers — was a competition put forth by wealthy businessman Raymond Orteig, who challenged that anyone who could fly successfully from New York to Paris would be awarded $25,000. Many tried, some failing in dramatic fashion, and after a springtime of few gains, in flew an unassuming young man from Minnesota who went on to inspire a generation.

Bryson portrays Lindbergh’s rise to fame against a fascinating backdrop of other events that were overlapping and interwoven with his attempt to do the impossible. The 1920s, Bryson says, were a good decade for the reading of information. The Book of the Month Club came into existence, and authors were celebrities of the highest order. Magazines and newspapers enjoyed a high point, too, with many becoming household names. Tabloid gossip, as a result, was much in vogue, and crime reports, especially of the tawdry sort, filled the papers.

Enthralled Audience

With a nation eager for the next tantalizing headline, Lindbergh’s success thrilled readers, both in America and abroad. But being a shy and introverted young man, Lindbergh was unprepared for the hoards of reporters and fans, who were eager for any little tidbit of gossip. Newspapers began to compete fiercely for any amount of salacious news, with scandal and sex, unsurprisingly, selling the most.

Lindbergh was too straight-laced to satisfy in that regard, but Bryson is quick to point out the many other compelling individuals emerged during the summer of 1927 to appease those eager for any beguiling tittle-tattle. In an era known for daring and reckless behavior, where, paradoxically, the disastrous attempts at Prohibition actually increased loose living and criminal behavior, an atmosphere of free thinking and creativity emerged.

It was into this landscape that film and radio surfaced as forms of entertainment, and jazz, that all-American sound, was seen by many conservative-types as a harbinger of doom. In this unsettled atmosphere, the nation became untethered from the moorings of the past, with much of the population joyously rebelling, while others longed to go back to simpler times.

Lindbergh, with his chaste and clean-cut persona, stirred the hearts and minds of those nostalgic for the America of promise and opportunity. But for those more inclined to live on the edge, many more individuals emerged to inspire, living their larger-than-life existences and leaving legacies of their own.

Controversial Ideas

Baseball legend Babe Ruth, famed Chicago mobster Al Capone and boxing superstar Jack Dempsey all feature prominently in Bryson’s book, as do Herbert Hoover and Calvin Coolidge. In addition to people of note, Bryson focuses on some strong and controversial ideas that left their marks on the summer of 1927, namely pockets of violent fascist anarchists, as well as an elaborate eugenics movement that enjoyed a disturbing level of popularity among prominent and influential individuals.

It is within this climate, with its troubling similarities to the not-too-distant future of the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, that Lindbergh’s star began to tarnish and plummet. His admiration of Adolf Hitler and his vocal support of Germany’s efforts against the Jews were nails in his coffin, and his status as American hero was quickly buried. Bryson’s book begins and ends with this complicated man, whose life bookends an era ushered in on the backs of a summer built from monumental moments.

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