Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs. The Federal Reserve made the mistake that precipitated the stock market crash. Al Capone enjoyed his last summer of eminence. The Jazz Singer was filmed. Television was created. Radio came of age. Sacco and Vanzetti were executed. President Coolidge chose not to run. Work began on Mount Rushmore. The Mississippi flooded as it never had before. A madman in Michigan blew up a school and killed forty-four people in the worst slaughter of children in American history. Henry Ford stopped making the Model T, and promised to stop insulting Jews. And a kid from Minnesota flew across an ocean and captivated the planet in a way it had never been captivated before.
I like these kind of micro-histories, that go all in on a short, specific time and consider its significance, kind of like Elisabeth Asbrink’s brilliant 1947: Where Now Begins. Bill Bryson has a signature breezy storytelling style, and infuses a humor that makes for especially readable popular history.
Bryson follows the progression of events that season month by month, through September. 1927 was a significant year, especially in international aviation, baseball, and a lot of smaller-seeming events that actually precipitated major ones, or big changes. Seeing those broken down and placed in the context of the times was fascinating, and Bryson makes it compelling, for the most part.
Aviation was on people’s minds and thus is a major theme here. There’s a good reason why, as Bryson explains in part: “The romance and glamour of it can scarcely be imagined now. Pilots were the most heroic figures of the age.” Charles Lindbergh made his Atlantic crossing to Paris without “even a toothbrush” and became an international superstar that does seem on a level removed from anything we have today.
Bryson captures the mania of this — that there was a proposal “to exempt Lindbergh for life from paying taxes, to name a star or planet after him … Minnesota for a time considered a proposal to rename itself Lindberghia.” All of this even as he acknowledges that the frenzy over Lindbergh was still, nevertheless, kind of odd: “All that can be said is that for some unknowable reason Lindbergh’s flight brought the world a moment of sublime, spontaneous, unifying joy on a scale never before seen.”
He also gets into the troubling and terrible parts of Lindbergh’s history, beginning with his strange mother and buttoned-up background through to his support of eugenics. The field where he took off for Paris on Long Island is now Roosevelt Field, the biggest shopping mall in New York, and only a small plaque under an escalator denotes what happened there. We don’t really know what to do with him now.
He wasn’t the only pilot making history then, and some of the stories here gave me chills. Bryson has a great ability to make history that could seem dry in others’ hands feel tangible, especially with the realization of how much it meant at the time.
There’s a lot of humor at the expense of the taciturn personalities of Lindbergh and then-president Calvin Coolidge, both of whom had a number of noteworthy moments in the public eye that summer made awkward by their inherent reticence.
The trial and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, suspected anarchists, was a thread I found particularly interesting in terms of what it revealed of American sentiments in that moment, including the chilling thought that “A common view among Americans at the time was that even if they were innocent of the Braintree crimes, they still deserved to be punished. As the foreman of the jury in their case reportedly remarked early in the trial, “Damn them, they ought to hang anyway.”
Then there’s baseball. There is so much baseball. If you love it, that’s surely great news. If you’re apathetic, like me, less so. I didn’t know anything about Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig’s biographies so those parts ended up being compelling, and much odder than I realized. But anything involving statistics or about the games themselves or baseball culture was never going to interest me, no matter how good the storytelling is.
It’s full of those kind of small but interesting facts that make reading history delightful — did you know that Bela Lugosi was buried in his Count Dracula costume? He was. Otherwise, I’m not sure the book says anything groundbreaking, or even that wouldn’t be known elsewhere if you have any background knowledge in these subjects. And if you have any aversion to the bigger topics, namely aviation and baseball, there will be skimming. Otherwise it’s fairly light, mostly compelling summer or end-of-summer reading.
One Summer: America, 1927
by Bill Bryson