One Summer: America, 1927
Bill Bryson (Facebook)
Audiobook read by the author
Doubleday (October 2013), hardcover (ISBN 0767919408 / 9780767919401)
Nonfiction: History, 528 pages
Source: Purchased audiobook (Random House Audio, October 2013, ISBN 9780739315309; Audible ASIN B00EF9PJU8)
It’s hard for those of us who came in late to grasp this fully, but the pace of change may never have been faster than it was in the 1900s in the United States. As a child of the 1960s and 1970s, I marveled that my parents had grown up without television; my youngest has a hard time grasping that his parents grew up without the Internet. At the same time, it can be surprising to realize that some things we consider recent, not exactly welcome developments in modern life–celebrity-obsessed popular culture, casual disregard of social conventions and morality, technological progress the complex mix of hope and fear that accompanies it–aren’t as new as we think they are.
In One Summer: America, 1927, Bill Bryson provides a snapshot of several months that captures a country on the verge of advancing to a level that would allow it to dominate the century. Bryson’s approach to history is both focused and rambling, and won’t be new to those who have read his work before. In a leisurely chronological progression from April to October of 1927, he views the era’s most significant themes and developments via singular events. Some examples:
- Charles Lindbergh’s successful solo flight from New York to Paris is the focal point for a discussion of the engineering innovations that led to it and the commercial aviation industry that grew as a result of it
- The temporary shutdown and retooling of Ford auto plants for the switch from the Model T to the Model A frames the rise of car culture
- The unstoppable 1927 Yankees, led by the home-run streaks of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, illustrate the rise of “America’s pastime” and fascination with sport and celebrity
- Prohibition and capital punishment bookend the conversation about crime
- The rise of radio networks, the birth of television, and the struggles of the newspapers for dominance over both (as well as over each other) show that the only thing new about the 21st-century “media wars” are some of the forms (which have not yet completely killed off the ones that were around in 1927)
Bryson is his own audio narrator here, and the impression of him I got from listening to One Summer was that of an informative yet folksy raconteur–he has a lot of facts to convey, but he does it while mining them for entertainment value and without losing the thread of story. I’ve read him in print before, but this was my first experience with him in audio, and I doubt it will be my last. I find the scope of social and technological change from one end of the twentieth century to the other endlessly fascinating, and every time I listened to a One Summer, I was dropped right into a piece of it. Like all summers, it had to end, and I was sorry to see it go.
The summer of 1927 began with one of the signature events of the twentieth century: on May 21, Charles Lindbergh became the first man to cross the Atlantic by plane nonstop, and when he landed in Le Bourget airfield near Paris, he ignited an explosion of worldwide rapture and instantly became the most famous person on the planet. Meanwhile, the titanically-talented Babe Ruth was beginning his assault on the home run record, which would culminate on September 30 with his sixtieth blast, one of the most resonant and durable records in sports history. In between those dates a Queens housewife named Ruth Snyder and her corset-salesman lover garroted her husband, leading to a murder trial that became a huge tabloid sensation. Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly sat atop a flagpole in Newark, New Jersey, for twelve days—a new record. The American South was clobbered by unprecedented rain and by flooding of the Mississippi basin, a great human disaster, the relief efforts for which were guided by the uncannily able and insufferably pompous Herbert Hoover. Calvin Coolidge interrupted an already leisurely presidency for an even more relaxing three-month vacation in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The gangster Al Capone tightened his grip on the illegal booze business through a gaudy and murderous reign of terror and municipal corruption. The first true “talking picture,” Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, was filmed and forever changed the motion picture industry. The four most powerful central bankers on earth met in secret session on a Long Island estate and made a fateful decision that virtually guaranteed a future crash and depression.
All this and much, much more transpired in that epochal summer of 1927, and Bill Bryson captures its outsized personalities, exciting events, and occasional just plain weirdness with his trademark vividness, eye for telling detail, and delicious humor. In that year America stepped out onto the world stage as the main event, and One Summer transforms it all into narrative nonfiction of the highest order.
From Chapter One:
TEN DAYS BEFORE he became so famous that crowds would form around any building that contained him and waiters would fight over a corncob left on his dinner plate, no one had heard of Charles Lindbergh. The New York Times had mentioned him once, in the context of the coming Atlantic flights. It had misspelled his name.
The news that transfixed the nation as spring gave way to summer in 1927 was of a gruesome murder in a modest family home on Long Island, coincidentally quite close to Roosevelt Field, where the Atlantic flyers were now gathering. The newspapers, much excited, called it the Sash Weight Murder Case. The story was this:
Late on the night of March 20, 1927, as Mr. and Mrs. Albert Snyder slept side by side in twin beds in their house on 222nd Street in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood of Queens Village, Mrs. Snyder heard noises in the upstairs hallway. Going to investigate, she found a large man – a ‘giant’, she told police – just outside her bedroom door. He was speaking in a foreign accent to another man, whom she could not see. Before Mrs. Snyder could react, the giant seized her and beat her so roughly that she was left unconscious for six hours. Then he and his confederate went to Mr, Snyder’s bed, strangled the poor man with picture wire and stove in his head with a sash weight from a window. It was the sash weight that fired the public’s imagination and gave the case its name. The two villains then turned out drawers all over the house and fled with Mrs. Snyder’s jewels, but they left a clue to their identity in the form of an Italian-language newspaper on a table downstairs.
The New York Times the next day was fascinated but confused.