Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Bill Bryson Hits Another Home Run - Review of "One Summer: America, 1927"

A few weeks ago, I was browsing among the stacks at the cavernous Harvard Coop bookstore.  I stopped in my tracks when I saw that Bill Bryson had written a  new book, "One Summer: America, 1927."  I knew I had to have it.  I have been devouring Bryson books  as fast as I can get my hands on them.  Among his titles that have delighted me over the past several years are "A Walk in the Woods," "In A Sunburned Country," "At Home: A Short History of Private Life."

I knew that the Summer of 1927 had been  remarkable because the New York Yankees team that season was considered one of the best teams ever assembled on a baseball diamond.  I had no idea of the other achievements and events that stacked up one upon the other during that summer.

Among  the events that Bryson chronicles in this new book are Lindbergh's non-stop flight from New York to Paris, Babe Ruth's quest for a new home run record, President Coolidge's retreat to a three-month long vacation near Mt. Rushmore that coincided with the beginning of the work on the iconic presidential sculpture in that remote site.  Then there were the rash of terrorist attacks by anarchists, the famous trial of Ruth Brown Snyder for the "Sash Weight Murder"of her husband, the dramatic Dempsey-Tunney boxing match, Al Capone's cozy relationship with Chicago Mayor "Big Bill" Thompson, the continuing impact of Prohibition, Sacco and Venzetti's executions and the protests that preceded and followed that event, tennis star Bill Tilden's winning streak, the use of radio for live broadcasts of sporting events, and the decision made by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York along with the central banks of England and France to lower interest rates.  Bryson makes the case that this decision set the wheels in motion for the Stock Market Crash of 1929.  In addition, some of the most severe weather ever recorded - floods, tornadoes, heat waves  - led to death and destruction over much of the nation.

Part of Bryson's gift as a writer is that he weaves together non-fiction information in a way that makes it read like a suspense novel.  At several points along the way in this book, he highlights the interplay among the events and characters that made the Summer of 1927 such a signal  time in America.  Several themes emerge in this book that become leit motifs:

  • The corruption and incompetence of public officials at all levels of government
  • The spirit of adventure in the new world of aviation that led to public acclaim for the aviators and public acceptance of aviation as a viable transportation choice.
  • The role of sports in American life - especially baseball and boxing
  • The widespread deleterious effects of Prohibition and the Volstead Act.
  • How laissez faire was President Coolidge's approach to the Presidency, especially in contradistinction to the pro-active work that Hoover and then FDR would do in trying to pull the country out of the vortex of The Great Depression.
My parents were children during the Summer of 1927, so it was enlightening for me to imagine them and their families reacting to the events that Bryson describes so graphically in this book.  If he keep hitting literary home runs like this for a few more years, he may come close to Babe Ruth's home run record!



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