Randy Auxier's Reviews > One Summer: America, 1927

One Summer by Bill Bryson
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May 19, 2016

really liked it
bookshelves: general-non-fiction
Read in November, 2013

(This review originally appeared in the Carbondale Nightlife, Nov. 14-20, 2013, p. 13.)

Bill Bryson, One Summer: America, 1927 (New York: Doubleday, 2013), 528 pp., hardcover $28.95.

I suppose Bill Bryson’s latest effort is a piece of historical journalism. It digests and packages a slice of American history for the idly curious (which is Bryson’s readership –I never miss a book). With the advantage of historical distance we are made nostalgic for a moment we never experienced. Indeed, almost no one alive can actually remember it. To people Bryson’s age (which is roughly my age plus a nickel or a dime) the names and events from the late 1920’s buzzed around our childhood ears in the conversations of our now departed parents and grandparents. But to anyone younger than 40, most of this stuff is completely unfamiliar. I don’t know exactly why the period from April to early October of this particular year suggested itself to Bryson –he might as easily have chosen any six-month period between 1925 and 1929. Yet, as he says, it was “one hell of a summer.” It compares with other famous summers in American history, little epochs in which we see Americana in high tide. 1942 and 1967 come immediately to mind.

In 1927, times were good. Prohibition was breaking down and was the real catalyst of a cultural emulsion stretching for some years either side of Bryson’s selected interval. As he points out, Americans had never been quite so drunk, on booze, or sports (The Yankees’ Murderers Row), or aviation (The Great Race to get from New York to Paris), or any number of other unfolding stories that populated the pages of the papers. Bryson observes that American culture was coming, really for the first time, into a sense of itself as a single prospering energy. The world could not ignore what was happening here.

The dawning awareness of American cultural, economic, and industrial power was carried across the nation and to the world by the newspapers and the great magazines. Bryson believes that the 1920’s represented the high tide of reading in America, with pulp fiction such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, the high end offerings of Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Dorothy Parker (among many others), the middlebrow massive sellers by Harold Bell Wright and twenty other names we’ve now forgotten, yellow journalism, new magazines, and a burgeoning advertising culture. But looming on the horizon, ready to gobble up our collective leisure was Marconi’s bamba, still just a bit too expensive for the average living room in 1927.

Bryson traces the high, the low, and the middling of America achievement and buffoonery across the arc of a season, but all of it was spread in print, making it recoverable to us now in ways that the radio generation and TV generation, with their more ephemeral traces, cannot match. I was unaware that something like a heyday of “newsprint consciousness” had grown and peaked, only to be replaced quickly by a later layer of radio waves and then television waves. But I now see the 20th century as a camel with those three humps.

Most valuable, and perhaps most alarming, is the research Bryson did into the racialist and proto-fascist leaders of the eugenics movement in America, which reached its high-water mark in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. The Americans today are all too ready to bury this shameful chapter in our history. We wag our heads in dismay, distancing ourselves from the widely held views of our grandparents and great-grandparents. I am reminded especially of Philip Roth’s novel The Plot against America, an imaginative revision of this period’s history in which Charles Lindbergh defeats FDR in the 1940 presidential election. In Roth’s novel, the eugenics movement, of which Lindbergh was a vocal supporter, is not ruined by the Second World War because the United States does not enter the war, instead initiating its own concentration and removal program to “purify” itself of Jews, and all other "unclean” elements. Because of Bryson’s book, I now understand Roth’s novel much better, since Roth had done the same kind of research into this era that Bryson presents here. But where Phillip Roth is actually old enough to have childhood memories of the tottering moment in which America just barely became anti-fascist, people my age are amazed to consider how wide spread and powerful proto-facism was during the 1920’s and 30’s. We owe Bryson our gratitude for bringing out this ugly truth, and we owe it to one another not to bury these facts about our history and ourselves.

Bryson organizes the book by months and moves chronologically through the summer. His greatest feat is staying on top of so much material, and so varied. I can’t begin to summarize how many individual threads Bryson includes in the total weave, but I can say that the reader never feels lost in the welter. It is a bit like cramming David McCullough’s The Greater Journey – which covers a hundred years in as many threads – into one news-filled summer. I suspect Bryson has a huge chart somewhere of what happened day-by-day, such as he read it in a hundred newspapers and magazines. An enormous amount of research is squeezed into those 528 pages.

As always Bryson writes with humor and he has a special gift for witty disdain, along the lines pioneered by Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce. Bryson has created a corpus of work –travel writings, history, popular science, memoirs, and the like – that, if not comparable to Twain and Bierce, nevertheless documents our sense of our time and place in a way that could amuse readers for decades to come. At the very least Bryson saves effort for those who desire a once over lightly of whatever subjects he chooses. As I have said in previous reviews of Bryson’s work, please do not use his books as sources for serious purposes. He makes mistakes, lots of them, but they are harmless so long as his books are taken as the entertaining and informative collections they truly are. This one is equal to his usual fare, which is to say it’s funny and it’s informative and it’s good reading.
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11/16/2013 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Rebecca Roth's The Plot Against America has Lindbergh winning in 1940, but otherwise this is a good review, especially your emphasis on Bryson's exploration of the eugenics movement and its future connection to the Nazis.

Randy Auxier Whoops. Been a while since I read the Roth. I'll fix it.

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