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A madcap romp through America – A Book Review

July 23, 2014

Recapturing the summer of 1927 starring

Cover Bryson bookBill Bryson, One Summer – America 1927 (New York: Anchor Books, 2013), 509 pages (paper).

I joyously devoured Bill Bryson’s latest book on America in which he manages to squeeze 509 pages (counting the index) out of five months, May to September 1927. Turns out it wasn’t that difficult since those particular months times were oozing with world-shattering events often involving some downright nasty people.

Bryson is a master at weaving together many historical elements into a compelling, coherent and lusciously detailed whole. Charles Lindbergh, who miraculously flew the Atlantic in 1927, for example, provides a kind of thread with which to weave the Bryson’s story. The flying ace reappears throughout the book as we watch him go from American hero to anti-Semitic villain. By the way, Bryson informs us that he hated to be called “Lucky Lindy.”

Calvin “Sleepy Cal” Coolidge, the president who worked only four hours a day is another thread that recurs throughout. Bryson quotes an observer saying the Coolidge Administration was “dedicated to inactivity.” It seems that his greatest passion, if he had one at all, was getting dressed up in his cowboy outfit replete with 10-gallon hat.

Whether he was worse or slightly better than Warren G. Harding before him or Herbert Hoover after is debatable. Harding cared for no one not even his mistress Nan Britton, with whom he had a sex in a White House closet, and his illegitimate daughter Elizabeth Ann. His Administration was “the most breezily slack in modern times.” It was also among the most corrupt, culminating in the notorious “Teapot Dome” oil lease scandal.

Hoover, although “diligent and industrious,” was “dazzlingly short on endearing qualities” and made sure he got maximum publicity for his economic achievements. Among the less publicized was his purchase of chemicals from Nazi Germany. “He saw no moral inconsistency in supporting the German economy even as Germany was trying to kill the sons and brothers of the people with whom he worked and lived.”

It is hard to believe (or is it, given the Reagan and Bush eras?) that Americans could have elected these three very unpresidential men to represent them in the world. Together they were in some ways responsible for the stock market crash of 1929 and other cataclysmic occurrences due to their negligence, greed for power or ignorance.

Bryson also includes a chapter on Nicolo Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, the anarchist duo that was electrocuted in 1927 after being found guilty of murder. He recounts the long struggle to prove their innocence as well as the failed effort to win a stay of execution. Interestingly, Bryson contends that they were not quite as innocent as protesters around the world assumed. “Vanzetti’s own lawyer, Fred Moore, believed that Sacco was guilty of the South Braintree [Massachusetts] killings and Vanzetti probably so.”

Baseball great Babe Ruth gets a chapter of his own in which the reader gorges on a detailed history of the early major leagues along with some unsavoury tidbits about the Babe’s personal habits – he loved food and sex both in gluttonous quantities. And yet he “became a kind of god.”

Heavyweight world champion Jack Dempsey, the fighter with the “killer right hand,” is also featured with a special account of the Dempsey vs. Gene Tunney match and even more historic rematch. “As a fighter, Dempsey was instinctively brutal,” Bryson notes, but after the fight was over he would “solicitously help to his feet the person he had just made horizontal.”

Bryson studiously inserts other fascinating events of that summer: the early days of radio, the invention of television and the battle over who should get the credit, the history of American aviation, the early automobile industry and the rubber fetish of the anti-Semitic Henry Ford, the coming of Hollywood’s talkies, and even the first Ponzi scheme. Oh, and then there are the amorous frolicking of the “libidinous” Zane Grey, top-selling author of the last century and apparently a very dirty old man.

All in all, it’s a fun read and an instructive one, for we learn about the many developments that summer that were destined to change our lives. Kudos to Bryson! He has given us a romp through an American summer like no other.

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One Response to A madcap romp through America – A Book Review

  1. Mike Dumler on July 25, 2014 at 12:06 am

    Such a great book review that “One Summer – America 1927” is now at the top of my list of books to read this summer.

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