No one writes with an easier grace than Bill Bryson. He has the rare ability to take a single, seemingly inconsequential observation and weave it, work it, and knead it until you’re hooked on the story.
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.
Bryson’s One Summer: America, 1927 grabs the reader like a mug of hot chocolate, defying you to set it down before you’ve drained every drop. But for all of its warmth and easy familiarity, there’s a strangeness about the story he tells. America in 1927 was having an iconic moment – a time when a great many of our cultural legends were strutting around the stage and making their mark on history in a way that we still talk about today. Yet for all its familiarity, the America of 1927 seems to exist on some distant planet far away from our own world.
Foremost among the cultural legends who were having their moment in the sun was Lindbergh. The crowds and the adulation surrounding him dominate the narrative, weaving in and out of the story. But even as this was happening, Lindbergh himself remained an empty vessel – devoid of any real interest, significant ideas, or personal charm. Lindbergh’s competitors for the first flight across the Atlantic get their share of attention as well, but the story of their foolhardiness and naiveté often borders on the hilarious.
But Lindbergh isn’t the only famous person in this tale. Baseball? How about Babe Ruth and the 1927 Yankees. Ruth reached an unmatched level of excellence that year, helped in no small part by his teammate Lou Gehrig (while Ruth managed – rather insouciantly – to have an affair with Gehrig’s wife). Boxing? 1927 was the year of Jack Dempsey and his famous fight with Gene Tunney. Movies? How about Al Jolson and The Jazz Singer that began the era of talkies. Henry Ford and the other captains of industry were strutting across the stage that year. Even criminals were having a legendary year, as Al Capone was played out his role as the prototypical American gangster.
Yet for all the cultural familiarity of the personalities from 1927, the America of that year has almost no similarity to the America today. That’s probably best exemplified in one player on that stage who was in no way an American icon – unless you add a category for “famous figures who were proud of doing nothing.” That, or course would be President Calvin Coolidge.
“No one has ever more successfully made a virtue out of doing little than Calvin Coolidge as president. He did nothing he didn’t absolutely have to do, but rather engaged in a ‘grim, determined, alert inactivity’ …”
This was probably one of the few moments in U.S. history when a person with Coolidge’s temperament could serve out his term without a major disaster. America in 1927 had been through one world war, and the effects had faded. World War II was nowhere on the horizon. The country’s imperialist adventures in Cuba and the Philippines had calmed down. Bigotry and racial oppression were as rampant as ever, but those problems hadn’t made their way to the center of national political consciousness. The economy was booming and the Great Depression was still a year or two away.
In other words, the America of 1927 was nothing like the America of today. One telling feature: Bryson manages to tell the story of that year – indeed, most of the 20s – without referring to a single foreign crisis or external threat.
Sit back and enjoy a wonderful story. But it you’re looking for guidance for our times, you might as well be reading The Hobbit.