My review in The Times of Bill Bryson's fine book, "One
The summer of 1927 in the United States seems at first glance an
odd subject for a book. We all know what happened in 1914, or 1929,
but what’s so special about the 86th anniversary of one summer in
one country? You can see the London publishers scratching their
heads when Bill Bryson’s pitch arrived. Who was Jack Dempsey
anyway? Is Babe Ruth a woman or a child? Isn’t Calvin Coolidge a
cartoon character? Did Herbert Hoover invent the vacuum cleaner? Is
Sacco and Vanzetti a department store? Charles Lindbergh: ah, we
know who he is.
Actually, it’s a brilliant idea for a book, because Bryson now
had the excuse to do what he does best: tell little biographies of
historical figures, recount stories, paint word pictures and make
witty asides. The result is a gripping slice of history with all
sorts of reverberant echoes of today.
America in 1927 seemed a very modern, fast-changing place, in
many ways just like now. It had new technology in the shape of
radio, cars and planes. It had a cult of celebrity: Lindbergh drew
gigantic crowds wherever he went after he had crossed the Atlantic
in the May. It had a school massacre in which 42 people, mainly
children, were killed by a madman in Michigan. It had political
scandals: President Warren G. Harding died just before the
gob-smacking extent of his Administration’s financial corruption
and his own sexual appetite emerged.
While having an affair with his wife’s best friend, Harding met
young Nan Britton, a girl 31 years his junior, with whom he started
a relationship as soon as she became an adult, and fathered a
daughter. When his payments to the daughter ceased on his death,
Miss Britton wrote a breathless book about their numerous trysts in
a small closet in an ante-room at the White House, where “in the
darkness of a space not more than five feet square the President of
the United States and his sweetheart made love”. The book sold
50,000 copies in six months in the summer of 1927, although most
papers refused to review it. Dorothy Parker did review it
for The New Yorker , writing: “when Miss Britton gets
around to revealing, Lord, how she does reveal”.
America that year had a passion for sport with Babe Ruth and
Jack Dempsey earning huge sums. It had an obsession with violent
crimes, notably the Dumbbell murder case, in which Ruth Snyder and
her lover killed her husband and covered their tracks most ineptly.
It had a terror of terrorists, as anarchist bombs targeted many
prominent people. It had a failing “war on drugs” — prohibition
fuelling the huge income of Al Capone and his ilk. It even had
extreme weather: the Mississippi floods of that spring were a far
greater natural disaster than any in recent years, although nobody
thought of blaming human beings back then.
These uncanny similarities stand alongside startling
differences. Life seems to have been much more expendable in 1927.
People died in fires, bombs, stadium collapses, aeroplane crashes,
floods, court-ordered eugenic sterilisations and electric chairs
with less of the attendant anguish and inquiry that would happen
today. Also alien is the attitude to race. In the 1920s it was not
just acceptable to be a racist, it was politically correct. Bryson
points out that part of the reason that boxing was considered
unwholesome before 1920 was that it wasn’t racist. It was the only
sport where black people competed on level terms. It became
respectable and popular only when Jess Willard and then Jack
Dempsey made it a white-dominated sport like all others.
There’s an unfamiliar informality about the time, too. When
Lindbergh landed in Paris, the surging crowds not only carried him
on their shoulders, but clambered all over and damaged his plane.
Calvin Coolidge learned of Harding’s death and his own elevation to
the presidency when a messenger came running with a telephone
message from the general store near to where he was staying with
his father in rural Vermont. We think of today as an informal age,
but, apart from styles of dress, this is not really true.
Of all the delightful characters that Bryson gives us in this
book – sexually and financially incontinent Ruth, cold Lindbergh,
ambitious Hoover, obsessive Henry Ford – none is quite as hilarious
as Calvin Coolidge. Most people know that Silent Cal was famously
taciturn and inactive to the point of “calculated indolence”. As
the President he worked four hours a day and napped for much of the
Coolidge did, however, have a lively if odd sense of humour,
unlike his hyperactive and earnest Commerce Secretary, Herbert
Hoover, whom he disliked. One day Coolidge announced to the press
that Hoover would not be appointed Secretary of State. Since Hoover
had not asked for the job, and nor had the incumbent Frank B.
Kellogg offered to leave it, the announcement baffled the nation.
It appears to have been one of Coolidge’s jokes.
This brings up one of the only things I can find to say in
criticism of this fine book. The characters that Bryson depicts are
so vivid, larger-than-life and eccentric that one begins to wonder
if there were any normal folk in 1927 America. Was everybody a
Hogarthian, Rabelaisian grotesque? Surely not.
Perhaps in his admirable quest to mine biographies for
eccentricities, Bryson ends up being just a little bit unfair. One
has to remind oneself that these people with peculiar foibles
achieved astonishing things. Lindbergh did fly single-handed across
the Atlantic when far more fancied teams died; Babe Ruth did hit
more home runs that summer than ever before or since; Henry Ford
did make cars affordable; and Calvin Coolidge did achieve great
popularity while presiding over a whistle-clean administration
during a prolonged economic boom.
Bryson gives us a taste of the crash to come by describing the
meeting on Long Island that summer of four central bankers. Each
inevitably emerges as a deeply eccentric figure, especially the
neurotic Montagu Norman. It was at this meeting that Benjamin
Strong Jr agreed to cut the Federal Reserve’s discount rate from 4
per cent to 3.5 per cent, which was in effect “the spark that lit
the forest fire”, creating an unsustainable credit bubble the
following year as stock prices doubled and brokers’ loans to
investors quadrupled. Central banking, we are reminded in passing,
is more cause than solution of financial instability.
Bryson, the travel writer turned non-fiction impresario, has now
invented what may be an entirely new genre of non-fiction: the
brief history of an era told through the biography of a summer. It
is a book from which you can read many lessons, or just revel in
One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson (Doubleday, 560pp;
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