One Summer: America, 1927

One Summer: America, 1927  by Bill Bryson

There are a handful of writers who can write anything at all and I will eagerly and happily devour it.  Kurt Vonnegut , Sarah Vowell, Margaret Atwood, and Bill Bryson are among them.  So of course I was very excited to read One Summer: America, 1927 about (sort of), all of the events of, well, the summer of 1927 in the United States of America.

The book has gotten mixed reviews from others.  The Guardian, in an overall positive review, said the book “seems curiously slight…. rather like reading a highly amusing encyclopedia,” and I would tend to agree there.  The book jumps around between different stories and threads including, but not limited to, Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic and the many failed attempts by others, Babe Ruth’s record setting summer, Sacco and Vanzetti and the many other anarchist attacks at the time, Henry Ford and all of his Henry Ford-ness, Mt. Rushmore, prohibition and Al Capone, and one of the worst floods in US History.  Other than that they all happened at more or less the same time, there’s no real reason that all of these things should be written about together.  Two items in particular, Alvin Kelley’s flagpole sitting record, and a notorious murder case, seem particularly shoehorned in.  They exist in the book because they existed in 1927, but other than showing that the US has always become obsessed with random crimes, even before Nancy Grace, they hardly seem of interest now.

A few points in the book particularly caught my attention, though.  For one thing it discusses Fordlandia, one of the most amusingly bizarre and ill thought out projects that has ever been attempted.  Henry Ford decided to make his own utopia in the middle of Brazil which would provide him with a rubber plantation (vertical integration!) and where he would import his own unique ideas of how people should live healthy and productive lives.  He decided that he could will this into existence without learning anything Brazil, rubber, city planning, transportation of goods, or, how people actually worked.  I fell it’s a good cautionary tale for anyone who thinks that a Great Man’s Will can accomplish anything.

Another benefit of this book is that the United States as a whole could probably use a lot more historical memory.  Even though I was aware of Sacco and Vanzetti, and that there were many fascist and communist groups popping up the world around in the 1920s, I wasn’t aware the extent of terrorist attacks within the United States.  Small bombings, threats, attempted assassinations of even local politicians–this was, if not uncommon, at least not unusual in the United States at this time.  Given current events, and how much we seem to want to be terrified and feel we’re at a unique existential threat to our way of life, it was rather clarifying.  This is hardly the most dangerous time in our history, and we could have conceivably devolved into the fascism that arose in Europe.  I find it handy to keep track of all of the different scares we’ve had in our nation’s short history.

And one piece that was entirely new knowledge to me concerned prohibition, Al Capone, and Mabel Walker Willebrandt.    Never heard of her?  Neither has anyone.  But she’s actually the person who took down Al Capone by pioneering the use of tax law to catch criminals.  I’m not sure I’d agree with her work too much, given she was responsible for finding ways to enforce prohibition, but she’s still a quite interesting person.  She broke barriers for women and given that she was the one most responsible for not only catching, but stopping, some of the most notorious gangsters ever, I think she should get a bit more play.  Anyone want to write a script about prohibition or the roaring 20s?  Because forget Rex Banner, we need to feature Mabel Willebrandt.

The great thing about One Summer, though, is that there are enough digressions, tangents, side avenues, and, true, dead ends, that anyone who is mildly interested in thinking about things will find something to catch their attention or cause them to approach an bit of information in a new way.  Some of those things might be wrong (there were a few errors that have been noted by others), but overall there will be enough new correct trivia to either make you think, or at least make you better at Pub Trivia night.  Those of us who enjoy Bryon’s “highly amusing encyclopedias”, and I enjoyed A Short History of Nearly Everything quite a bit, will probably skip happily through One Summer  as well.  If you are the type who gets easily frustrated at pointless stories, though, this one might not be for you.

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2 Responses

  1. […] have previously mentioned that I will read anything Bill Bryson writes.  After living most of my life without realizing that […]

  2. […] bit of a lull in 1910 or so.  The “crime of the century” by Ruth Snyder highlighted in One Summer: America, 1927 was so boring that it wasn’t even mentioned in the first few reviews of the book I pulled up, […]

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