ONE SUMMER: America, 1927
Sometimes, one magnificent season can define an era. At least, that’s the view in trade publishing of late, where “year” books have become something of a mania: “19__: The Year Our World Changed/Began/Ended/Learned to Love the Macarena.” But it’s not hard to argue that the apogee of the wild ride America took in the 1920s came in the summer of 1927.
It was the summer—if one allows “summer” to occasionally include parts of both spring and fall—that Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs, much of the country was engulfed by a catastrophic flood, Jack Dempsey lost the famous “long count” fight to Gene Tunney, Calvin Coolidge announced he wouldn’t run for another term, the world’s leading bankers made the policy adjustment that would do so much to bring down Wall Street in 1929, “The Jazz Singer” was released, radio and tabloid culture came into their own, an American audience got its first public demonstration of television, work started on Mount Rushmore, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed, and Henry Ford stopped making Model T’s. And oh, yes, most of the world went mad over a 25-year-old prodigy named Charles Lindbergh, who flew a flimsy plane to Paris from New York.
This isn’t to mention all the other fascinating characters Bill Bryson brings splendidly to life in One Summer — people like Al Capone and Dorothy Parker; Philo T. Farnsworth, the young man who played a critical role in inventing the television; and the New York Times reporter Richards Vidmer, who married a rajah’s daughter and was “also perhaps the most memorably dreadful sportswriter ever.”
The author of more than a dozen previous books, including A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bryson writes in a style as effervescent as the time itself. Lindbergh’s plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, was “little more than a flying gas tank,” and piloting it for his landmark flight “would have been rather like crossing the ocean in a tent.” Before 1920, pitchers might apply spit or “at least two dozen other globulous additives” to a baseball, and the habit of drying out ball fields by lighting gasoline fires on them was “hardly conducive to a fine, delicate tilth.”
No one is immune to Bryson’s irreverence. Ty Cobb was “only a degree or two removed from clinical psychopathy.” When the wife of the Chicago Tribune publisher Robert McCormick died, “he had her buried with full military honors, a distinction to which she was not remotely entitled (or very probably desirous).” And “there was almost nothing Henry Ford did that didn’t have some bad in it somewhere.” Warren Harding “fell considerably short of mediocre” and, when it came to women, “truly was a bit of a dog.” Coolidge’s sense of humor “was that of a slightly backward schoolboy,” while Herbert Hoover proved “there was no matter too small to escape his numbing pomposity.”
Inanimate objects are sent up just as delightfully. We meet a railroad that “wandered confusedly around the upper Midwest, as if looking for a lost item,” while in a Chicago movie palace, “the marbled lobby was said to be an almost exact copy of the king’s chapel at Versailles except presumably for the smell of popcorn.”
This makes for a wonderful romp, though the hyperbole of the age frequently runs away with Bryson. Great as Babe Ruth was, he does not still hold the record for shutouts by a left-handed pitcher in a season, and he did not hit three home runs in his last game, or compile 26 outfield assists in 1919 (the correct number is 14). The cartoonist Tad Dorgan did not invent the name “hot dog”; someone in Al Capone’s “camp” did not coin the phrase “Vote early and vote often”; and it was not true that Lindbergh “would no longer be anybody’s hero” by “the time America was ready to take to the air properly.” The advent of the talking picture in 1927 was not the “last hurrah” for Broadway, and Hoover did not win the presidency in 1928 with “nearly two-thirds of the popular vote.”
A little more seriously, Bryson makes the wild charge that Hoover “illegally bought chemicals from Germany” during World War I “as part of his business operations,” thus engaging in “an act that could have led to his being taken outside, stood against a wall and shot.” I’m unaware that Hoover was engaged in any business during the war beyond feeding starving Belgian and French citizens, and working as the United States Food Administrator. A few, histrionic accusations of this sort were flung at him by a disgruntled employee and a couple of political opponents — and thoroughly discredited by a British court of inquiry at the time.
Bryson is best at deflating our nostalgia for the era, even as he upholds its importance. The America of the 1920s, with its laissez-faire economics, rugged individualism, and relentless public piety and patriotism, was a Tea Party utopia. I find the period’s allure understandable. The country was rich and loaded with miraculous new things: the car, the radio, the refrigerator. Every big city had its proud new skyscraper, and we had just pioneered the mall and the planned suburb. We added more phones every year than Britain had in toto, and Kansas had more automobiles than France. We held half the world’s gold and made almost half its goods, and seemed to churn out a similarly abundant supply of heroic young daredevils.
We were, at the same time, a curiously dysfunctional nation, one where two-thirds of the murders went unsolved, and the average homicide rate was exponentially higher than it is now in much of the country. We were barely able to build a road or a functional airfield, or to efficiently coordinate our extensive rail system. When the Mississippi overflowed in the worst flood in its history — inundating 16.5 million acres, costing over 1,000 lives (“and perhaps several times that,” Bryson writes; the human tallies “weren’t more scrupulous because, alas, so many of the victims were poor and black”) and resulting in up to $1 billion in losses — Coolidge, anointed earlier this year in a biography by Amity Shlaes as the model of a modern right-wing president, refused to provide even an autographed picture to be auctioned off for flood relief. Aid was provided largely by the private sector and charitable organizations, which managed all of $20 per victim in loans.
“There may never have been another time in the nation’s history when more people disliked more other people from more directions and for less reason,” Bryson writes, referring to the era as “the Age of Loathing.” He has a point. Americans in the 1920s flocked to join the Ku Klux Klan and rushed to embrace the new pseudoscience of eugenics. The Supreme Court backed these extremists, upholding the “right” of states to forcibly sterilize tens of thousands of supposed “imbeciles,” who were in fact often just poor, black or unmarried women. There seemed, everywhere, to be an undercurrent of malicious madness that could be glimpsed in the hysteria surrounding celebrities and scandalous murder cases. Having created the modern mobster, we then refused to prosecute him, turning state power instead on dissidents and unions, while enforcing Prohibition by lacing alcohol with poisons. There was even a school massacre in 1927, perpetrated by an anti-tax maniac.
Disappointed in the world, we had refused to join the League of Nations and slammed the golden door shut to immigrants. Nonetheless, we reached out despite ourselves, with our ideas and our culture, riding the air and the airwaves. Every time you turned around, it seemed, Americans were starting another magazine, newspaper or bold new publishing house, or developing a musical form.
The capper was the moving picture. We produced 80 percent of the world’s movies by 1927, and the rise of the “talkies” would popularize, as Bryson notes, not only American speech but “American thoughts, American attitudes, American humor and sensibilities. Peacefully, by accident, and almost unnoticed, America had just taken over the world.”