I remember seeing One Summer: America, 1927 when it first came out and being somewhat interested, but at the time I was intimidated by it’s length and I had mixed feelings about the one other book I had read by Bill Bryson before, A Walk in the Woods. But I’m less freaked by long books now, and this seemed like a great one to listen to on audio. Edited from Goodreads:
The summer of 1927 began with one of the signature events of the twentieth century: on May 21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the first man to cross the Atlantic by plane nonstop, and when he landed near Paris, he ignited an explosion of worldwide rapture and instantly became the most famous person on the planet. Meanwhile, Babe Ruth was beginning his assault on the home run record. Al Capone tightened his grip on the illegal booze business through reign of terror and municipal corruption. The first true “talking picture,” Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, was filmed and forever changed the motion picture industry. All this and much, much more transpired in that epochal summer of 1927. In that year America stepped out onto the world stage as the main event, and One Summer transforms it all into narrative nonfiction of the highest order.
Bryson was matter-of-fact with the events, with a little bit of observational humor thrown in but not interjecting his own views, and not sugarcoating the bad stuff. As a reader in 2018, I couldn’t help but notice it’s largely about white men… however, yes, this book is about a very specific span of a few months of one particular year. And the major achievements and events that took place then were certainly carried out by white men. However! I appreciated that Bryson exposed these men for who they were—Lindbergh wasn’t the American hero the press made him out to be. He was bland, rude, and had secret mistresses (and children) in Germany. Coolidge couldn’t be bothered to do much, if anything, during his presidency. Henry Ford was a stubborn anti-Semite. And I loved learning about Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the U.S.’s second-ever woman assistant attorney general, and first woman to head the Tax Division. She came up with the idea of investigating tax evasion as a way to prosecute major criminal figureheads, which was used to bust Al Capone in 1931.
I learned a lot from this book. One thing leads to another. For example, I had no idea about the anarchist movement at the time, the example used here was the 1927 electric-chair executions of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, convicted of murder and armed robbery. Bryson profiles the executioner, Robert Elliot, who was basically America’s most prolific killer, if you want to look at it that way, and you learn about the rise of the electric chair. He also executed Ruth Snyder in 1928, convicted of killing her husband the summer of 1927. So then you learn about Snyder and her case… which made headlines in the brand-new type of news magazines, tabloids…
There’s so much more. The season of arguably the best baseball lineup ever, the 1927 Yankees’ Murderer’s Row, as well as the rivalry between Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth. The development of tabloids and the popularity of barnstorming (wild stunts that enthralled huge crowds, like flag-pole sitting). The rise of cinematic “talkies” just at the peak time of Broadway. The first national radio broadcasts and the invention of television. The beginnings of Mount Rushmore. Jack Dempsey’s historic boxing career and his final fights in 1927. Eugenics and the horrifying, unnecessary (but, at the time, totally legal) sterilization of tens of thousands of Americans.
I was especially captivated by the baseball (I had a mild obsession with Babe Ruth as a kid), organized crime and Al Capone, and the achievements of early aviation. Bryson does a wonderful job placing everything in context so you understand exactly how monumentally historic and important this time was, setting up what led to the events of summer 1927 (showing how America was woefully behind Europe regarding flight innovations, for example) and then laying out their lasting effects. This is a fascinating, engaging book!
Listened to audiobook in March 2018.