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08 June 2015

Book Review - One Summer

One Summer: America, 1927One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love proletariat hodge-podge histories; an interesting point in time treated to an exploration that goes just deep enough to intrigue but not so deep that the reader becomes mired.  Histories that are like reading an extended New Yorker profile because they feel less like histories and more like current event feature stories.

One Summer is one of those histories. Bill Bryson wanders his reader through the summer of 1927. Though Bryson divides his book into five sections, each named for a month and titled with a major happening or person of that month, he doesn't stick to his construct, but rather ambles from subject to subject and back again, almost as if he is living it without the benefit of hindsight.

1927 was a big year; Babe Ruth, Charles Lindbergh, Al Capone, the Mississippi flood, Prohibition, Sacco and Vanzetti, Jack Dempsey...

Bryson peppers us with details like, "The statistics of the great flood were recorded with chilling precision: 16,570,627 acres flooded; 203,504 buildings lost or ruined; 637,476 people made homeless. The quantities of livestock lost were logged with similar exactitude: 50,490 cattle, 25,325 horses and mules, 148,110 hogs, 1,276,570 chickens and other poultry. The one thing that wasn't carefully recorded, oddly, was the number of human lives lost, but it was certainly more than a thousand and perhaps several times that. The tallies weren't more scrupulous because, alas, so many of the victims were poor and black. It is a shocking fact that a closer count was kept of livestock losses than of human ones. It is perhaps only slightly less shocking to note that outside the affected areas the flood received less coverage on most days than the murder trial of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray."

This shows Bryson at his best and worst. The details that a closer count was made of lost cows than lost people and that a trial that is now lost to history was bigger news are enlightening. But Bryson's use of words like "oddly" and "alas" and his almost judgmental "shocking" and "slightly less shocking" gets a bit heavy-handed. I'd like it better if he presented the facts and let me reach my own conclusions.

Bryson also tends to repeat himself and has an annoying habit of presenting something and giving you a sense of timeline by referring back to something he's already presented. His most used point of reference is the attempted Atlantic crossing of the French pilots Nungesser and Coli, which was frustrating because I could never remember when they tried to cross so knowing something else was happening at that time was not terribly helpful to me. I wished for a timeline, rather than constant editorial finger-wagging about what I should have already learned.

But let's overlook my occasional quarrel with Bryson's editorial presence because it was more like a tiny pebble stuck in my shoe than a large rock; I could usually wiggle my foot around a little to move it and keep enjoying my walk.

And I'm glad I did. So much of what I read was instructive about the time he was writing as it was about our current time.

Take Herbert Hoover, the hero of the Mississippi flood. Why did we think he was a hero? Because he told us he was. "He traveled through the South in a private train, which included a car exclusively devoted to press operations. From this issued a stream of press releases mostly devoted to Hoover's vision and hard work. He also made sure that every Republican senator received a copy of a magazine article praising him. To any newspaper, however small, that questioned or criticized his efforts, he wrote a personal letter of rebuke." Hoover made himself into a very public hero. Imagine what he could have done with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Or the fact that the government of the United States poisoned alcohol so that the random deaths would inspire the rest of America to stay sober. See, alcohol was still necessary for many things besides drinking and because it still had to be produced for those purposes, the government "denatured" it to prevent it from being diverted into the bootleg trade. Denaturing alcohol simply means putting strychnine and/or mercury in it. According to Bryson, "Figures vary wildly on just how many people died wretchedly from drinking denatured alcohol," and then quotes a source at 11,700 (though some people claim many less). He then goes on, heavy-handedly but accurately, to say, "However small or large the total, it is surely the most bizarrely sinister episode in American history that officialdom was prepared to deliver to its own citizens an agonizing death for engaging in an act that had until recently been an accepted part of civilized life, was still legal nearly everywhere else in the world, and was patently harmless in moderation."

Bryson suggests that the labels we have for the 1920s, the Jazz Age, the Roaring Twenties, the Age of Ballyhoo, the Era of Wonderful Nonsense, do not tell the whole story. He suggests that the 1920s might be labeled the Age of Loathing. "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. Bigotry was casual, reflexive, and well nigh universal. At The New Yorker, Harold Ross forbade the use of the term toilet paper on the grounds of taste (it made him queasy), but he had nothing at all against nigger or darkie." This is the era that created the Ku Klux Klan. "The Klan hated everybody, but it did so in ways strategically contrived to reflect regional biases, so that it focused on Catholics and Jews in the Midwest, Orientals and Catholics in the Far West, Jews and southern Europeans in the East, and blacks everywhere." Sadly, I see shades of this type of savvy, organized bigotry happening right now, in our enlightened 21st century.

The whole book is full of interesting tidbits of history, some fleshed out beautifully, some only a passing mention that sparks an interest to read further.

For example, who knew that Time magazine used to have an odd habit of clunky, almost Germanic word-order? "As Wolcott Gibbs put it in a famous New Yorker profile of Luce, "Backward ran the sentences until reeled the mind."

Or that "flapper" was a word that originated in late 19th century England, an offshoot of the term "bird," still in use to describe females, and originally signified a prostitute?

Or that Lindbergh was one of the first individuals to use a transatlantic phone line, so he not only flew across the Atlantic, he spoke across it, too?

Or that the King of England was extraordinarily interested in how Lindbergh peed during his solo flight?

Or that Henry Ford thought the American Revolution was fought around 1812 and claimed that he had voted only once, for James Garfield, who had in fact died three years before Ford was old enough to vote? (This evidence of ignorance came out during the proceedings when Ford sued the Chicago Tribune for libel; he won but the jury awarded him only 6 cents in damages, which the Tribune never paid).

Or that Jerome Kern was supposed to be on the Lusitania but he overslept so he survived to change the course of musical theater with the most successful and influential show ever written, Showboat?

Then there's Philo T. Farnsworth and Mabel Walker Willebrandt. I want to read whole books about them. If you've never heard of them, look them up.

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