One Summer

Bill Bryson centers on the summer of 1927 – a seminal season, but not an innocent one.

One Summer, by Bill Bryson, Knopf Doubleday, 528 pp.

In 1927, Charles Lindbergh, all but unknown several weeks earlier, became the first person to fly alone across the Atlantic Ocean. His trip from New York to Paris took 33 and a half hours in the Spirit of St. Louis, a plane lacking brakes as well as fuel gauge.

Overnight, Lindbergh became the most famous, adored man in America, lavished with teeming parades, honors, and awards.

Much of the South, meanwhile, remained awash in the Great Flood of the Mississippi River. Herbert Hoover, the commerce secretary who had become a national figure after leading the world’s most successful humanitarian effort in Europe during World War I, established a headquarters in Memphis to aid the recovery. Despite Hoover's relentless self-promotion and earlier achievement in relief campaigns, the results were mixed.

The Mississippi River remained in flood stage for 153 days. Among the more notable effects: 16.6 million acres flooded, 203,504 buildings lost or ruined, and 637,476 people left homeless.

During these same months of 1927, the United States produced 80 percent of all the movies and 85 percent of the cars worldwide. The nation also added more phones on annual basis – 781,000 in 1926 – than Britain had overall.

These and other statistics, facts, and anecdotes fill One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson. Known for blending nonfiction wonder with humorous asides and rescued nuggets of history, Bryson enjoys a slew of digressions and side trips while pawing through the attic of 86 years ago.

Some have already noted the many topics explored here have been explained and examined in greater detail elsewhere. And, too, that Bryson breaks little new ground.

True enough, but for those of us lacking the time or inclination to read separate, lengthier studies of Calvin Coolidge, the Red Scare of 1919 and 1920, Hollywood's move into talking motion pictures, and the near-death of major league baseball, “One Summer” offers a brief, lively primer on these subjects and more.

How many of us remember – or ever knew – that a novelist named Harold Bell Wright outsold fellow 1920s writers F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, and Dorothy Parker combined? Then again, as Bryson makes clear, Harold Bell Wright paled in sales next to Zane Grey and Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose books sold an estimated 25 million to 60 million copies between the two of them.

All of this and still no mention of the Jazz Age. Critics, of whom there were many, dubbed what we now regard as a singular American art form “pathological, nerve-irritating, sex-exciting music.”

Lest any reader think 1927 a simpler time, a calmer time aided by Prohibition, Bryson puts such thinking to rest again and again.

In May 1927, a Michigan man frustrated by his financial plight blamed local school taxes for much of his difficulty. To make himself feel better, the man, who lived in the small town of Bath, packed a school basement with dynamite and other explosives. Then, early on a typical school day, he detonated 500 pounds of explosives, killing 44 people, most of them children.

“The Bath massacre was the largest and most cold-blooded slaughter of children in the history of the United States, yet it was forgotten by the wider world almost at once,” Bryson writes.

Part of the cause of the collective memory-dump: Lindbergh’s flight, which catapulted the aviator to glory despite his taciturn nature. Bryson notes The New York Times dedicated its first full four pages to Lindbergh’s landing in Paris on May 21, 1927.

As for Prohibition, it “shut down the fifth-largest industry in America” and removed “$2 billion a year out of the hands of legitimate interests and put it in the hands of murderous thugs.” All the while, alcohol consumption increased and the government sank to the level of “denaturing” alcohol produced for other uses, leading to some bootleg liquor poisoning – a government misstep that led to the deaths of American citizens.

President Coolidge worked four hours a day and slept 11. Babe Ruth, an aging playboy believed to have seen his best days, reeled off a record-setting home-run spree. Along with boxers Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney, Ruth and the 1927 “Murderers’ Row” Yankees electrified sports fans.

This all played out as Henry Ford embarked on the most expensive and embarrassing mistake of his business career: Fordlandia, the ill-fated Brazilian community developed to produce rubber for Ford’s car company.

Brazil sold Ford 2.5 million acres of rainforest for $125,000 and turned him loose to plant rubber trees. Ford clear-cut the land, causing unforeseen agricultural problems. At the same time, Ford hired unqualified overseers to create a town, too. Instead, theft, disease, failure, and the inevitability of nature asserting its will – think of a T. Coraghessan Boyle novel and you get the idea – humbled Ford, who, after 20 years, quietly returned the land to the Brazilian government and shuttered the venture.

In the end, Ford sold the land back to Brazil and absorbed losses estimated in the range of $20 million.

Bryson, while playful, never shies from a dose of blunt truth.

Ford, he reminds, possessed a boundless antipathy for Jews, Roman Catholics, Wall Street, fat people, liquor, tobacco, bankers, and lawyers, among many other peoples and things.

The man behind the popularization of cars and the assembly line “had the additional distinction of being the only American mentioned favorably in Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler’s memoir of 1925,” Bryson writes. “Hitler, it was said, kept a framed photo of Ford on his wall.”

Such vignettes fill “One Summer,” the best kind of general-interest book: fun, interesting, and something to learn on every page.

Erik Spanberg is a Monitor contributor.

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