One Summer: America, 1927
by Bill Bryson
Review by Stefanie Brook Trout
Better known for his humorous travel writing, Bill Bryson has also published nonfiction books on the English language, science, and now early twentieth century America. As a history, One Summer: America, 1927 is grounded more in research than personal experience—Bryson holds back on the first person until the epilogue and even then only invokes the “I” sparingly. But even without the presence of the distinct first person persona Bryson readers have come to know and love, through his characteristic attention to interesting details, Bryson still manages to take readers on a journey to the least expected of places, like America in the summer of 1927.
Despite the specificity implied by its title, One Summer: America, 1927 could have been called A Short History of Nearly Everything—that is, if Bryson hadn’t used that title a decade prior for his (wildly) popular science book. The histories of flight and baseball are the twin threads that dominate One Summer, with Charles Lindbergh and Babe Ruth at the center of their respective stages, but Bryson also takes on the histories of American publishing, World War I, prohibition, crime and punishment, government and politics, economics, morality, film, tennis, anti-American sentiment, hot dogs, urban development, literature, the automobile, immigration and bigotry, boxing, anarchism, railroads, television, theater, eugenics, radio, and more. The book is not a fully comprehensive history, nor is it rigidly focused on the summer of 1927—or America, for that matter. Because by the end of the Era of Wonderful Nonsense, America was as inextricable from the rest of the world as 1927 is from the historical timeline.
According to George Mason University professor (and provost) Peter Stearns, writing for the American Historical Association, we study history “to gain access to the laboratory of human experience,” which teaches us “how the world works.” Bryson’s focus is ostensibly the past, but instead of waxing nostalgic, Bryson renders that “one hell of a summer” in a manner that illuminates the many ways in which 1927 echoes in our world today—from celebrity culture to stock market bubbles, from the original Ponzi scheme to the hysterical fear of outsiders following tragedy on American soil. Charles Lindbergh was offered one million dollars to star in a reality film where “he would find and marry the girl of his dreams.” Sound familiar?
Bryson packed One Summer with celebrities, public figures, and a host of other notable names. As Bryson writes, “America, it seemed, had become a land of gods.” And yet Lindbergh stands out above them all as a reluctant king of the gods, at least for a while. Charles Lindbergh quickly discovered that “it was a lot more fun to get famous than to be famous,” a reality modern Americans are facing today. Lindbergh’s Atlantic crossing was the “culminating expression” of a major shift in the world’s “center of gravity.” Americans had come first in something of global significance, and it wouldn’t be long before America dominated the international stage in almost every other field. In the 1920’s, America was just becoming famous.
That’s what makes One Summer: America, 1927 so riveting. It’s about America’s rise to prominence, all the fun of finding fame, leaving off just before the economy has a chance to collapse and the disillusionment of celebrity sets in.