America felt like it was on the verge of something in 1927, with forces great and small combining for a singular summer. In his latest book, Bill Bryson tells the story — or rather, the many, sometimes connected stories — of that time. From Charles Lindbergh’s historic flight across the Atlantic to Babe Ruth’s record-breaking string of home runs, from the execution of Ferdinando Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti to a little-noticed Supreme Court decision allowing the government to go after criminals for not paying taxes on their ill-gotten gains, Bryson artfully strings together the events of the summer of 1927, some now obscure and others well known, to explore how modern America was forming.
“It’s a little hard to imagine now, but Americans in the 1920s had grown up in a world in which most of the most important things happened in Europe,” he writes. “Now suddenly America was dominant in nearly every field — in popular culture, finance and banking, military might, invention and technology. The center of gravity for the planet was moving to the other side of the world, and Charles Lindbergh’s flight somehow became the culminating expression of that.”
Author of A Walk in the Woods and I’m a Stranger Here Myself, Bryson digs into the history behind the summer of 1927 and frequently moves forward in time. He details the results and consequences of the events to try to understand everything from a new style of baseball that involved hitting the ball out of the park to the influence of radio, television and movies with sound.
“Moviegoers around the world suddenly found themselves exposed, often for the first time, to American voices, American vocabulary, American cadence and pronunciation and word order,” Bryson writes. “Spanish conquistadores, Elizabethan courtiers, figures from the Bible were suddenly speaking in American voices — and not just occasionally but in film after film after film….With American speech came American thoughts, American attitudes, American sense of humor and sensibilities. Peacefully, by accident, and almost unnoticed, America had just taken over the world.”
Not everything that Bryson writes about neatly fits in the summer of 1927. The Jazz Singer, the movie that ended the era of silent film, premiered in October. The first television broadcast in the United States — of Commerce Secretary and future President Herbert Hoover in Washington, D.C., addressing a group of reporters in New York City — took place in April of that year.
And not everything that happened that summer was rosy and exciting. Ford stopped production for five months, ending the era of the Model T and laying off all of his factory workers, 60,000 in Detroit alone and tens of thousands elsewhere. It was also the summer an anonymous housewife and her lover killed her husband with the weight from a window sash in what became the most talked about criminal case that summer. The country also became oddly transfixed by a man sitting on a flag pole.
One Summer: America, 1927 is at its most interesting when it delves into what people paid attention to. The Sash Weight murder trial got far more press than the Sacco and Vanzetti case, yet Sacco and Vanzetti are the ones we remember. Western adventure writer Zane Grey sold far more novels than any of the Lost Generation writers. Bryson notes that he made $325,000 in 1927 while F. Scott Fitzgerald cleared just $37,599 “in his best year.”
Another book that was immensely popular the summer of 1927 was the now-forgotten The President’s Daughter, a salacious tell-all by a woman who had a passionate affair with President Warren G. Harding while he was running the most corrupt White House in American history. The affair began years after Nan Britton developed a school-girl crush on Harding when he was a newspaper publisher.
“Harding was thirty-one years (Nan) Britton’s senior and was in any case engaged in a hot affair with his wife’s best friend — he truly was a bit of a dog — so a crush was as far as things ever seemed likely to go. But then Miss Britton did something that Warren Harding always found hard to resist: she grew into womanhood,” Bryson writes.
One Summer covers an enormous cast of characters that are deeply researched and rendered to entertain. Babe Ruth isn’t just an amazing baseball player. He’s a lovable rogue, a womanizing gambler who can’t keep his finances straight and can’t quite remember his mother’s name. Herbert Hoover is stiff and boring but exceptionally competent and politically astute. And in 1927, when he ran relief efforts during the Great Mississippi Flood, he was still well-liked.
“Soon he would be the most derided president of his time — quite an achievement for someone elected in the same decade as Warren G. Harding — but in the spring of 1927 he was, by a very wide margin, the world’s most trusted man,” Bryson writes. “He was also, curiously, perhaps the least likable hero America has ever produced.”
Bryson’s gathering of facts is impressive. He finds the strange trivia and surprising little coincidences that make history fun, and his breezy style and running commentary make for an enjoyable read.
Susannah Nesmith is a writer in Miami.