‘One Summer: America, 1927’: America at a turning point
Bill Bryson’s “One Summer: America, 1927” is a once-over-lightly look at several watershed events of 1927, when one achievement after another convinced Americans that the future was bright.
Special to The Seattle Times
‘One Summer: America, 1927’
by Bill Bryson
Doubleday, 527 pp., $28.95
America had one heck of a summer in 1927. Charles Lindbergh became the first person to cross the Atlantic by plane. Babe Ruth shattered baseball records.
Al Capone was at the height of his power. Sacco and Vanzetti were executed. Jack Dempsey fought Gene Tunney in one of the most celebrated and controversial boxing matches of all time. Television was created. Radio came of age. And the entire country celebrated the remarkable stock market, blissfully unaware of the coming economic apocalypse.
In “One Summer: America, 1927,” Bill Bryson, author of numerous popular works of nonfiction (“At Home,” “A Walk in the Woods”), surveys America at a turning point. Although the Wright Brothers might have launched the first flight, it was the European countries who first commercialized aviation.
When the Orteig Prize was announced for the first nonstop transatlantic flight, it was anything but clear that an American pilot would win the prize. Yet Charles Lindbergh, an unknown kid from Minnesota, did precisely that, piloting an astonishingly flimsy “airplane,” largely covered in fabric, to land at Le Bourget Field, near Paris. He was greeted with a hysterical reception from the more than 100,000 Parisians who met his plane, and fame that far surpassed anything he could have imagined.
Babe Ruth, meanwhile, smashed no fewer than 60 home runs that year, in a duel with his teammate Lou Gehrig. Gehrig briefly pulled ahead of Ruth during the season but stalled at 47 homers (no small feat in itself) while Ruth set a legendary record that stood unmatched until Roger Maris, another Yankee outfielder, broke it in 1961. The duel, and Ruth’s astonishing power, changed baseball forever.
Off the field, though, Ruth enjoyed his celebrity and all that it brought him — sleeping with innumerable young women and feasting with few limits. It was an era when private indiscretions remained private.
The Mississippi flooded in 1927, in an enormous human disaster, with federal-disaster relief coordinated by the capable but impossibly pompous Herbert Hoover. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants who had been convicted of a double murder during an armed robbery in Boston, finally went to their death in August 1927. The controversial trial outraged civil libertarians and made Americans highly unpopular throughout Europe.
But in America, the seemingly unstoppable stock market fueled everyone’s optimism. Investors borrowed capital to invest in the stock market “on the margin,” never imagining that a market crash might require them to repay the losses. At the time, the only unreasonable position was not investing at all.
But, of course, nothing lasts forever. Ruth’s record was eventually eclipsed. Lindbergh’s fame vanished overnight with his pro-Nazi speeches. And the market crashed in 1929, launching the Great Depression. “Nearly nine decades have passed since the summer of 1927, and not a great deal survives,” Bryson writes. “So it is worth pausing for a moment to remember just some of the things that happened by that summer.”
It’s hard not to be captivated by this compelling portrait of America at a crossroads. But Bryson’s writing is sadly incomplete. There’s a lot that could have been said about the summer of 1927 — the launching of an aviation industry that would dominate the world to come, the blindness that stock-market mania seems to induce, or the difference between steroid-induced “sluggers” and the real thing.
But unfortunately Bryson explores few larger lessons, instead weaving together these vignettes with little more than quick transitions. Bryson’s lightweight history is certainly amusing, but little more.
Kevin J. Hamilton is a Seattle lawyer.