This is my review of One Summer: America 1927 (Bryson) by Bill Bryson.
At a talk to promote "One Summer", Bill Bryson identified the "twin pillars" of this book as Lindbergh's transatlantic flight in the "Spirit of St Louis", a cue to describe the initial development of US air travel, and "Babe Ruth's" impressive score of home runs in baseball – a perhaps somewhat incomprehensible theme of limited interest for non-Americans readers!
However, his research revealed many other intriguing activities in progress at the time: the controversial executions of Sacco and Vanzetti, who may or may not have been murderous anarchists; botched attempts to enforce prohibition, including the state's instructions for wine meant for industrial use to be "denatured" with poisons like strychnine, leading to the manslaughter of respectable citizens; the carving of presidents' heads in Mount Rushmore, too far from any road to be readily visible; the filming of Al Jolson in "The Jazz Age", the first major "talking picture" that marked the death knell of the silent movie age; the bankers' decision to reduce interest rates, claimed to trigger the 1929 Crash, and so on.
Still on form with his gently mocking humour, Bill Bryson demonstrates again his gift for unearthing quirky details. For instance, he cites an architect's impracticable idea for elevated aircraft landing platforms supported at each corner by a skyscraper. It is salutary to be reminded how dangerous air travel was, with many aviators dying in explosions in failed take-offs or disappearing without trace into sea fogs.
Some disturbing insights into American morality lie beneath the jolly surface, such as the Detroit-based Father Christmas dressed as a Ku Klux Klan member complete with fiery cross, which did not seem to spark violent protests at the time. This foreshadows the bigotry which paved the way for the development of McCarthyism post World War 2. Then there is the ready acceptance of "negative eugenics", queasily apparent in the racial superiority implied by the portrayal of Tarzan in the popular stories of the day.
The text seems padded out to extend rather thin material for one summer to fill 500 pages, as for the rather tedious details of a murder case remarkable only for the extent to which a new mass media managed to create such interest in it. To explain an event in 1927, Bryson often goes back even to the previous century to provide further details. I was irritated by the continual breaking off from say, coverage of Lindbergh, to ramble into a different topic for a while. I would have preferred a more thematic approach to give an appreciation of 1920s America in general.
Also, you would think that Bill Bryson of all people would realise that non-Americans aren't that interested in baseball……