I first mentioned One Summer: America 1927, by Bill Bryson, a couple of weeks ago. It was one of the best trophies in the phenomenally generous goody-bag supplied to delegates at the BA Conference and I promised to review it when I’d read it. I completed it yesterday.
It’s a fascinating book, combining a great deal of research with Bryson’s trademark humorous and throwaway delivery. It explores the events of a six-monthish period during 1927 which, Bryson avers, changed the course not only of American history, but also of that of the world.
He focuses on a relatively small but rich cast of characters: the aviator Charles Lindbergh and ace baseball player Babe Ruth probably get the most words devoted to them, but Bryson also manages to include, among other things, accounts of the activities of two (extraordinarily bad) presidents, Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge and, of especial interest to me, two convictions for murder, both of them causes célèbres of their day, that of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray, for killing Snyder’s husband (they were almost certainly guilty of the alleged crime) and Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco, for acts of terrorism leading to several deaths (they almost certainly weren’t). All four were sentenced to death and died by the relatively new method of controlled electrocution.
Many lesser tales are told along the way: how the presidential sculptures at Mount Rushmore came to be conceived of and commissioned; the rise of the ‘flapper’; the early years of talking pictures and their effect both on the entertainers and those they were entertaining; how Prohibition began and its appalling effects on the economy and morality and, more surprisingly, the numbers of people drinking (they increased) and the numbers of deaths caused by ‘denaturised’ (read ‘contaminated’) alcohol. Wayne B. Wheeler, the fanatical teetotaller who inspired Prohibition, dictated that some of the alcohol captured by the state should be denatured – i.e., rendered undrinkable – by the addition of poison instead of some more harmless spoiler, such as soap, and scores if not hundreds perished from his efforts. Effectively, the state had legalised murder.
This is one of the topics on which Bryson abandons his customary tongue-in-cheek stance and writes in deadly earnest. Another state-inspired action that elicits his wholehearted contempt is the mass sterilisation that took place of women who were considered to be too intellectually inferior to bear children. It is estimated that up to 11,000 women suffered this fate. Although Bryson does not belabour the point, implicitly he draws some analogies between what happened in America in the 1920s and the appalling experiments carried out by the Nazi Dr Mengele in Germany in the following decades. In fact, he says that to all the epithets that have been applied to the America of the 1920s, he’d like to add one of his own: the Age of Loathing. “There may never have been another time in the nation’s history when more people disliked more other people from more directions and for less reason. Bigotry was casual, reflexive and well nigh universal.” In fact, he probably doesn’t need to beat up his own nation quite as much as he does: I’ve also been reading about British and Dutch colonialism recently and there could hardly have been greater bigotry than arose in the colonies of those countries, particularly the ones that were created in Africa in the second half of the nineteenth century. As we all know, some of those African nations have only very recently been released from colonial oppression; and bigotry is still alive and well in almost all ‘civilised’ countries.
I mustn’t dwell on this aspect of the book too much, though, because if I do I shall fail to convey the wonderful balance that Bryson manages to achieve in his narrative. One of its most endearing qualities is the way in which it conveys how different America was then and yet how recognisably the country that it has become today. America in 1927 was a country devoted to popular culture – the crowds that Lindbergh attracted have never been equalled since; it was a country that idolised film stars before the rest of the world embraced this kind of hero-worship; it was the country that had just invented hire purchase, thus starting an ‘American dream’ that increasingly depended on each household’s ability to acquire as many consumer items as possible; above all, it was a country that suddenly emerged from being behind Europe in terms of technological achievement to audaciously taking the lead in cutting-edge sciences such as aeronautical engineering, a lead which it has never since relinquished.
All of this happened (just) within living memory. Piquantly for me, 1927 was the year in which my mother was born; and one or two of my friends still have living parents who were born in this year or even before it. Bryson brings home to readers how much the world has changed since their youth – and actually teaches later generations why they should be forgiven for some of their prejudices and foibles. Above all, he shows us that, while we may laugh at the excesses and stupidities of a thrusting if less well-educated age, future generations will probably find the behaviour of our present age just as risible and bizarre.