Thursday, March 20, 2014

Book Review: One Summer: America 1927

I'm not sure I can think of a writer who fits the term "Jack of All Trades" better than Bill Bryson. Starting out as a travel writer, over the last few years he's turned out books on a much wider range of subjects, all in the same conversation and subtly complex style. I've tended to find a pleasure in the simple act of reading Bryson, never mind the content itself, which is a rarer gift than you'd think, and the fact that many of his works favour breadth rather than depth shouldn't be held as a criticism so long as that breadth is done well. So long as it still says something. So with his new book, he is attempting to paint a portrait of a whole country, over one summer. And that's a lot of breadth.

One Summer: America 1927 is an attempt to portray a country poised on the edge of a great change. The centre-piece of the year is Charles Lindburgh's groundbreaking flight across the Atlantic Ocean, but Bryson is keen to talk about everything else happening that year and use it paint a portait of a country about face a couple of decades of turmoil that will leave with a completely different shape. To bring all the threads together he does cheat slightly; some events are on-going in 1927, neither starting or finishing, and others happened some years ago, although occasionally still impinging on the headlines. But as a central conceit it's a good one, and crucially one that works.

American Popular History generally still seems very obsessed with the so-called "Greatest Generation"; the children that grew up in the Great Depression to fight in the Second World War and then lead the country into it's perceived 1950s Golden Age. This then is about the generation before, born in the 19th Century and faced with a country rapidly outgrowing itself socially, technologically, and economically, and a country waking up to the fact that the Old World, so devastated by the Great War, is no longer the cultural and political centre of the world.

Taking Lindburgh's flight, and following tour around the country, Bryson weaves in almost every element of American Life at that time. There is probably too much to really sum up, but on the sporting front it's a summer dominated by Boxing and Baseball, it's the year the Jazz Singer comes out, the year Henry Ford finally ceased production on the Model T and the year of Americas greatest natural disaster, the Mississippi Flood.  Its in the middle of Prohibition, increasingly an unenforceable joke, and only a couple of years from the Great Stock Market Crash, when everything changes. All of these (and more) get woven together to show the fabric of a society in flux.

If you're read any Bryson you'd expect this to be engagingly written and heavy on humanizing anecdotes about the main players, and you'd not be wrong. It does skim around a bit and leave some areas a little under served, especially some of the more unsung bits of US History like the Anarchist Bombing Campaign of the 1920s (which I'd never even heard of!) and any sense of US Foreign Policy; although the latter would have little impact on a largely Isolationist public. Aside from a final chapter giving pencil sketches of the following lives of many of the books characters, there is little in the way of "what happens next", although I've already covered off that "what happens next" is pretty heavily documented anyway.

Which means you're left with a fun read that paints a portait of a period not often served in the history section of your local bookstore, which is probably worth the price of admission alone. It's also a great primer for early 20th century US history, and you could easily use it as a jumping off point to delve deeper into an area that really caught your eye. It's really Popular History at its best, and I hope it's not Bryson's last trip into the past.