It was a summer when Lindbergh flew, the Yankees soared, the Midwest rains flowed, Al Capone reigned, and America prospered — a summer that was vibrant and wild and only two years from Depression and despair.
It was a time of character and insights into the American character, of spicy murder and saucy music. It was 1927, and in “One Summer,’’ Bill Bryson recounts a remarkable period in America’s passage.
Others have written about aspects of that epic year — A. Scott Berg won a Pulitzer for his admirable biography of Charles Lindbergh, John M. Barry won the Francis Parkman award for best work of history for his “Rising Tide’’ about the Mississippi flood of 1927 — but only Bryson has stitched together the whole colorful fabric of that fateful season.
“One Summer’’ is a chronological narrative with chapters that begin with May and run through September. Bryson punctuates each month with small, vivid portraits — of the young Lindbergh, on the cusp of glory; of the young Herbert Hoover, on the cusp of disgrace; and of a menagerie of maniacs, mobsters, and misanthropes who produced hysteria and history.
He gets most of them right but gets Calvin Coolidge wrong; a more careful study of Amity Shlaes’s biography, out this year and cited in his bibliography, would have set him straight. He is right, however, in concluding, that Coolidge ‘’presided over a booming economy and did nothing at all to get in the way of it.’’
His view of Coolidge is a mere misdemeanor in a book that captures that fabulous summer — indeed, the entire era — in tone and timbre. Here are Bill Tilden (the tennis maestro), Alvin “Shipwreck’’ Kelly (the king of the flagpole sitters, once for 49 days), Henry Ford (peerless practitioner of industrialization and anti-Semitism), and a lineup of unforgettable baseball idols, including Waite “Schoolboy’’ Hoyt, Tony Lazzeri, Miller Huggins, and Lou Gehrig, “gracious and good-looking, with a winning smile, deep blue eyes and a dimpled chin’’ but haunted by the suspicion if not the knowledge that Babe Ruth had slept with his wife.
But it is Lindbergh and Ruth who are the main players of the summer and of this book.
Bryson portrays Lindbergh as “a young man who seemed to represent everything that was modest and virtuous and good,’’ though Susan Dunn (in this year’s volume titled “1940’’) and Lynne Olson (in “Those Angry Days,’’ also published this year) remind us that in maturity Lindbergh was anything but modest, virtuous, or good.
Bryson’s Ruth is “kind and generous, especially to children, and endearingly unpretentious’’, though we know he had voracious appetites, for drink, for hot dogs (18 once, at one sitting), and for women.
Bryson knows the faults of the heroes, and colors them with nuance, especially Ruth. He says that the slugger’s brain had “wondrous gaps’’ and that his “extravagance was legendary.’’
This was a time when the United States possessed most of the world’s tall buildings and, as is clear from this book, most of the world’s tall tales. All this at a time of the nation’s dry period. Bryson argues that Prohibition “introduced an entirely new level of danger to American life,’’ and he is right, for it spawned a new breed of gangsters who in turn produced a new style of corruption.
Bryson well captures the squalls barely visible as America cruised through an economic boom, identifying the invisible dangers courted by small investors, the irresistible consumer culture, and the international banking system’s peculiar devotion to gold — all of which would in time overpower the nation.
And give Bryson credit. In a portrait of a year that included the opening of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, the emergence of Rin Tin Tin as a national icon, and the publication of Sinclair Lewis’s “Elmer Gantry’’ he does not sketch for us an idyll of idiocy or a collection of confectionery characters. To the Roaring Twenties he adds another label prompted by the era’s explosion of anti-Semitism and phony racist sociology : “The Age of Loathing.’’
Later in summer 1927 “Show Boat’’ would debut on Broadway, but as it opened so much was closing — the ease of economic prosperity, the age of the Model T, even the primacy of Broadway itself. Within a dozen years the cults of Lindbergh and Hoover would be shattered and so would world peace. Even Gehrig would suffer a heartbreaking demise. Summer was over, here and overseas, possibly forever.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.