The king of the anecdote strikes again. Here is how I imagine Bill Bryson writes a book: he shuffles endlessly through libraries and writes down every funny or interesting story, lifted from dusty and forgotten records. Once in a while, he discovers a structure among his collection of stories and a new book falls into place.
This book, A Summer; America 1927, could also have been called Tales from the Twenties. Bryson endeavors to describe the interests of America around the year 1927 to build up a picture of what it was like to live in those times. He has so much information that he aggregates his anecdotes into themes, such as sports, aviation, the prohibition, Hollywood and others. The book is therefore quite lengthy and at times I thought I would never reach the end, but Bryson writes so engagingly that he is always interesting.
Bryson uses an overarching story to tie the book together. It is the story of a forgotten celebrity named Charles Lindbergh. Who? you might ask. Who is Charles Lindbergh? In 1927 he was the most famous man in the entire world. For a whole year long, Charles Lindbergh visited cities in the US and in Europe and he was everywhere received by hundreds of thousands of spectators and given parades and speeches. People fainted, women wanted to marry him, and the newspapers dedicated the front pages to everything he did.
A year later, he was forgotten.
This story illustrates how passionate and emotional the world was at those times. People went nuts about stuff. Take for example the Prohibition. One man made it his life goal to ban alcohol for reasons that never became clear, and America took it up with a vengeance. People died from illegal alcohol because the government resolved to put harmful liquids in that black market. When the initiator died, the country lost interest and Prohibition suddenly ended. Reactions were extreme but short lived. Immigrants were given the death penalty without clear evidence of guilt because people were on a witch hunt for anarchists.
The 20s were a violent time and people’s emotions ran high about pretty much everything. In the decades between then and now, we have mostly safeguarded society with new rules and morals against such excesses of zeal. The high emotions also birthed legends. 1927 was the year of Babe Ruth who changed sports in America forever. It was the year of future president Herbert Hoover, a tireless secretary of state who was the only one in Washington DC concerned with terrible Mississippi flooding. The president at the time, Coolidge, was the laziest president of all time and generally just lounged about. It was also the year of Henry Ford who started mass-producing cars.
Bryson insists that part of the modern world was created in 1927. Certainly, the summer seemed crammed with events.