In most of his many books, Bill Bryson provides such rich and extensive detail that his readers may feel that they have personally experienced the place or time he is describing.
This book is no exception. As the title indicates, the time is the summer of 1927, though the discussion also covers events before and after this focal point.
The place is the United States, though there is also some discussion of related activities in Europe and in Latin America.
In Bryson’s words (p. 428), “it was one hell of a summer.”
Charles Lindbergh became an instant hero when he flew solo across the Atlantic.
Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs for the New York Yankees, a record that would stand for decades. His teammate Lou Gehrig was actually neck and neck with him throughout most of the season.
The first “talkie” motion picture — “The Jazz Singer” — appeared.
The alleged anarchist terrorists Sacco and Vanzetti were executed.
The Mississippi River suffered its worst flooding in history. Work on the presidential monument at Mount Rushmore began. Henry Ford stopped making the Model T and started gearing up for the Model A.
Gene Tunney defeated Jack Dempsey in a fight that marked the establishment of boxing as a major spectator sport, and President Calvin Coolidge decided not to run for reelection and spent much of the summer at a retreat in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Bryson deals with all of these and more. We learn not only about Lindbergh’s flight, but also the overwhelming reception he received in Paris and again back in the United States after his return. We learn about his parents, his subsequent exhausting tour across America, his marriage to Anne Morrow (whose father is also one of the characters profiled in the book), and the lives and personalities of other American, French, British, and Italian aviators.
Bryson also reveals interesting facts concerning Lindbergh’s personal life that were not included in his major biographies.
Revelations concerning the personal lives of the famous and not-so-famous are a recurrent feature of this book.
Babe Ruth, Bryson tells us, was a lovable giant of a man, with correspondingly giant appetites for food and sex. Even more anecdotes abound concerning the character and behavior of former President Warren G. Harding, who died in office before this fascinating summer, but about whom revealing information continued to emerge in 1927.
The book is generally chronological, with sections covering the five months of May through September.
To some extent, each of the first four of these sections focuses on a different set of themes: “The Kid” (Lindbergh and his flight); “The Babe” (Ruth and the Yankees’ fabulous year); “The President” (Calvin Coolidge); and “The Anarchists” (primarily Sacco and Vanzetti, but also including anarchist bombings and other activities). But each of these themes stretches throughout the book.
Other themes that permeate the narrative are prohibition, crime (especially Al Capone, who was riding high in 1927), the Ku Klux Klan, and eugenics.
The eugenics discussion is perhaps the most chilling of the book.
Less than nine decades later, many people are unaware that there was an active movement in the United States that advocated the elimination of racial “undesirables” and enacted sterilization practices that affected hundreds of innocent people.
The levels of racist “loathing” and even advocacy of gassing unwanted populations foreshadowed the atrocities of the Nazi Holocaust. It is probably good for Americans to be reminded that such despicable ideas had currency here as well as in Germany.
Bryson makes an excellent case for 1927 being a pivotal year. Reading about it is enjoyable, enlightening, and in places shocking.