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One Summer In America 1927

Bill Bryson

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The 1920's were a golden age for publishing. The Illustrated Daily News copied the format of London's highly successful Daily Mirror with a circ of 1 million, twice that of NY Times. Naturally it in turn was imitated. Bernarr MacFadden launched the wondrously dreadful Evening Graphic. It's main distinguishing feature was that it had almost no attachment to the truth, or even recognizable reality. It conducted imaginary interviews with people it had not met and ran stories by figures who cd not have possibly written them. When Rudolph Valentino died in 1926, it produced a series of articles by him from beyond the grave. The Graphic became famous for a form of illustration of its own invention it called 'composograph', in which the faces of newsworthy figures were superimposed on the bodies of models posed to create arresting tableaux. The most celebrated of these visual creations came during divorce procedings between Edward 'Daddy' Browning and his young and dazzlingly erratic bride, affectionately known to all as 'Peaches'. The Graphic ran a photo of her apparently standing naked in the witness box. The Graphic sold an extra 250,000 copies that day.

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In 2003, more than thirty years after his death, it emerged that Charles Lindbergh had a complex private life. Beginning in 1957, Lindbergh had engaged in lengthy sexual relationships with three women while he remained married to Anne Morrow. He fathered three children with hatmaker Brigitte Hesshaimer, who had lived in the small Bavarian town of Geretsried. He had two children with her sister Mariette, a painter, living in Grimisuat. Lindbergh also had a son and daughter (born in 1959 and 1961) with Valeska, an East Prussian aristocrat who was his private secretary in Europe and lived in Baden-Baden. All seven children were born between 1958 and 1967. Wikipedia

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In a humorous "short autobiography" of his drinking life that F Scott Fitzgerald wrote for the New Yorker, he remembered the year 1927 as one of "delicious California 'Burgundy-type' wine... The beer I made... Cases of dim, cut, unsatisfactory whiskey ..." In prohibition America, this was the best that one could hope for. Although no one knew it yet, seven years in, Prohibition had passed its halfway point, and would be repealed in 1933.

It is at this halfway point that Bill Bryson has chosen to pause and survey the landscape of America. The memorable summer of 1927 began with Charles Lindbergh's historic flight across the Atlantic and ended with the release of The Jazz Singer, which ushered in sound cinema, and Babe Ruth's record-setting 60 home runs for the New York Yankees. In between came the notorious Ruth Snyder murder case (inspiring the film Double Indemnity); the execution of anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti; the great Mississippi flood, which lasted longer than any other American natural catastrophe; the Dempsey-Tunney fight; Henry Ford beginning to develop the Model A; and the starting of work on Mount Rushmore by the improbably named Gutzon Borglum.

These milestones mark Bryson's landscape, but his guided tour takes in myriad detours: back to the origins of prohibition, through the presidency of Warren G Harding, around Lindbergh's fellow flyers from Italy to France to Newfoundland, through Henry Ford's preposterous "Fordlandia" settlement in Brazil, with a great deal about baseball, boxing, aeroplanes, cars, radios, films and televisions along the way. In fact, if Bryson were any less entertaining, this would be a book by a quintessential pub bore; instead, it's a series of loosely interconnected anecdotes rattled off by a gifted raconteur.

Charles Lindbergh and Babe Ruth are the nearest the book has to protagonists, the anchors past which Bryson's torrents of information stream. The flamboyant, lovable Ruth, who had a difficult childhood, bought a bicycle with his first baseball paycheck at the age of 19, and amused himself in hotels by riding the lifts. But Lindbergh was the more significant of the two men, his isolationism and antisemitism now a flashpoint for America's understanding of its own social history. The excitement that Lindbergh's flight generated is difficult to fathom today; as a point of comparison, Bryson tells us that 155 tons of debris were cleaned from Manhattan streets after the armistice parade of 1918, but so much ticker-tape was thrown for Lindbergh in 1927 that they cleared 1,800 tons.

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The book is filled with eccentric, flamboyant characters and memorable stories: Lindbergh's parents never embraced, instead shaking hands when they said goodnight. A close associate of President Herbert Hoover's said that in 30 years of working with him he never once heard Hoover laugh; his predecessor, Calvin Coolidge, worked an average of four hours a day, and napped more than any other US president. Jacob Ruppert, who owned the New York Yankees, kept a shrine to his mother by furnishing a room with everything she would need were she to come back to life. "This may go some way towards explaining why he never married," Bryson quips. He makes a similar jest about Al Jolson, the immensely popular but personally repellant star of The Jazz Singer: Jolson apparently amused himself by urinating on people, which, Bryson conjectures, might explain why he had four wives. Some might think it raises the question of how Jolson found four women who would marry him.

Along the way, Bryson also peers down some darker alleys: it wasn't all jazz, cocktails, flagpole-sitting (one of the decade's more aberrant pastimes), and dancing the charleston. America in the 1920s was a violent and dangerous place for much of its population, including the estimated 60,000 people who were forcibly sterilised thanks to the popularity of eugenicist theories. Racial violence was on the rise: Bryson tells of a poor black boy who fell asleep on a raft in Lake Michigan, drifted on to the wrong beach, and was stoned to death by white Chicagoans enjoying a day in the sun. Chicago in 1927 was de facto controlled by Al Capone, and only nominally by its mayor, Big Bill Thompson, who was evidently elected on the promise of saving Chicago from the threat of annexation by Britain's George V: Thompson promised to punch King George "in the snoot" if he were elected, which seems to have done the trick.

Amid all the fun, a few errors creep in, some more noteworthy than others. The magazine the Smart Set was founded not in 1924, but in 1900 (in 1922 it published Scott Fitzgerald's great satire of American capitalism, "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz"). The Ku Klux Klan did not have its heyday in the "antebellum years" (which in American usage refers to the period before the US civil war) but rather in the postbellum reconstruction, as Southerners responded with violence to the perceived loss of their racial prerogatives. Bryson tells us that the Klan's "downfall was sudden", in 1925, and although it's true that the Klan declined from its peak membership and was increasingly marginalised, it clearly remained a force of murderous terror for much of the 20th century. And it is highly arguable to assert that Zane Grey and Edgar Rice Burroughs "were certainly the two most popular authors on the planet in the 20th century". Bestsellers are notoriously difficult to track accurately; Margaret Mitchell and JK Rowling, among others, might well give Grey and Burroughs a run for their money. Nor is it very noteworthy that Burroughs and Grey out-earned Fitzgerald and Hemingway in the 1920s; the same can be said of virtually any popular and "literary" authors in any decade. It is certainly not the case, as Bryson asserts, that Fitzgerald wasn't famous in 1927: he had been a celebrity since 1920, and in 1926, the false rumour that he was hospitalised in Paris was newsworthy enough to be reported in the New York Times.

Breezily written, conversational and humorous, One Summer also includes sentences such as "Then things went eerily quiet avationwise," which is positively painful prosewise. Such lapses are offset by characteristically vivid turns of phrase, as when Bryson notes that Philo Farnsworth, who invented television only to have the idea stolen from him, became so embittered that "even his hair looked angry". In the end, despite its almost 500 pages, One Summer seems curiously slight; Bryson has little interest in analysis beyond the jocular aside, and his connections are narrative, rather than thematic or critical. The effect is rather like reading a highly amusing encyclopedia: many interesting starts, but few conclusions.

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