As much as I love historical fiction is how much I also enjoy narrative history. Authors in both genres research carefully, novelists weaving a compelling plot for readability and historians interlacing facts into readable form. To that end, I am recommending Bill Bryson’s immensely-readable narrative history, One Summer: America 1927.
This volume, chronicling the year my father turned seven, was a slow read only because I luxuriated in the author’s vivid descriptions, delicious details, and laugh-out-loud humor. I apologize to my sister and my friend Jane for the frequent phone calls to read yet another snippet just too good not to share.
It was a carnival kind of year, 1927, one of its major attractions: Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic. Familiar mostly with details of the kidnapping murder of the aviator’s baby son, I found Bryson’s review of the events surrounding the reclusive barnstormer’s historic 33½ hour trip from the Big Apple to Paris informative and beyond fascinating. The first TIME Man of the Year was feted with a blizzardy parade of 1800 tons of “ticker tape,” while Western Union assigned 38 fulltime employees to handle the avalanche of telegrams Lucky Lindy received – and a bill was introduced to rename his childhood home state of Minnesota Lindberghia.
Radio coverage of Lindbergh’s feat was unprecedented, understandable when I recall John-Boy Walton and his family crowded around their radio: thus, I was not surprised to read that ⅓ of all money expended for furniture back then was spent on radios. That same year, the first transatlantic telephone call between the U.S. and the U.K. hinted at future technology, as did the first live transmission of picture and voice via telephone lines between D.C. and Manhattan to a television screen measuring 2” x 2.5”.
The world of entertainment experienced movie screen advancement during 1927, the year the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was established, albeit without Oscar statuettes. Clara Bow, the “It Girl” of silent film fame, saw that genre slip away when Al Jolson starred in The Jazz Singer, Hollywood’s first, full-length “talkie,” poised to take the film industry by storm. And the course of Broadway musical comedy was also irrevocably altered with the staging of Showboat, including “Ol’ Man River.”
With sketchy knowledge of presidential politics between the Roosevelts, Bryson’s characterization of Calvin Coolidge brought Silent Cal into sharper focus. Unexpectedly nominated to the vice presidency and unexpectedly elevated to America’s highest office after the death of Warren G. Harding, Coolidge was known for his talent to do nothing – or at least to maintain a low profile – while presiding over a strong economy in a small government and laissez-faire sort of way. His three-month working vacation in the Black Hills of South Dakota in late summer of 1927 included his ten-gallon hat and cowboy boots, trout fishing, his dedication of the cornerstone for the future Mount Rushmore sculpture, and his unexpected, cryptically-written note to reporters: “I do not choose to run for president in 1928.”
Two other big news stories of 1927 were news to me. The Great Mississippi Flood, at flood stage for 153 consecutive days, devastated 16,570,627 acres in the heartland. Inexplicably, records show 50,490 cattle, 25,325 horses, and 148,110 hogs perished during the watery disaster, with the human death count far less specifically documented – perhaps because so many victims were poor and black.
Utterly shocked, I also read that 37 children and 7 adults died in Michigan’s Bath School bombing plotted by the treasurer of the school board. Andrew Kehoe, infuriated by his farm’s foreclosure due to unpaid school taxes, filled the school basement with dynamite wired for detonation from his nearby truck. Sadly, this tragic event seemed all too familiar.
It is not America without mention of sports: the author recounted the Jack Dempsey-Gene Tunney “long count” boxing match and recalled the first game played by the Globetrotters, organized because black players were not permitted to play professional basketball. However, it was America’s pastime, the Sultan of Swat, and the 1927 Yankees that took athletic center stage in the book.
Larger-than-life and all-around man of excess, George Herman Ruth and teammate Lou Gehrig led the Yankees wire-to-wire during their 110-44 season, 19 games ahead of the AL’s second-place Philadelphia Athletics. That year the Babe slugged 60 homeruns to surpass one of his own records, and the whole crew won the World Series, sweeping the Pirates in four games.
My word limit permits only cursory mention of other 1927 milestones: Henry Ford’s production of the last Model T accompanied by the announcement of the upcoming Model A, the execution of Italian immigrant anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, the beginning of the end of Prohibition, the adventures of Al Capone, the opening of the Peace Bridge between Canada and the United States, and much more. My own google search also revealed the introduction of Kool-Aid, the Girl Scout publication of the first recipe for S’mores, and Ohio’s official assignment to the Eastern Time Zone. What a year!
As I savored my way through Bill Bryson’s book, in my mind I saw each person, each group, each institution, each event represented by individual threads. The author cleverly connected those many threads into a gloriously-multifaceted tapestry of one year in our nation’s story, a year warranting investigation and consideration.
Now I am thoroughly intrigued at the thought of the tapestry of 2020, woven by some 22nd century author!
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.