Bryson takes a serious look at America in 1927
By Jerry Harkavy
Published: Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, 6:26 p.m.
In retrospect, most summers seem pretty much alike: vacations in the country, lazy days at the beach and less tedious workloads that ramp up again after Labor Day. But some summers evoke memories that linger for decades, and the summer of 1927 may be the most telling example.
Strictly speaking, it was a month before the official start of summer that Charles Lindbergh's solo flight from New York to Paris captivated the world and made him an instant celebrity. And it was the last day of September that Babe Ruth hit his record-breaking 60th home run, putting an exclamation point on a New York Yankees season ranked among baseball's greatest ever.
In the midst of those achievements, epic flooding on the mighty Mississippi devastated much of the nation's midsection, Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti were executed for killing a guard and a payroll clerk during a Massachusetts robbery, President Calvin Coolidge stunned the political world by announcing he would not seek re-election, and international banking officials meeting in New York opted to lower interest rates, sparking a speculative bubble that would end with the stock market crash two years later and the Great Depression.
Bill Bryson, the best-selling author of humorous accounts of his hike along the Appalachian Trail and his travels in Australia, has captured the zeitgeist of the Roaring Twenties in this entertaining and informative book that focuses on what he calls “that long, extraordinary summer.”
With Europe still struggling to recover from the Great War, America emerged as the dominant player in everything from new inventions to popular culture. It was a golden age for reading: Books, magazines and newspapers thrived, and tabloids pumped out a steady stream of crime news, sports stories and celebrity gossip. Meanwhile, radio made its debut, gaining a national audience for major events like that summer's Dempsey-Tunney heavyweight championship rematch that drew 150,000 spectators to Chicago's Soldier Field.
The book is filled with profiles of some of the era's top newsmakers and celebrities: Herbert Hoover, Al Capone, Henry Ford, Al Jolson, Bill Tilden, flagpole sitter Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly, Mt. Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum and Queens housewife Ruth Snyder, who teamed up with her lover, Judd Gray, to murder her husband. Her trial became a tabloid sensation, and Bryson's account of how the two killers were transported by high-speed motorcade from a Queens jail to Sing Sing Prison suggests how congested the roads had become. New York City had more cars than all of Germany, along with 50,000 horses, and the city's traffic deaths were four times what they are now.
One of the book's less remembered but most disquieting episodes seems like a tragedy drawn from today's headlines: A distraught Michigan man who blamed local school taxes for the pending foreclosure on his farm planted explosives in a school basement, killing 44 people, 37 of them children.
The Jazz Age was a time of widespread bigotry, as the Ku Klux Klan gained wide support and eugenics studies supporting theories of racial superiority won acceptance in academic circles. But the period is best remembered as a time of heady optimism for a nation that embraced the future as a time of endless possibilities. This splendid book, written in the breezy and humorous style that has come to be Bryson's trademark, is sure to delight readers steeped in the history of the period as well as those looking to acquaint themselves with it for the first time.
Jerry Harkavy is a staff writer for the Associated Press.
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