Bryson takes a serious look at America in 1927
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.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Author McBride to talk books during Pittsburgh lecture
- Mystery writer Palumbo keeps his voice set in Western Pa.