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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Summer on the Brink



One Summer: America, 1927

Please let me know if I mention Bill Bryson too many times in my blogs and articles. I do apologize, but he somehow touches my heart and the heart of America while sharing a more global view. He is often laugh-out-loud funny, yet we can never finish any of his books without learning some very interesting new facts.
His newest book One Summer: America, 1927 takes a rather rambling approach to American history using the cultural icons of the 1920’s. America was on the brink of becoming great. And these heroes (or anti-heroes) formed the basis for that.

Beginning with aviation and Lindbergh, he goes on to baseball and Babe Ruth; technology and  Henry Ford; boxing and Jack Dempsey politics and Calvin Coolidge; the red scare and Sacco and Vanzetti; the eugenics movement and anti-semitisim, anti-Catholicism and of course just plain racism; publishing and Edgar Rice Burroughs; performing arts and the development of moving pictures and Rin Tin Tin, radio and even the invention of television. All of this and more happened in 1927, and Bryson takes it on with his sardonic view of American pop culture.

Did you know that Rin-Tin-Tin was voted best actor in the first Academy Awards in 1927, but the Academy determined that only a human should win? All those classically trained actors that moved to Hollywood for talking films must have been a bit chagrined.

Calvin Coolidge, who was said to be weaned on a pickle, so sour was his countenance, could find solace only while he was fishing in the southwest, dressed in a cowboy suit. When asked, he declined to run again.
Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan of the Apes, was a man of such libidinous character that he often went off with 3 or 4 partners at once, although married to the same woman for many years.

There are many more of these vignettes that are just as dismaying as they are funny.  But the most interesting as well as upsetting chapter was on the eugenics movement. It still amazes me not only how many ordinary people believed in selective breeding, but how many academics supported it as well. Grants were received from the Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations. Margaret Sanger, the well-known advocate for birth control, supported it and states began adopting laws outlawing certain groups from intermarriage. Prominent Nazis traveled to the US to study eugenics. It is a fascinating albeit disturbing bit of history.

Bryson was specifically beguiled by Chicago, which, he said was as well known for its lawlessness as Pittsburgh was known for its meatpacking industry. And they embraced that culture. Al Capone was in charge and no one denied it. Everyone it seemed was on his payroll.

But it is Charles Lindbergh that somehow ties this book together. It was his flight that epitomized the twenties and helped change the world of aviation to make it possible for America to become part of the rest of the world. And so Bryson begins and ends with Lindbergh, the hero, the villain, the tragic figure.

If you are interested in this kind of history of popular culture, you may want to read John Dos Passo’s U.S.A., a fictional trilogy, published during the 1930s which covers the first three decades of the 20th Century. Dos Passos inserted several types of “experimental writing” including “Newsreel” which contains news clippings and song lyrics; “Camera Eye” which includes autobiographical vignettes of public figures, and stream of consciousness writing.  I loved this idea of mixing fiction and non-fiction and even wrote an essay on it when I read it in high school. So I guess I will always be attracted to the same kind of subject material, whether I’m 16 or 60.

lisa n.

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