This review originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on October 13, 2013
You probably had no idea that Al Jolson, the star of the first talkie movie, “The Jazz Singer,” enjoyed urinating on people as a joke.
Or that, once, in the middle of a conversation in the White House, President Warren G. Harding got up from his chair for a moment to urinate into a fireplace.
As a historian, Bryson is the antithesis of stuffy. He’s a storyteller, pure and simple, and One Summer is a collection of a great many tales about people and events, centered on (but not limited to) a single season in a single year.
Many nonfiction books today are weighed down with an overblown subtitle (such as “The Secret History of…” or “The [Fill-in-the-blank] That Changed the World”), but Bryson avoids that pomposity. He isn’t arguing that 1927 was much more important than any other year, even though he does provide some insights into how life changed because of events then.
I’m sure Bryson could have written a book just as interesting about the summer of 1949 or 1913. That’s because his subject isn’t really a year. It’s human nature in all its odd and amazing array.
Consider this sentence on a page about the rise of the Ku Klux Klan: “In Detroit, thousands of happy citizens attended a Christmas rally outside city hall, where a Santa Claus dressed in Klan regalia distributed presents to children by the light of a burning cross.”
Or these about attempts to legislate morality: “In Oshkosh, Wisconsin, a local law made it an offense for dancing partners to gaze into each other’s eyes. In Utah, the state legislature considered sending women to prison — not fining them, but imprisoning them — if their skirts showed more than three inches of leg above the ankle.”
Or this about British banker Montagu Norman: “Among his many eccentricities, Norman always traveled in disguise, even when there was no plausible reason for doing so.”
You can’t make this stuff up.
Nineteen twenty-seven was the year in which Babe Ruth set the home run record with 60, when Henry Ford stopped production of the Model T, when anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti were executed, when work on Mount Rushmore began, when the seeds of the Depression were sown by bankers, when Jack Dempsey lost to Gene Tunney and when the Mississippi River flooded like never before or since.
Bryson writes about all of that and much more, including, of course, the big event of 1927 — the solo flight of Charles Lindbergh across the Atlantic, from New York to Paris. It was an event that changed a quiet, solitary, very young man into the biggest celebrity the world had ever seen (much to his lasting chagrin).
Tall and lanky, he was called “le boy” by the French. Yet, behind that boyish façade was a cold childhood. “Both his parents were almost wholly incapable of showing affection,” writes Bryson. “Lindbergh and his mother never hugged. At bedtime, they shook hands. As both boy and man, Charles signed letters to his father, ‘Sincerely, C.A. Lindbergh,’ as if corresponding with his bank manager.”
The preparations for and then the celebrations after Lindbergh’s flight provide Bryson with a loose frame within which to fit the wild kaleidoscope of other characters and happenings.
On the way, Bryson does note that, prior to Lindbergh’s flight, Americans had always expected important things to happen in Europe. Afterwards, though, there was a feeling that the United States was not just growing in prominence, but also in dominance.
Americans, for instance, led the way with talkies and flooded the world market with movies that exposed the rest of the globe “to American voices, American vocabulary, American cadence and pronunciation and word order.” That, writes Bryson, had a profound psychological effect.
“With American speech came American thoughts, American attitudes, American sense of humor and sensibilities,” he writes. “Peacefully, by accident, and almost unnoticed, America had just taken over the world.”
Okay, that sounds like grist for a grandiloquent subtitle, but Bryson doesn’t dwell on it. He moves quickly to Robert G. Elliott, an electrical engineer who, in the absence of anyone else, developed a unique talent for electrocuting condemned criminals “gently.”
That’s not an oxymoron, considering that, at the hands of the less skilled, death in the electric chair could result in eyeball explosions and/or the victim being roasted alive. The last moments of Sacco and Vanzetti, among many others whom Elliott dispatched, were much more peaceful than they might have been.
In One Summer, Bryson helps the reader understand that, while human nature in 1927 is pretty much the same as in 2013, some aspects of life were much different 80-plus years ago.
The new technology of radio, for instance, was a wonder. “The ability to sit in one’s own living room and listen to a live event in some distant place,” he writes, “was approximately as miraculous as teleportation.”
Yet, it was also a world without air conditioning, and, when the temperature rose life “became communal in ways that the world has mostly forgotten. People sat on stoops. Barbers brought chairs outside and shaved their customers beneath a shady tree or awning. Windows everywhere were lifted wide open…so all the noises of the city drifted through wherever you were…[and] played over you as you worked or read or tried fitfully to sleep.”
Still, it is the breadth of human oddity that attracts Bryson.
For instance, he paints Col. Robert McCormick, the longtime Chicago Tribune owner and publisher, with a broad brush as a buffoon.
McCormick was a savvy businessman and a crusading newspaperman, but it must be acknowledged that, even during his lifetime, McCormick brought such characterizations on himself. There were, for instance, his efforts to impose simplified spelling on the English language (“frate” for “freight,” and “iland” for “island”), and then assignments given to reporters such as the one to find out if, as McCormick suspected, men at the University of Wisconsin wore lace underwear.
And then there was Gene Tunney, the world heavyweight boxing champion who fancied himself an intellectual. Bryson notes: “He liked to carry around a book with him. When asked what it was, he would reply casually, ‘Oh, just a copy of the Rubaiyat that I am never without.’ This was largely why most people couldn’t stand him.”
One last example is President Calvin Coolidge.
“While having breakfast,” Bryson writes, “he liked to have his valet rub his head with Vaseline.”
You can’t make this stuff up.
Patrick T. Reardon, the author of four books, is researching two books about Chicago history.