Bill Bryson’s book is expertly researched and very well written. It is an interesting exposé about the events of the summer of 1927 and its ultimate influence on America. Known for writing travel books, he has taken the reader on a trip down the decade of the 1920’s. He introduces the reader to anecdotal tales about Prohibition, anti-Semitism, racism, the coming Depression, the New Deal, and Hitler’s rise to power, to name just a few of the positive and negative events that he covers that would eventually bring change to America. The 1920’s were a decade of turmoil and a loosening of societal inhibitions. It was the era of the flapper. It was a decade that brought changes to the field of aviation, boxing, the banking industry, the workplace, the White House, and Broadway, plus other venues too numerous to mention. It was a decade which created radio’s NBC and CBS, Charles Ponzi’s infamous Ponzi scheme and Charles Lindbergh’s “Spirit of St. Louis”.
The author dwells a great deal on those who had a major influence on American life, both in fame and infamy, some who were well known and some lesser known, some who remain iconic figures today. He illuminates the ways in which many people became famous, often using their powerful influence to get around the law and profit illegally from deals giving them an unfair advantage. He writes about Charles Lindbergh’s and Henry Ford’s anti-Semitism and Ford’s many illegal business practices, he writes about the feud between Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, the exceptionally, and perhaps unnaturally, close relationship that Charles Lindbergh and Lou Gehrig had with their mothers. He covers the career of Jack Dempsey, Calvin Coolidge, Jacob Ruppert who owned the Yankees, and Richard E. Byrd, an explorer and aviator, (though the veracity of some of his achievements has been questioned). He writes about Calvin Coolidge and Lindbergh’s lack of social skills, and Coolidge’s lack of involvement as President. He exhibited a kind of laziness. He didn’t step in when questions arose on the financial state of the Union. Coolidge over delegated, failed to heed Herbert Hoover’s warnings about the danger of the bubble in the stock market, and ultimately set the stage for the Great Depression. He describes the many moments of the decade and the many behavior patterns of its memorable men and women which ultimately influenced the summer of 1927.
He covers the trumped up trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby by Bruno Hauptmann, the execution of Ruth Snyder at Sing Sing; they were all events which captured the nation’s attention. He explains how Mount Rushmore evolved, the rise and fall of Clara Bow, and Al Jolson’s rise to fame in the same talkies that took down Bow. He describes the theory of eugenics which took hold in that decade and led to discussions of race purification, which can only be described as Nazi like theories. He describes Bela Lugosi’s fame as Dracula, the way the show, “Showboat” changed theatre by integrating it, and he writes about the corruption of Chicago which may very well still exist today. It was the place that is rumored to have started the idea of “vote early, vote often”!
As he explores the summer of 1927 and the decade influencing it, he exposes its underbelly with some facts that many readers will not have known before. The summer seems to be the precursor of many of the major societal failures to come. It was the decade that was the catalyst for the Depression; there were secret meetings held by bankers, there was a President who made an unwise response to their demands, a President who failed to heed Herbert Hoover’s warnings about the effects of reducing interest rates on the economy. Had he reacted differently, perhaps history would have changed. Who knows? Bryson shares little known facts with the reader, like the fact that Henry Ford is mentioned in Mein Kampf because Hitler admired him or the idea that Lindbergh was a womanizer or that Babe Ruth abused liquor and was often in trouble.
Perhaps my biggest criticism of the book is that it contains too many facts, too many important figures, too much history, and simply too many details. It became too difficult to remember much of what was written. There was so much information presented that much of it was immediately lost to the reader because of its over abundance. I felt like I was being bombarded with information, and therefore, no matter how important it was, its abundance made it seem trivial. It seems like a book that will be ideal for use in a game of Trivial Pursuit, but not necessarily for a book discussion.