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I Heart Bill Bryson

This week I finished One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson.  I first discovered Bill Bryson with his Notes from a Big Country column he wrote when he returned home to the US after living in the UK for 20 years.  I had only lived in the UK for two years, but I also found myself identifying with his observations.  Wal-Mart is a scary place if the biggest store you’re used to is the Tesco Metro which stocks only five brands of cereal.  I actually wrote him a physical letter, and was surprised when he wrote a physical response back to me, which I still have, tucked away in one of his books.  I pretty much devour anything he writes, whether it seems interesting to me or not, and this was no exception.  

America in 1927 was a place that we would find at once comfortingly familiar (baseball hasn’t changed much) and frighteningly foreign.  The 1920’s aren’t really a period of history that I’m particularly interested in, and so when I first saw that Bryson’s new book was focused on one summer in America, I kind of wondered what the big deal was.  But man, what a summer 1927 was.  
He opens with the story of Charles Lindberg’s flight from New York to Paris.  That leads into aviation history, the other pilots who attempted the flight and didn’t make it, and a history of planes in WWI.  
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lDxOyhLQ1Oc]

From there we go on to Babe Ruth’s record year; which dovetails nicely into a history of baseball, the 1919 World Series fixing, the history of the hot dog and concession sales, and the various rivalries going on at the time.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A5RWv0ghDXE]

Babe Comes Home was a silent movie that had been released earlier in 1927, but the real highlight of the motion pictures in 1927 was the release of Wings, which had amazing action shots and aerial shots that no one had ever captured before.  Within two years, talking pictures would take over Hollywood because in 1927 The Jazz Singer also came out, so while Wings was the summit of silent movies, the talkies were already moving in.  That leads to a history of Hollywood, movies in general, technology that supported motion pictures, famous actors and actresses at the time, and other fascinating tidbits.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZDXaVAuxes0]

1927 was also a big summer for:

-Murder Trials – Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray were on trial for conspiring to kill Ruth’s husband so she could marry Judd.  They botched it up terribly, though, attempting to take advantage of the rampant prejudices against Italians by leaving an Italian language newspaper on the kitchen table, and staging a robbery.  Even in a time when most murders went unsolved and there was no forensic evidence, everyone was able to solve this one.

– Herbert Hoover – who capitalized on some of the worst flooding in history in Mississippi and surrounding states by heading up relief attempts and publicizing the heck out of it.  He would win a landslide election in 1928 thanks in part to his PR efforts.

– Blaming the wrong people – two Italian men in Boston wound up being executed for a robbery and murder that they probably didn’t commit, thanks to the aforementioned prejudices and fear of fascism.

– Gene Tunney – who beat Jack Dempsey in one of the most watched boxing matches ever thanks to a much-debated long count.

– Television – in 1927 Philo Farnsworth applied for an image dissector tube patent, which made modern television possible.  Unfortunately he never got any credit for it because of RCA and a ruthless executive who quite possibly stole his information and violated the patents.

One thing I really love learning about this period in history is that so much of it is available to watch on youtube.  There aren’t videos of Henry VIII jousting, which is the period in history that I usually read about.  It’s really cool to see the Dempsey Tunney match, freely available to watch.

I love Bill Bryson’s curiosity about the world, and I can’t wait to see what he pulls out of his hat next.  A book that was as enjoyable as it was educational, which doesn’t happen that often.