History’s a bitch when you’re living through it. Take the last five or six years. But when history hails from before you were born – where the past truly belongs – that old girl can be pretty fascinating. Hey baby, can I buy you a drink?
I liked Bill Bryson’s “One Summer: America 1927.” It’s pop history, maybe too breezy and clever to be taken seriously by scholars, but it’s a pleasant read and an easy education for those who might still associate the ’20s only with the Great Depression. Dave Bob says check it out.
When we think of 1927, most of us go right to Charles Lindbergh and his epic flight across the Atlantic. For me, it was also the year my Mom was born. America seemed on the cusp of many great things then, most of them good. Hard to argue with that, since yours truly arrived 24 years later.
But there was a fair amount of downside too. A biblical flood in the Mississippi basin, the calamity of Prohibition, the corresponding rise of organized crime and the Ku Klux Klan. Also, an alarming rise in the mortality rate of hapless aviators chasing that Lindbergh mojo.
You look at all the characters from that time: Babe Ruth, Herbert Hoover, Henry Ford, Charles Ponzi. Al Capone. And of course Lindbergh, who turned out to be much less than the hero he might have been. Without too much squinting, you can identify analogs to a lot of folks dominating in the news today: Elon Musk comes to mind. Sam Bankman-Fried. That orange guy in the hair hat whose name will no longer be mentioned in this space.
The famous names are interesting enough, but Bryson stirs in quite a few obscure ones too. Remember Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray? Of course you don’t. They were a couple of dim bulbs who carried out a ramshackle plot to murder Ruth’s husband. The crime itself was easily solved – a true monument to ineptitude and banality – but somehow it and the subsequent trials dominated headlines for months on end. In the process, stories that would have major implications for America were either buried or ignored.
Again, not hard to compare the zeitgeist then and now. It’s the ’20s for us now too, teeming with natural disasters, foolish distractions and Gatsbys galore.
But, no spoilers. The book’s 10 years old now, but reads like it could have been written yesterday. Have a look. I checked mine out at the library, via the Libby app. If you like your history sunny-side up with a dash of humor, look no further.