by Bill Bryson
Okay, so we all know that I’m a super lazy reader. Even though I have plenty of nonfiction books on their own, special TBR Non-Fiction List, that list just doesn’t seem to move along as quickly as it ought. But I will say that One Summer ended up being a fantastic read, a book that I thoroughly enjoyed and hated to put down (which rarely happens with nonfiction), and, on a not unrelated note, made me laugh out loud on multiple occasions.
While this book is mostly about 1927, Bryson does an excellent job providing background and tying everything together, including tidy summaries of what happens in The Future. One of the biggest impressions that I took away from this book was what a small world it is, and was – just the interconnectness of everything and everyone. Bryson does an excellent job with that aspect, throwing out little tidbits of “who later became so-and-so’s father-in-law” or whatever (almost too much, honestly, because names kept reappearing and I wasn’t always 100% sure who it was I was supposed to be remembering, so I may have missed some irony here and there). This is, by the way, a heavily ironic book. 1927 was just as full of inconsistencies and confusion as the present, and Bryson is unafraid to make a mockery of things that seem ridiculous. While entertaining much of the time, I couldn’t help but feel a bit ruffled as two of his favorite mockery-people were two of which I am quite fond – Charles Lindbergh and Herbert Hoover. Nonetheless, while Bryson writes the former off as an awkward, uneducated farm boy-turned-Nazi (not completely true) and the latter off as a selfish, manipulative, feelingless machine (also must be taken with a grain of salt), he does at least grudgingly admit that they may, possibly, have contributed some good to the world.
Overall, while Bryson’s writing is a great deal of fun (as you will read below as I can’t resist quoting him extensively), I was occasionally annoyed by his insistence on dragging up every bit of dirty laundry/negative information he could find about everyone. It seems that there’s no one out there who isn’t on drugs, or is a drunk, or sleeps around, or, if nothing else, is dreadfully prosy and dull.
But my favorite bits were about society in general, rather than specific people. For instance, a couple of paragraphs on theater in the 1920s –
Plausibility, it seems, was not something that audiences insisted on in the 1920s. Katy Did, which had opened the previous week at Daly’s 63rd Street Theatre, involved a waitress who, according to the plot summary, falls for ‘a dishwasher and parttime bootlegger who turns out to be the exiled King of Suavia.’ … It wasn’t all froth and melodrama, however. Eugene O’Neill produced his longest and densest play in 1927, Strange Interlude, which took five hours to perform and gave audiences an expansive, not say exhausting, look at insanity, abortion, heartbreak, illegitimacy, and death. Audiences watched the first part of the play from 5:15 to 7:00 p.m., had a break for dinner, and then returned at 8:30 for a further three and a half hours of punishing gloom.
Every time I read history, especially as I’ve been focusing on early 20th century history, I am so entertained to find context for other reading/movies/etc. For instance, there is a fantastic scene in one of the Marx Brothers movies (I can’t remember which – Animal Crackers?) in which Groucho has these “strange interludes” with a monologue with himself (“I see figures. Straannnnnge figures. Weeeeeird figures”) which is apparently a mockery of O’Neill’s play, something Groucho’s contemporary audience would have likely recognized right away.
One of Bryson’s habits throughout is to introduce someone, and then give a synopsis of the person’s life. I find it entertaining to realize how strange we all are if someone only picks out bits and snippets. Although in some cases, the strangeness may be legitimate:
Ruppert’s most arresting peccadillo was that he kept a second home in Garrison, New York, where he maintained a shrine to his mother in for the form of a room containing everything she would need if she came back to life. This may go some way toward explaining why he never married.
You can practically hear the rim shot.
Bryson talks a great deal about the changes of technology in the 1920s, especially the advent of radio, television, and the talkies. It’s mind-boggling to realize how relatively new these things are.
Productions at even the larger [radio] stations tended to be more than slightly amateurish. When Norman Brokenshire, a broadcaster for WHN in New York, found himself with a long lull to fill and nothing more to say, he announced: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we bring you the sounds of New York City,’ and thrust the microphone out the window.
That’s less than a hundred years ago!
Prohibition comes in for its fair share of mockery, mainly because it was a ludicrous failure no matter how you look at it.
Prohibition bred great volumes of hypocrisy, too. In the summer of 1926, Colonel Ned Green, Prohibition administrator for Norther California, was suspended after it emerged that he held cocktail parties in the Prohibition administration offices in San Francisco. ‘I should have been suspended long ago,’ he amiably told reporters.
Of course, the rise of the automobile was one of the greatest events of the decades, and Bryson dedicates a chunk of his book to Henry Ford and his competitors (but mostly Ford because, let’s face it, he was the biggest character). One fun fact that I found intriguing –
One central characteristic of the Model T now generally forgotten is that it was the first car of consequence to put the driver’s seat on the left-hand side. Previously, nearly all manufacturers placed the driver on the outer, curb-side of the car so that an alighting driver could step out onto a grassy verge or dry sidewalk rather than into the mud of an unpaved road. Ford reasoned that this convenience might be better appreciated by the lady of the house, and so arranged seating for her benefit.
Setting aside the fact that Ford obviously assumed women wouldn’t be driving, I’m consistently impressed by his simple practicality. Everything about the T screams it – just the vision that normal, everyday people would own cars was something no one else was really considering at all. Bryson says that Ford produced almost 11,000 Model T’s their first full year, which was more than anyone else had ever made of a car. They were up to 250,000 by 1913-1914, and a staggering 1.25 million annually by 1920-21.
The ludicrous opulence of the 1920s is another intriguing facet of the decade. Bryson talks about various buildings, especially theaters, that were built during that time. (We still have a couple in Columbus, and nothing beats going to see a play at the Southern! Although it was built much earlier, it was renovated in the 20’s, and you can tell!) My personal favorite description, however –
At the Tivoli in Chicago the marbled lobby was said to be an almost exact copy of the king’s chapel at Versailles except presumably for the smell of popcorn.
Overall, what Bryson does is make the 1920s, through the focus on 1927 especially, come to life by tying together so many individuals and their stories, and he does it with humor and a strong sense for the ironic. I definitely recommend this book as a fascinating glimpse into the decade, despite his rather cynical attitude towards, well, everyone.
In closing, despite the fact that this review has been quite quote-heavy, I can’t resist this fascinating tale –
[In 1927 Liveright] brought over from London a play that had been a big success there: Dracula. For the American production, he selected a little-known Hungarian actor named Bela Lugosi. Although Lugosi had been in America for six years, he still spoke little English and learned his lines phonetically, without really understanding what they meant, which gave him interesting diction. … [Dracula] was the making of Bela Lugosi, who devoted the rest of his career to playing Dracula. He starred in the 1931 movie and a great number of sequels. … professionally he did almost nothing else for almost thirty years. Such was his devotion to the role that when he died in 1956, he was buried dressed as Count Dracula.
The world, my friends, is made of many fascinating people.