Hands up Spectator readers who can remember the American celebrities Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Al Capone, Jack Dempsey, Zane Grey, Edgar Rice Burroughs and the adulteress and husband-killer Ruth Snyder who all, in 1927, lit up what Bill Bryson calls ‘one hell of a summer’.
Born in America only five years later, I knew about most of these characters. Lindbergh, in particular, whose flight across the Atlantic from the east coast to Paris made him for some years the most famous man ‘on the planet’ (one of Bryson’s favourite phrases), attracted vast crowds; once, in a welcoming frenzy, they almost tore his plane apart — an easy feat considering that it was covered in fabric. Flying the ‘Spirit of St Louis’, Bryson observes, was ‘rather like crossing the ocean in a tent’. Older readers will remember the kidnapping and murder of the Lindberghs’ infant son, and perhaps even his father’s plummet from fame when once too often he praised Hitler and attacked Jews.
Almost equally famous was Al Capone, the Chicago murderer and bootlegger whose final disgrace came when an imaginative female federal prosecutor sent him down for years for income-tax evasion rather than for his vile deeds.
Bryson himself concedes, however, that ‘nearly nine decades have passed since the summer of 1927, and not a great deal survives’. Babe Ruth, known as ‘the Sultan of Swat’, and a name still familiar to most Americans over 40, though he died in 1948, was the most famous baseball player ‘on the planet’. Sacco and Vanzetti were two Italian anarchists, executed for a murder that many people, including my parents, were sure they didn’t commit (although Bryson makes a fair case for their possible guilt).
Jack Dempsey, known as ‘the Manassa Mauler,’ used to hurry across the boxing ring and break his opponent’s jaw with a single punch. Also that year saw the new ‘talkie’ movies, like The Jazz Singer, and stupendous publishing successes like Riders of the Purple Sage, which sold tens of millions of copies and made its author, Zane Grey, an extremely rich man, as was true, too, of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the author of Tarzan of the Apes. Does anyone on the planet read these books now?
This was the era when scientists at top places like the Rockefeller Institute expounded the ‘science’ of eugenics, which held that certain human groups — the ‘Nordic’ ones admired by Hitler — were superior, and lesser ones, like Jews and the feeble-minded, should be prevented from reproducing, if not be snuffed out altogether.
It was also the era of Hemingway and Fitzgerald —whom we do still read — and of foreign stars like Garbo and Dietrich, and musicals like Showboat, that we continue to watch with pleasure. The latter was the first stage production in which white and black actors were legally allowed to appear together. In the mid-1920s the firm of Liveright, according to Bryson, produced ‘the most dazzling parade of quality books ever to emerge from a single publishing house in a concentrated period’, by authors that included Hemingway, Bertrand Russell, Eugene O’Neill, Theodore Dreiser and William Faulkner.
You need a lot of self-confidence to single out for a fat book the subject of ‘one long extraordinary summer’ so long ago. Bryson likes to say what things are not, rather than what they are, and combines this with little ironies such as: ‘This was not a family that had a lot going for it’, when he means the family was an unhappy one. Here is another example: a gangster insulted someone’s wife, so the husband ‘felt honour-bound to do something emotional, and he slashed Capone across the face with a knife.’ Perhaps early on Bryson was told that he was a funny fellow, or perhaps the typical audience he addresses enjoys this sort of thing.
Actually, the book is ‘not exactly’ about 1927. Only Lindbergh fits neatly into that slot. Obviously men like Babe Ruth, Capone, and Dempsey, the scholarly racists or the murderous adulterers, didn’t appear suddenly out of nowhere that year. But for many pages of build-up I found myself writing ‘1927?’ in the margin. Some not exactly merciful, even emotional, editorial slashing would have reduced this not unentertaining and uninformative book to a better one.
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