Waxing [Literarily]: One Summer [Bill Bryson]

It was on a sunny Saturday in Vancouver, BC that I embarked on two history-learning journeys: (1) starting ‘One Summer’, Bill Bryson’s book on the exciting summer of 1927; and (2) Dan Carlin’s ‘Hardcore History’ series on ‘The Wrath of the Khans’, the telling of the Khan dynasty of warriors.

Though the histories here are different in so many ways, one struck me. Carlin, a man who has dedicated a lot of his time to his podcast (each episode is over 90 minutes and very well researched and rehearsed), he constantly asserts to his audience that he is not a historian. Bryson, on the other hand, makes no such claim.

Now there’s no great reason to dive into the legitimacy of Bryson’s historical book or takes — and I don’t think he would stand a strong ground in that regard, his own ‘About‘ page says nothing of the sort and instead focuses on his travel series. Yet, the detail is important to note in a reading of One Summer.

The book itself is fun, as are most of Bryson’s works. Its engaging, easy to digest, and full of quips from the author on histories great ironies. He spends most chapters talking about large events in the American landscape, and usually circles back to one of his main characters — Babe Ruth, Al Capone, a couple from Long Island wrapped in a media-focused murder case, Al Jolson, Charles Ponzi, and, most of all, Charles Lindbergh.

Lindbergh, himself, takes up a good chunk (maybe 30%) of the book, with even more devoted to the now-marginalized characters of aviation history happening in 1927. That time, that summer, of course, marks the time of Lindbergh’s awe-inspiring flight over the Atlantic — and the insane publicity tour that followed. It hints, as well, perhaps one too many times, at how much Lindberg disdained this AND at the terrifying future that he would face because of his fame.

The book is meant to show the reader just how eventful the summer of 1927 was. And there’s no denying that. Bryson, at other moments, seems to want to take that historian’s leap forward and postulate on the legacy of the summer. Indeed, this is where a history book really can make its mark — putting events into context and defining futures and/or cultural narratives by pinpointing origins or centerpoints. Bryson, however, balks at doing this. He offers ideas at some points (one example would be the meeting of financial minds in 1927 and the effect this might (or might not) have had on the 1929 crash), but does not take them to their limit.

In this way, Bryson probably protects himself from self-classifying as a historian (and charting terrains he is probably not comfortable going), but also lets down a historically-minded reader. Instead, we get a roster of happenings, an understanding of timeline, and anecdotal offerings. But that’s all. One cannot take the broader view of American history (or even early 20th century American history) and confidently identify 1927 as much of an epicenter after reading this. It, in short, does not offer anything past the closing of its pages other than story.

This, perhaps, is Bryson’s goal and that’s fine. it becomes a lighter look on history. And perhaps its best looked at like this — anyone looking to know when these events (Lindbergh’s flight, Ruth’s homerun record, Ponzi’s scheme, The Jazz Singer, Sacco and Vanzentti, etc…) collided (and the other events colliding with it), might want to peruse these pages. Anyone looking to learn more about these, and what they meant, might want to look for a deeper book.

Still enjoyable, just light. The way summer probably should be.