October 4, 2013

Every so often, usually while driving down some Eisenhower interstate, I stop at a Cracker Barrel to feed the family chicken and dumplings. Like a lot of American diner franchises, it sells yearbook pamphlets on revolving metal card racks. Since I was born in 1960, I recently purchased one for that year. After gleaning a few fun facts about the Squaw Valley Olympics, the U-2 spy crisis and Boynton v. Virginia — which outlawed racial discrimination in interstate transportation — I promptly disposed of it. It was, by definition, a throwaway object.

Reading Bill Bryson’s “One Summer” reminded me of that Cracker Barrel token. Bryson takes readers on a pedestrian journey through America in the summer of 1927, which he argues was extraordinary because of Charles Lindbergh flying across the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis, Babe Ruth hitting 60 home runs, Ruth Snyder garroting her husband, and Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly breaking a world record by spending 12 days atop a New Jersey flagpole. His recounting of these incidents is devoid of footnotes. His sourcing is sketchy. Even though Bryson did no primary research (except for scanning Web sites), he has the misguided temerity to peacock that he was the first person in 17 years to check out Graham Wallace’s “The Flight of Alcock & Brown” from the London Library. Whoopee.

Furthermore, Bryson — an Iowa native who lives in England — offers zero analysis about why these summer events matter so mightily. Pointing out the quirky and interesting is enough heavy lifting for him. As a result, “One Summer” is remedial pseudo-history consisting of stray anecdotes extracted from secondary sources and strung together by what the publisher embarrassingly boasts of as Bryson’s “brio.”

Not that “One Summer” is hard to read. It’s as breezy as a Danielle Steele novel and as competent in its dull way as CliffsNotes. Bryson’s thumbnail sketches of Calvin Coolidge, Sacco and Vanzetti, and Gutzon Borglum are reasonable fare. But the sheer mediocrity of “One Summer” makes the reader pine for E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime,” Frederick Allen’s “Only Yesterday” or even a junior encyclopedia.

In “One Summer,” Bryson, a popular writer of travelogues and kitsch, throws out enough stale cliches and hokey summations to join Dan Rather and Paul Harvey on the Mount Rushmore of schmaltz. Close your eyes, turn to a random page in “One Summer,” drop your index finger, and you’ll find a whopper like: “Of all the labels that were applied to the 1920s — the Jazz Age, the Roaring Twenties, the Age of Ballyhoo, and the Era of Wonderful Nonsense — one that wasn’t used but perhaps should have been was the Age of Loathing. There may never have been another time in the nation’s history when more people disliked more other people from more directions and for less reason.” Unfortunately, this counters his own argument about how Lindbergh and Babe Ruth brought America together with their entertainment achievements that summer.


’One Summer: America, 1927’ by Bill Bryson (Doubleday)

If a college student wrote such vague, show-off sentences, he or she would be condemned with an explosion of red ink. But Bryson hums along, tossing out such empty nonsense in rote fashion without instructive explanation. To describe the Mississippi River flood of 1927, for example, he offers the godawful simile “soon levees up and down the river were popping like buttons off a tight shirt.”

The whole tone of “One Summer” is reminiscent of a Ripley’s Believe It or Not carnie brag. Switchback phrases such as “scarcely less improbable, but miraculously more successful” abound. Bryson uses cutesy words like “thundery” to describe weather and “mousy” for people. Somewhere he picked up that the Lindbergh hop was a popular dance in 1927. This provokes the observation that this was ironic because “the virginal Lindbergh had never danced with a girl.” Ho . . . ho . . . ho. I expected more pith from the celebrated author of such irreverent nonfiction favorites as “In a Sunburned Country” and “The Lost Continent.” It’s one thing to not be Tocquevillian while writing about America, but the pabulum in “One Summer” does a disservice to the very word “history.”

Bryson’s portrait of Henry Ford is wrongheaded and factually misleading. There is ample scholarship to demonstrate that Ford’s brand of anti-Semitism was extremely widespread throughout rural Michigan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But Bryson suggests that Ford’s hatred of Jews was of a “type peculiarly his own.” His reasoning is that Ford personally liked many Jewish people. But there was nothing peculiar about that. Many rural Michiganders of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era had Jewish friends but were also hardened anti-Semites.

There is nothing inherently wrong with timeline history jazzed up with well-written prose. In the past two decades, for example, the year 1968 has received impressive full-length book treatment by Mark Kurlansky, Charles Kaiser and Jules Witcover. But there is a dialed-in laziness to “One Summer,” as if Bryson can ride the book-world gravy train on the fumes of his mega-bestseller “A Walk in the Woods.” His pedagogical approach is to be, at best, a practitioner of WikiHistory (i.e., just download pertinent facts about famous figures and paste them together into a book). In the yawning world of Bryson’s “One Summer,” days dawn “hot and clear” and baseball has a “certain air of timelessness about it that is much cherished by its fans.”

There is no doubt that America needs more accessible, easy-to-read history. In 2001, the New Republic took a gratuitous swipe at the great David McCullough for writing popular biographies such as “John Adams” because they aim to entertain, not illuminate. It was an unfair charge against McCullough’s artistry; he remains the gold standard for writing smart, fact-based history loaded with sparkling anecdotes. But the point the New Republic made — that history was being dumbed down to reach a mass-circulation audience — holds lethally true when “One Summer” is on the autopsy table.

While Bryson has a gift for travelogue memoirs, he whiffs on nearly every page of “One Summer.” Only his take on Charles Ponzi — the Italian immigrant who concocted a scheme to take money from the unsuspecting — seems accomplished. I wonder why?

Douglas Brinkley is a professor of history at Rice University and a CBS News historian.

ONE SUMMER

America, 1927

By Bill Bryson

Doubleday. 509 pp. $28.95