On the bookshelf: August 2014

Mad late with this month’s reviews. Just the one, but will have loads more for September. 

Prohibition agents destroying barrels of alcohol (via Wikimedia Commons)

Prohibition agents destroying barrels of alcohol (via Wikimedia Commons)

Bart Simpson: “Look at that hunk of junk.” 

Grandpa Simpson: “Oh, jeeh, you’re ignorant! That’s the Wright Brothers’ plane. At Kitty Hawk in 1903, Charles Lindbergh flew it fifteen miles on a thimbleful of corn oil. Single handedly won us the Civil War, it did.” 

Bart: “So how do you know so much about American history?” 

Grandpa: “I pieced it together, mostly from sugar packets.”

Many of us may struggle to remember anything that happened of note eighty-seven years ago.1927 may not immediately jump out us as a seminal year in world history, but as Bill Bryson says in his book One Summer: America, 1927 it was the year that America, without firing a single shot in anger, took over the world.

Talkies lit up the screens, exposing international audiences to American voices and ideas; Charles Lindbergh flew to Paris and ensured US dominance in aviation; America became the richest country in the world; ordinary Americans were exposed to consumer goods Europeans could only dream of; the seeds were sown for the Wall Street Crash. At home, although Prohibition would limp on for another six years, it received its fatal blow with the death of its frighteningly zealous champion, Wayne Wheeler. Babe Ruth literally changed the game of baseball and Al Capone basked in his notoriety.

Although the world we know today was in some ways shaped by the events of 1927, many of the concerns and obsessions of the era would baffle us now. It was a time of odd fads and crazes- and not for things like One Direction or loom bands, but stuff like flagpole sitting. A man called Shipwreck Kelly gained renown by doing just that- sitting atop a flagpole for days. Stunts and games were all the rage (earlier in the decade mah-jong had become so popular that American retailers scoured China for sets to sell) but the most thrilling spectacle of all was flight.

Charles Lindbergh with the Spirit of St Louis (via Wikimedia Commons)

Charles Lindbergh with the Spirit of St Louis (via Wikimedia Commons)

Flying was incredibly dangerous in those days; several of Lindbergh’s contemporaries set off and were simply never seen again. It made Lindbergh’s achievement in flying solo to Paris all the more incredible; he went in terrible weather and The Spirit of St Louis was a tiny little thing. The 6″3 Lindbergh must have been thoroughly uncomfortable throughout the flight; he had no bathroom breaks and just a few ham sandwiches to keep him going. Most amazing of all, he had no forward visibility when landing or taking off, and very little in the way of navigation; he had to use dead reckoning and the stars to ensure he was on course. His contemporaries Clarence Chamberlin and Charles Levine later flew to Berlin, but overshot and ended up on the Polish border; getting up seemed to be no problem, but coming down again in the right place and in one piece was more of a challenge.

For a man called Lucky Lindy (a nickname he hated) Lindbergh was not especially lucky on the ground. Apart from the horrific kidnapping and murder of his son in 1932, he suffered a spectacular- if self-inflicted- fall from grace in the months leading up to America’s involvement in World War II. He and his wife Anne openly admired Nazi Germany and Lindbergh deeply believed in the superiority of the white race. The kinder among us may allow that Lindbergh was misguided; when America did become involved in the war, he fought unhesitatingly for the Allies.

Calvin Coolidge being made an honorary Sioux chief (via Wikimedia Commons)

Calvin Coolidge being made an honorary Sioux chief (via Wikimedia Commons)

One of Bryson’s strengths as a non-fiction writer is to bring historical figures alive as complex people; so that they leap from the page as real human beings, not facts and dates. It’s hard not to feel for Lindbergh when Bryson details how he hardly had a second to himself following the flight to Paris. In an era when celebrities did not have a ring of protection like they do now, he was accosted by well-wishers wherever he went. People injured themselves in scrums to see him and thought nothing of crowding the plane while he was trying to take off. How nobody was killed was a miracle; it is estimated that a quarter of America’s then 119m people saw Lindbergh in the flesh.

Bryson gives the example that one night Lindbergh booked in to see a play and never turned up. The theatre owner was furious at the aviator; probably half the ticket sales were from people who came to see Lindbergh rather than the stage. But Lindbergh had been so mobbed that by the time he got to the venue the play was over.

Another figure that Bryson brings back to life was the President, Calvin Coolidge. Indolent and famously taciturn (Bryson quotes the famous “You lose” story, but adds there is no evidence that it ever occurred), Coolidge perfected the four-hour work day. He thought that the country was running perfectly fine on its own, and the President should keep of out of it. He spent most of the summer in the west, dressed in a cowboy suit. The local Sioux made him an honorary chief, a title he seemed to embrace with far more enthusiasm than the office of the President. However, Coolidge was a devoted husband and father. His son, Calvin Jnr had died from blood poisoning three years earlier after sustaining an injury playing tennis. The president blamed himself for this freak occurrence and never really got over the death.

Wayne Wheeler, one of the architects of Prohibition (via Wikimedia Commons)

Wayne Wheeler, one of the architects of Prohibition (via Wikimedia Commons)

However, America wasn’t really running all that well by itself. Flooding had devastated large swathes of the South, killing thousands; crime was endemic; the government had taken to poisoning illegal alcohol with strychnine and other horrible substances. This last incident is truly horrific. The US government essentially killed its own citizens like rats for doing something that had been perfectly legal and normal less than a decade before. Bryson also deals with forced sterilisation of those considered ‘inferior’; the case of Carrie Buck, who came from three generations of ‘imbeciles’ is particularly shocking. The Virginian woman was actually of perfectly normal intelligence, as was her daughter- reading between the lines, it seems her real crime was becoming pregnant out of marriage. Despite legal wrangling, Buck was sterilised anyway, as was her sister.

Bryson says the twenties could also be called the ‘Age of Loathing’ as well as the Roaring Twenties; racism was a fact of life and the ‘n’ word freely appeared in newspapers and magazines. Eugenics was gaining a foothold; anti-semitism was perfectly acceptable. Luckily, 1927 saw some glacially paced shifts in attitudes; the KKK’s influence had already waned thanks to the crimes of DC Stephenson and Jerome Kern’s Show Boat sent audiences home thinking about race. Thankfully, American public opinions began to turn away from ideas of eugenics; the large immigrant population no doubt helped, as did the mistrust of Germany built up since World War I. Eugenicist Harry H Laughlin enthusiastically embraced Nazi Germany later on, which led to his own downfall.

We see the twenties in terms of glamour, frivolity and fun (in the US at least. The twenties in Ireland were exciting, but in rather a different way). It’s the era of Gatsby- copies of which were awaiting pulping in warehouses, such was F Scott Fitzgerald’s failure in 1927- of speakeasies and jazz. When we think of America, some of the things we think of were created in the 1920s. But it was a lot more complicated than that, as Bryson’s book illustrates. It’s a must read for anyone with an interest in this fascinating era.

 

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