History, As Told by Bill Bryson

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Perhaps “One Summer: America 1927,” by Bill Bryson, is “remedial pseudo-history” that “does a disservice to the very word ‘history.’” Or perhaps it is “a splendid book, written in the breezy and humorous style that has come to be Bryson’s trademark.” This depends on whom you believe — esteemed professor Douglas Brinkley or prolific journalist Jerry Harkavy. And that truly defines the gulf of opinion when it comes to Bryson’s work — do you think he’s a hack spouting anecdotal half-truths, or a genius distilling boring ephemera into readable prose?

Either way, you have to admit Bryson’s an engaging and generally hilarious writer. And “One Summer: America 1927” exemplifies why.

“One Summer” tells the story of a fascinating couple of months. From roughly June to September, Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic, Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs in a single season, Philo Farnsworth made a critical breakthrough that led to the invention of the television, the first talking picture was released, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed, the Mississippi River overflowed and killed thousands, Henry Ford finally moved past the Model T, a foreign-born engineer began work on Mount Rushmore and the masters of the financial world made a decision that led directly to the Great Depression. Among much else.

Bryson shows us how pitchers used to coat baseballs in “globulous” substances to make them harder to hit. He informs us that, in order to prevent alcohol consumption during Prohibition, the government poisoned batches of moonshine at random. He traces the early history of jazz and explains what it meant to dance the Charleston. Among much else.

Several skeptical critics have pointed out that close examination would yield a similarly overwhelming slew of interesting stories about any period in American history. This is true, of course, but few would do it as well. Bryson writes with an almost effortless irreverence and wit, shredding esteemed reputations with a couple quick turns of phrase.

Bryson tells us that Henry Ford was an altogether subpar individual and an unusually selective — if dedicated — anti-Semite. Ty Cobb was a stupendous racist and almost psychopathically violent. Warren Harding was dumb, Herbert Hoover was pompous and Calvin Coolidge was perhaps a bit stunted developmentally. Babe Ruth was a gregarious man-child with the digestive and sexual appetites of five men. Charles Lindbergh was boring, antisocial, and possibly in love with his mother.

Without any hint of nostalgia, “One Summer” spins a delightful tale of a bygone America — a time when bigotry was the norm, corruption was far more open and sitting on a flagpole atop a skyscraper was considered fun. “One Summer” makes the reader enjoy history and understand how so many small, amusing anecdotes compose a story we all think we know.

So why do academics, such as Brinkely, hate it? Well, they’re jealous.

They’re jealous of Bryson’s commercial success. He sells more books than they do, in spite of their harder work and fancier credentials. They resent his (relative) celebrity and his ability to do what they cannot.

To be sure, they have a point. Bryson is not an academic historian, and he neglects to delve deeply into the meaning and interconnectedness of his story. He makes some amateur mistakes and often has little to no understanding of historical context. Yet Bryson does not claim to be an academic historian. He openly writes to entertain, not to elucidate.

And when Brinkley wrote in the Washington Post that Bryson’s book is “devoid of footnotes” and that its “sourcing is sketchy,” Bryson rightly responded (with a hint of glee) by directing Brinkley to his 119-page appendix, containing roughly 1,200 endnotes.

Bill Bryson writes in a way that makes history accessible and interesting to the general populace, not merely the academic echo chamber. And while academic history is incredibly important and serves several critical purposes, so does pop history. A slightly more informed public is a public with a slightly better-honed sense of skepticism. (This is not to excuse deplorable “historians” such as David Barton or Bill O’Reilly — Bryson writes without a political agenda.)

“One Summer” is among the more readable and fun histories of any couple months in American history. If you’ve ever wondered about the sexual fancies, peculiar prejudices or skeletons in the closet of some of our most revered figures, pick up a copy. If you ever wanted to know about an era in which two-thirds of murders went unsolved, an era that saw the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, or an era presided over by a president who loved nothing more than dressing up in a child’s cowboy costume, this is the book for you.