America Before "Normal" Existed

It has been a while since I picked up a book by Bill Bryson. Perhaps the last one I read was At Home: A Short History of Private Life. Or A Really Short History of Nearly Everything. I loved them both, not to mention his hilarious A Walk In The Woods. I had drifted away from him when an acquaintance recommended One Summer: America, 1927.

As I noted in my comments on Doris Kearns Goodwin, I am a sucker for good biography because I love the way it opens up an entire place and time. Bryson does this here without bothering to write an actual biography. True, he has characters—Lindbergh, Ruth, Coolidge, Hoover—that slip in and out of his pages and sometimes take up whole swaths of them. But his true quarry is the strange moment in time that was 1927 in America.

And it was strange indeed. He paints a picture of a nation that collectively behaves in ways that, 89 years later, seem variously to be charmingly naïve, deeply foolhardy, outrageously dangerous, and stupefyingly young. Imagine the entire country as a 13-year-old girl, but without any of the strictures placed upon her by the social expectations implicit in social media.

In fact—although he doesn’t come out and say it—what’s most striking to me in comparing the country of today to the one in his pages is how unfettered citizens seem to have been by social convention or expectation. Because we swim today in a media sea, we fail to understand how deeply influenced we are by television, consumerism, celebrity, and all the attendant social strictures and self-imposed expectations of how we “should” behave, aspire and achieve. The Americans of 1927, although they had newspapers and radio, didn’t have the ability to compare themselves to any sort of national norm. Consequently, they seem to have much more robust conceptions of individuality and a broader definition of normality.

Reading One Summer, you can see how far we have come in so short a time—and appreciate how while we have got better many ways, we also have impoverished ourselves.