One Summer: America, 1927
By Bill Bryson
Doubleday Canada, 528 pages, $34.95
The Men Who United the States
By Simon Winchester
Harper, 400 pages, $34.99
The retrospective is a bittersweet tribute. It usually reflects, in looking back over a particular era or career, nostalgia for early achievements that the present never seems to equal.
Bill Bryson and Simon Winchester, two of the most popular historians of our moment, each have new books looking backward at high times in America. They are both foundation myths, each using a different device but riffing on the same theme: the greatness of American enterprise, and the verve and dazzle of that nation's rise to power.
Bryson locates his American dream in the summer of 1927, at the height of a decade known for its roar (provided, in this case, mainly by airplanes). Winchester casts a wider gaze, surveying 200 years' worth of men – with all the musky stoicism and entrepreneurial bluster that noun implies – who united the States by wagon trail, riverboat, railway, highway and electrical wire.
In the current political climate, it is tempting to read these books as elegies to an idea of nationhood in dire condition. Maybe it's just a bad year for Barack Obama, but it's not hard to believe that America is actually in a larger crisis of identity that could affect its global dominance. Winchester, in particular, has the unfortunate timing of releasing a paean to American unity in the wake of a U.S. government shutdown caused by vicious partisan disagreement about what the country should be.
So it is somewhat astonishing that neither writer has much interest in doom or gloom. These are books brimming with wide-eyed admiration, rousing patriotic yarn-spinning and unapologetic enthusiasm for American folklore.
Both authors are admittedly in love with the country. Bryson lives in the U.K. and writes about everywhere, but he was born in Iowa, and has repeatedly gone back to the subject of America. (See The Lost Continent from 1989, or Notes from a Big Country from 1999.) Winchester, meanwhile, a Brit by birth, begins his book with a giddy account of becoming an American citizen – of "at last now being a part of all of this." (His italics.)
But what, exactly, is "all of this"? What's the basic unit of American myth? For both writers, the primary answer is: heroes. Some of these heroes are familiar, some have been plucked from obscurity to take their place in the history books. Nearly all of them are men, and there are dozens of them for us to meet.
Bryson gets right to it, dancing the Charleston with his crisp, evocative prose through portraits and anecdotes of characters big and small. Babe Ruth is around a lot, ringing up a home-run record that would stand for 34 years. Herbert Hoover and Calvin Coolidge frown out at us importantly, the targets of Bryson's best snipes. (Coolidge is "the least affable, gregarious, metaphorically embraceable president of modern times.") Jack Dempsey is one kind of lovable thug, Al Capone another.
From the less remembered characters, we get the book's best confections – a loot bag of hilarious and evocative names, attached to figures of varying pomp and circumstance: C. Bascom Slemp, Consuelo Hatmaker, Mantis Van Sweringen and Urban Shocker, to name a few.
The key figure is Charles Lindbergh, the fresh-faced kid who became the first to cross the Atlantic by air, and was, for a while, the most famous person on the planet. The story of Lindbergh and his contemporaries, as they compete to fly the ocean skies in ramshackle early planes, serves as a backbone for the undulating excitements of Bryson's raucous summer. (And beyond – the book hardly contains itself to the four months it claims to address.) There are murders, executions, freak storms, big sporting events, transformative advancements in technology and, in Lindbergh's story and the birth of tabloid journalism, early belches of the monster of celebrity culture we know today.
At times it is all comfortingly familiar, and at times delightfully archaic. There are moments where it feels as though Bryson is trying to locate the whole blueprint for the current United States in his one summer, and the book begins to strain under the pressure. But, at least until the very end, he avoids any explicit statement to that effect, preferring instead to simply roll out the tale. At its best, the prose fizzes like just-poured champagne. I suspect the paperback release will be strategically timed: One Summer is ideal reading for history buffs heading to the beach.
Winchester, meanwhile, wants to make loftier claims, by telling a weightier story – one based in the physical connecting of America's vast territory. Although he uses the structural conceit of the five classical elements (wood, fire, earth, water, metal) to give some elegance to his history, his is fundamentally a book about hard infrastructure – and, crucially, about capitalism.
Whether they are excavating canals, laying rail or lighting the city streets, the men of Winchester's renown are always doing robust business, or trying to.
In 1832, Massachusetts is the first state to be systematically surveyed for its geology; "The driving force behind its design was nakedly mercantile." Of George Washington contemplating how to secure the west, Winchester writes, "He knew that the one true cement that would indissolubly bind the new settlers to the men and markets and institutions of the United States would be money."
For Winchester, America is a grand, glorious commercial enterprise. Although there are many things that mar the book's exhaustive research – sentences like, "The river ran through miles of treeless, grassless iron-red desert: to be immersed in its limpid cool liquid was just the ticket" – ultimately, what hobbles it is assuming the basic value of the method of this enterprise.
Winchester asks few questions of a nation that presents the biggest ones on Earth, exactly because its presence is so huge. Too often, it feels as though he's simply describing a diorama from some hoary roadside museum, or reciting, in a cheesy old radio voice, selections from Johnny Cash Sings the Ballads of the True West. Do we really need another telling of the Pocahontas tale – or overstuffed statements like the one describing how, as a result of the discovery of the South Pass in 1840s Wyoming, "the Pacific Ocean became essentially an American ocean"?
There's no doubt about it: Across the globe, the American idea of dreaming big and building yourself a better world has caught on. The whole world now wants steak and air conditioning and TV on demand.
And these desires have consequences.
Maybe, in light of this – and financial collapse, drone strikes, the vitriol of a binary politics – it is time to end this myth of endless American ascension. Maybe it's time to let go of the American stories Winchester and Bryson love so much, frontier stories of bold progress, massive growth, endless becoming. Maybe those stories haven't taken America, or the world, to a better place after all.
It is so easy to fall in love with the American narrative, a dream filled with romance and adventure, which invites everyone to join in the great experiment. But much of what's really admirable in the story of America's founding and maturation has to do with change. That is America's strength: it has tended to embrace with gusto (after debates of varying intensity) bold new ideas.
Winchester points out that "the story of the United States of America is still a developing one." Stubborn patriotic myths, though, can hamper further evolution, and knowing a country's history is not the same as singing it. It is perhaps unwise to equate America so integrally with its commerce, or with a bulldozing capitalism willed by men with a certain imperialist lean – the men of Winchester's book, who lived and worked at a time when you could chew through the landscape in mercantile glee without considering things like carbon sinks or habitat loss (or, say, women).
Perhaps it's time for a new American dream. One that is less for starry-eyed teenagers staring up into the sky in search of new idols or dollars from heaven, and more fit for a fully realized nation positioning itself as a leader in a world in which we are all connected, tweeting at one another across borders even as we become ever more aware of our collective limits. A dream that embraces wisdom, as well as hope.
Swashbuckling American nostalgia is a grand old time. But maybe it is not especially good for us any more. In this, it is reminiscent of another product of 1927, this one not mentioned by Bryson: first crystallized by Edwin Perkins in Hastings, Nebraska, Kool-Aid is sweet, convenient and all-American, but nothing to survive on in the long term.
J.R. McConvey is an award-winning documentary producer and the author an e-book, The Last Ham. You can follow him on Twitter @jrmcconvey.