Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project
Bill Bryson is an American-born travel writer and popular historian living in the UK. Among his many highly readable books, Made in America and Notes from a Big Country deserve special mention, because of the connections with American culture; the former is an “informal history” of American English and its connections and reflections of the culture in which it has formed and changed, the latter a collection of observations of American culture and life in the mid-1990s.
One Summer: America, 1927 is a great survey of American popular culture in 1927, from Charles Lindbergh’s legendary flight across the Atlantic in May to Babe Ruth’s hitting his sixtieth home run in a single season at the end of September. Between the two – and much broader coverage of aviation and baseball throughout those months – Bryson also covers the coming of tabloids, the changing book market, the invention of television, bigotry, the execution of anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bart Vanzetti, the rise of talking pictures, the minimalist presidency of Calvin Coolidge, and much, much more (Bryson seems especially interested in baseball, and at times lays the stats and jargon on a bit too thick to appeal to the less fannish). Bryson does not, throughout the book, mention a single comic strip, and only a few cartoons, from the New Yorker,* but he provides ample context for anyone interested in a society and culture in which comic strips were experiencing a growing popularity.
In my opinion Bryson is a rare writing talent, able to keep reader interest going through thick volumes; Notes is just around 400 pages long, Made in America just under 500 pages, and both were page-turners. One Summer is 600 pages long, and aside possibly from a slight overuse of the phrase “in the event,” it flows incredibly well, keeping major biographical threads going while interspersing many smaller stories. It is also, despite its often grim subject manner, an intensely funny book when history allows. Bryson knows how to turn a phrase and to deliver a crushing (if belated) take-down to those a bit too full of themselves.
Although Ruth and Lindbergh are the most oft-recurring people in the book, one of its greatest qualities is that Bryson often highlights then-famous and now long-forgotten people, sometimes for a page or two – as with forgotten writer Harold Bell Wright or Gertrude Ederle, once famous as the first woman to swim the English Channel in August 1926 (faster than any man had) – and sometimes for a lengthier stretch – as with Philo T. Farnsworth, the forgotten inventor of television. This is a perspective worth highlighting; history as it was lived and as it is remembered and reproduced are often not dominated by the same actors (not least is that the case with F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was not a literary giant in his life and gets little more than honorable mention in Bryson’s book). Comics history could learn from this, and do better at sifting through the past for the now-forgotten, so that the narrative becomes more balanced than it currently is.** I would sum up the book with two words: read it.
** Michael Vance’s Forbidden Adventures is a good example of this kind of work.