One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson

During the extended summer of 1927 (May through the end of September):

On May 21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic in The Spirit of St Louis and became the most famous man on the planet.

Babe Ruth hit sixty home runs, a season record that stood until Roger Maris hit 61 home runs in 1961.

Lou Gehrig hit 47 home runs, more than any other player had ever hit in a season, apart from Babe Ruth.

Zane Grey and Edgar Rice Burroughs were the most popular American authors, and perhaps the most prolific.

Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly sat on top of a flagpole in New Jersey for 12 days and nights, a new record.

Al Capone enjoyed his last summer of profiting from crime and Prohibition in Chicago.

The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson, the first “talking picture”, was filmed.

Television was created, and radio came of age.

President Coolidge vacationed in South Dakota and announced that he did not choose to run for president again in 1928.

Sacco and Vanzetti were executed for crimes they may or may not have committed.

Work began on Mount Rushmore.

It rained a lot, and the Mississippi River flooded as it never had before. (River Rising by Athol Dickson is a wonderful historical fiction novel set during and after the Mississippi River flood of 1927.)

A madman in Michigan blew up a schoolhouse and killed forty-four people in the worst slaughter of children in American history. (School violence is not new.)

Henry Ford stopped making the Model T, but promised a new “Model” soon.

All these events and trends and more are chronicled in Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America, 1927. The book may have begun as a book about Charles Lindbergh or alternatively about Babe Ruth, since those two celebrities figure large in the story. But perhaps as Mr. Bryson did his research, he found much more of interest to write about in that summer of 1927.

I looked at my archives and found that lots of other things were going on in 1927:
Betty Macdonald and her husband were trying to make a go of a chicken farm near Chimacum, Washington.

L.M. Montgomery published the last of her Emily book, Emily’s Quest.

James Weldon Johnson published God’s Trombones, a book of excellent poetry, product of the Harlem Renaissance.

The first Hardy Boys book was published.

Continued civil war and unrest rent Ireland.

Socialist tried to overthrow the government in Austria.

In December, Duke Ellington opened at The Cotton Club.

Anyway, if you’re interested in narrative nonfiction about the events and personalities of 1927, I can highly recommend Bill Bryson’s hefty tome. It’s not exactly light reading, but it is written with a light touch—and a sense of humor.

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Christmas in Washington State, 1927

I put up my Christmas tree during the last week of November, just to get the feel and smell of November out of the house. Bob warned me that it would dry out and the needles would fall off before Christmas but I laughed. Not only did I think the drying out improbable but it seemed more likely that it would flourish and give birth to little Christmas trees in the moist atmosphere of the house.

I never tired of admiring and loving our little Christmas trees. When we cleared the back fields, Bob let me keep about ten of the prettiest trees for future Christmas trees. The loveliest of all we sent home to the family but the one I chose for our first Christmas was a dear, fat little lady with her full green skirts hiding her feet and all of her branches tipped with cones.

The Egg and I by Betty Macdonald is a memoir of the years in the late 1920’s that Ms. Macdonald and her first husband, Bob Heskett, spent running a small chicken farm near Chimacum, Washington. The Egg and I was Macdonald’s first book, published in 1945, and she went on to write several more volumes of memoir and the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books for children.

I can see from the book why the divorce ensued. Ms. Macdonald begins her story with a quotation from Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew: “Such duty as the subject owes the prince, even such a woman oweth to her husband.” Macdonald says she went into marriage with this sort of dutiful attitude, along with adherence to her mother’s advice “that it is a wife’s bounden duty to see that her husband is happy in his work.”

“Too many potentially great men are eating their hearts out in dull jobs because of selfish wives,” quoth Mom, and Betty listened and found herself supporting Bob in his dream of owning a chicken farm. With no electricity. No indoor plumbing. No radio. No telephone. Bats hanging in the cellar and flying into the house. Dropping boards and chicken lice. Days that began at 4 AM and ended at midnight or thereafter. Homicidal chickens. Bears and cougars. Ma and Pa Kettle as neighbors. Babies with “fits”.

And Indians. Ms. Macdonald has been criticized for her attitude toward Native Americans in this book (and perhaps others/), and her blatant prejudice against her Indian neighbors is rather jarring and unpleasant. After describing a horrific Indian social event on the beach that she and her husband attended, a beach party that included domestic violence, drunkenness, child abuse and near-rape, Macdonald says simply, “I didn’t like Indians, and the more I saw of them the more I thought what an excellent thing it was to take that beautiful country away from them.” Had Macdonald been content to say that she didn’t like the Indians she met or that she was appalled by the events at the party, her attitude would have been more understandable. However, to indict an entire group of people for the actions of a few is, well it’s what we nowadays call racism.

Aside from this major flaw, The Egg and I is funny. And Betty Macdonald had a way with words. Some examples, chosen almost at random:

“Farmers’ wives who had the strength, endurance and energy of locomotives and the appetites of dinosaurs were, according to them, so delicate that if you accidentally brushed against them they would turn brown like gardenias.”

“The parlor was clean and neat. . . I was amazed considering the fifteen children and the appearance of the rest of the house. But when I watched Maw come out of the bathroom, firmly shut the door, go over and pull down the fringed shades clear to the bottom, test the bolt on the door that led to the front hallway and finally shut and lock the door after us as we went into the kitchen, I knew. The parlor was never used. It was the clean white handkerchief in the breastpocket of the house.”

“Not me!” I screamed as he told me to put the chokers on the fir trees and to shout directions for the pulling as he drove the team when we cleared out the orchard. “Yes, you! I’m sure you’re not competent but you’re the best help I can get at present,” and Bob laughed callously.

Bob’s attitude in that last quote from the book, repeated frequently throughout, is probably the reason that Betty left him in 1931 and returned to Seattle, civilization, and eventually a new husband, Mr. Macdonald, who presumably appreciated her desire to support him in his work and returned the favor.

Ma and Pa Kettle, a composite picture of Betty’s neighbors on the Olympic Pennisula, went on to fame in several movies and a TV series in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. One of those neighbors, the Bishop family, sued Betty Macdonald and her publisher for subjecting them to ridicule and humiliation as the prototypes for Maw and Paw in her book. The court decided in favor of Macdonald and publisher Lippincott, probably because the Bishops had been appearing on stage as “the Kettles” to profit from their new-found notoriety.

1927: Arts and Entertainment

In February, Paris audiences are stunned by a recital by 10-year American violin prodigy, Yehudi Menuhin.

On October 6, 1927, the New York premiere of the first “talkie”(feature length talking movie), The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson, causes audiences to stand up and cheer.

In December, jazz composer and pianist Duke Ellington opens at The Cotton Club, a famous Harlem nightclub.

1927: Events and Inventions

January-December, 1927. Civil war continues in China as General Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist army attempt to consolidate power over all of China and drive out the warlords who control various parts of the country. In March, Chiang Kai-shek’s army takes the important port city of Shanghai, but Communists in Hankow and in Shanghai refuse to cooperate with the Nationalist government and declare their own revolution. In December General Kai-shek crushes a Communist uprising in the city of Canton.

January 7 1927. The first transatlantic telephone call is made from New York City to London.

January 31, 1927. Britain orders 12.000 soldiers to proceed immediately to Shanghai to protect British citizens and British interests in the city. The United States orders Navy ships and Marines to the city on a similar mission.

'04-00694 Charles Lindbergh' photo (c) 2003, SDASM Archives - license: http://www.flickr.com/commons/usage/February, 1927. An attempted rebellion against the military dictatorship of President Antonio Carmona in Portugal is crushed in Lisbon. Carmona named himself president in July, 1926. Carmona will be president of Portugal for the next 24 years until his death in 1951.

April 30, 1927. The Mississippi River floods destroying many communities in several states. Over 200,000 people lose their homes.

May 21, 1927. Charles Lindbergh, in his plane The Spirit of St. Louis, becomes the first person to fly alone non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean from New York to Paris. He immediately becomes an international celebrity.

July 10, 1927. Kevin O’Higgins, vice-president of the Irish Free State (Ireland), is assassinated while on his way to Mass by three members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The killing fuels fears of further civil war and unrest in Ireland.

July 15, 1927. WWI veterans and striking workers occupy the University of Vienna in Austria and they seize the Palace of Justice and set it on fire. Socialists are calling for the resignation of Austrian Chancellor Ignaz Seipel’s government; the socialist leaders are accusing Seipel of tolerating the illegal activities of the rioters.

October 23, 1927. Josef Stalin expels political rivals Leon Trotsky and Grigori Zinoviev from the Central Committee of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union.

December 2, 1927. Sales begin of the new Model A Ford, a replacement for the Model T. The new Model A is available in four standard colors, but not in black.

1927: Books and Literature

Publishing history is made when in 1927 Random House, book publishers, is founded in New York City by Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer.

1927 Newbery Medal Winner: Smoky, the Cowhorse by Will James (Scribner)

Published in 1927:
God’s Trombones by James Weldon Johnson. One of my very favorite books of poetry.
“The Creation” from God’s Trombones.
“Go Down, Death” from God’s Trombones.
“The Prodigal Son” from God’s Trombones

The Big Four by Agatha Christie. In December of 1926, Agatha Christie, already famous as a mystery novelist, produced her own mystery when she disappeared for ten days. She was found living at a Yorkshire health spa under an assumed name. She probably had what was then called a “nervous breakdown.” But she still managed to publish a new mystery novel in January 1927, The Big Four. It’s not her best,but it satisfied her fans and kept them on board waiting for the next novel. Agatha Christie later wrote her agent saying:

I have been, once, in a position where I wanted to write just for the sake of money coming in and when I felt I couldn’t—it is a nerve wracking feeling. If I had had one MS ‘up my sleeve’ it would have made a big difference. That was the time I had to produce that rotten book The Big Four and had to force myself in The Mystery of the Blue Train.

Unnatural Death by Dorothy Sayers, the third mystery novel featuring Lord Peter Wimsey. To get a flavor of the 1920’s in England, read these and the early Agatha Christie novels featuring Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder. I read this book a long time ago, and I remember thinking that it was quite profound in its treatment of foreknowledge and God’s providence. I’m wondering if I would still think so now, thirty or forty years later.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Eldest Daughter recommends Virginia Woolf, this book in particular, but I’m afraid that I wouldn’t “get it.” Just as I don’t “get” James Joyce.
Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis. I’ve heard of this novel, but I’ve never actually read this story of a crooked evangelist. Elmer Gantry is the prototype for the stereotypical character that appears to this day in novels and movies and TV dramas.

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather. Reviewed by Carrie K. at Books and Movies.

The Tower Treasure by Franklin W. Dixon, the first book published in the Hardy Boys series of mystery adventure stories for boys. This book was written for the Stratemeyer Syndicate by author Leslie McFarlane, the original man behind the pseudonym Franklin Dixon. The story begins with Frank and Joe Hardy barely avoiding being hit by a speeding driver with bright red hair, and it goes on from there as the brothers follow the trail of disguises and robbery and hidden loot.

Emily’s Quest by L.M. Montgomery, the last of the Emily trilogy. Eldest Daughter likes these books as well as or better than the Anne of Green Gables series.

The Midnight Folk by John Masefield. I put this one on the list because I plan to find a copy and read it someday. Classic British children’s fantasy.

Set in 1927:
Fordlandia by Greg Grandin. Nonfiction. The story of Henry Ford’s experiment in utopian rubber production in the Brazilian rain forest (begun in 1927).
River Rising by Athol Dickson. River Rising is set in southern Louisiana, near the mouth of the Mississippi River, just before and during the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927.
Joy in the Morning by Betty Smith, author of the classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Fourteen year old Annie and twenty year old Carl marry and go together to live at the university campus where Carl is a student.

God’s Trombones by James Weldon Johnson

40 Inspirational Classics for Lent

These poems, based on the preaching style of the traditional Black preacher, contain some of the finest images of Biblical truth and of Scriptural exposition that I have read. I posted here a You-tube video of pastor Wintley Phipps performing Johnson’s poem, “Go Down, Death.” Here’s another poem from God’s Trombones, “The Creation”:

But this poem, The Prodigal Son, is my favorite one from the collection. “Young man, your arm’s too short to box with God.” Oh, it is, and thank God that it is and that we can learn to “be still and know that He is God” and that we are not.

Poetry Friday: Prodigals and Preachers

I’m quite entranced by the poetry of James Weldon Johnson who took the cadence of a preacher and wrote it into poetry that sings and preaches at the same time. What wise words for a foolish young man: “Your arm’s too short to box with God!”

The Prodigal Son
BY JAMES WELDON JOHNSON
Departure of the Prodigal Son

Young man—
Young man—
Your arm’s too short to box with God.

But Jesus spake in a parable, and he said:
A certain man had two sons.
Jesus didn’t give this man a name,
But his name is God Almighty.
And Jesus didn’t call these sons by name,
But ev’ry young man,
Ev’rywhere,
Is one of these two sons.

And the younger son said to his father,
He said: Father, divide up the property,
And give me my portion now.
The Banquet of the Prodigal Son

And the father with tears in his eyes said: Son,
Don’t leave your father’s house.
But the boy was stubborn in his head,
And haughty in his heart,
And he took his share of his father’s goods,
And went into a far-off country.

There comes a time,
There comes a time
When ev’ry young man looks out from his father’s house,
Longing for that far-off country.

And the young man journeyed on his way,
And he said to himself as he travelled along:
This sure is an easy road,
Nothing like the rough furrows behind my father’s plow.

Young man—
Young man—
Smooth and easy is the road
That leads to hell and destruction.
Down grade all the way,
The further you travel, the faster you go.
No need to trudge and sweat and toil,
Just slip and slide and slip and slide
Till you bang up against hell’s iron gate.

Read the rest of Mr. Johnson’s poem at Poetry Foundation.

The paintings are by Murillo; the first one is titled Departure of the Prodigal Son, and the second, Banquet of the Prodigal Son.

Lisa Chellman has the Poetry Friday round-up at Under the Covers.

Poetry and Fine Art Friday

One of my favorite books of poetry came out of the Harlem Renaissance in New York in the 1920’s (1927), James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse. So I looked at You Tube to find a spoken version of one of Johnson’s poem/sermons. There I found pastor Wintley Phipps performing “Go Down Death.”

It’s a moving performance, poetry and the art of drama combined.

Today’s Poetry Friday round-up is hosted at Biblio File.

River Rising by Athol Dickson

Once upon a time, several lives ago, I was a Spanish major in college, and for a literature class I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s classic, Cien Anos de Soledad—in Spanish. In the middle of the book something odd happened; it started raining yellow flowers, I think, or something like that. I re-read and re-read, but I couldn’t figure out whether there was some Spanish idiom I wasn’t getting or if it was really supposed to be raining yellow flowers. I had to ask the Spanish professor, and he said that yes, it was raining yellow flowers, and that was my introduction to “magical realism.”

So, when I read on the back cover of River Rising that the novel “explores a variety of complex issues, such as racial equality and religious faith—all with a tasteful touch of magical realism,” I thought I should prepare for a wild ride. What I wasn’t prepared for was the “variety of complex issues” part. And I wasn’t prepared to be blown away by the powerful story that Dickson tells. Comparatively speaking, the magical stuff was fairly tame. It was the part of the book that could be real, the part that felt real, that made me stop, think and breathe deeply.

River Rising is set in southern Louisiana, near the mouth of the Mississippi River, just before and during the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927. The characters are residents of Pilotville, LA, a small town surrounded by swampland, and one stranger who comes to town to find out about his parentage. Hale Poser, the stranger, grew up in an orphanage, became a preacher, and now has come to Pilotville in hope of finding out something about his heritage. As soon as Rev. Poser hits town, strange things start happening, odd things like fruit growing where no fruit is expected to be, things that are attributable either to God or to chance or to Hale Poser the Miracle man. Along with the good and the merely odd, evil things begin to happen, too. A baby is kidnapped, and Mr. Poser may be responsible for her disappearance, or he may be her saviour.

By the time you get this far in the book, I think you’ll be hooked. As you read on, you’ll encounter more “magical realism” but also more and more Biblical allusions and symbolism and more and more food for thought. Hale Poser is Moses, or maybe Noah, or a miracle worker, or a prophet, or maybe a representative of Satan. Pilotville is heaven on earth where black folks and white people work together and help each other and get along, or it’s a hell on earth where things are not at all what they seem to be on the surface. There’s a flood, reminiscent of the Biblical deluge, but also strangely enough, a reminder of recent events in New Orleans, events that hadn’t even occurred at the time that River Rising was written. Even so, the book shows, as Katrina’s devastation showed, that such a flood can be horribly destructive, but also can provide an opportunity for cleansing and for a new beginning.

The novel also explores slavery and race relations using a plot premise that may be as old as the hills but one that I hadn’t thought of before. I don’t want to give anything away, but I was surprised and and intrigued by the basic plot of this story and the possibilities inherent for drawing analogies to spiritual realities.

River Rising was published by Bethany House and is available from Amazon or other bookstores. In case you need more information or persuasion to read this spiritually challenging and fascinating novel, here are a few other blog reviews of River Rising:

Lars Walker: “Buy this book (or at least keep it in mind for when it comes out in paperback). Bethany should be rewarded for publishing something this good, and Athol Dickson ought to be the bestselling novelist in CBA. He ought to be a bestselling novelist in mainstream literature, for that matter.”
Christian Fiction Review: “If this is an example of what Christian fiction will bring us in 2006, we are in for a banner year. Highly Recommended.”
Violet Nesdoly at promptings: “Dickson does not hesitate to sink his teeth into some pretty grand themes.”

Thank you to Bethany House for sending me such an excellent piece of fiction to review.

“Lindy”

I just finished re-reading “Bring Me A Unicorn”, the letters and diaries of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, who married the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh. It’s really fascinating and terribly romantic – it describes how she met him and fell in love with him. He was the object of amazing idol-worship everywhere he went (he was nick-named “Lindy”), and she was a shy bookworm and dreamer; they were really awfully unlike each other. So – in short, a beautiful love-story.

Another volume of diaries that I read recently was the first volume of L.M. Montgomery’s diaries. (LMM is best known for “Anne of Green Gables”). Also very good, though almost completely different from Anne Morrow Lindbergh. LMM grew up in Cavendish, Prince Edward Island, a model for the fictional Avonlea.

Both women were very good at conveying their moods in their journals – depressed, overjoyed, tired, etc. Both were also good at describing nature, because they were both nature-lovers, I think.