In 1927, as F Scott Fitzgerald put it, ‘a young Minnesotan who seemed to have had nothing to do with his generation did a heroic thing, and for a moment people set down their glasses in country clubs and speak-easies and thought of their old best dreams’. The heroic Minnesotan was Charles Lindbergh, who flew the Atlantic single-handed in May 1927, and Bill Bryson has placed him centre stage in his account of those seminal months in the summer of 1927 that for him encapsulate the 1920s in the United States.
It was, writes Bryson, quite simply ‘one hell of a summer’, and he guides the reader through its great events at dizzying pace, zipping from state to state and incident to incident in his familiar informative and conversational style. We race between the devastated flood plains of the Mississippi, where the relentlessly driven Herbert Hoover – described by Bryson as ‘the least likeable hero America has ever produced’ – was supervising the relief programme from a private train that included a car devoted solely to press operations, and New York, where, after two miserable seasons, the hard-living baseball hero Babe Ruth was preparing to redeem himself to his fans despite apparently being well past his prime. We stop off in California, where Buster Keaton was filming one of the great sequences of silent slapstick comedy in Steamboat Bill Jr. at the same time as Al Jolson was making a movie – The Jazz Singer – that, by virtue of being the first talkie, would mean the movie-going public barely registered Keaton’s moment of genius.
Up overhead in The Spirit of St. Louis, crisscrossing the land, flew an increasingly shell-shocked Charles Lindbergh. On 21 May he had made history by landing in Paris after a miraculous flight of nearly 34 hours from New York. The reserved 25-year-old then embarked on a celebratory nationwide tour, during