Paul Greenberg

A great diva could sing the names in the phone book and it would come out like Puccini. A talented writer like Bill Bryson could take any year in American history and make it fascinating. Doing the usual round of interviews after his latest book came out, "One Summer: America, 1927," he was asked why he would choose to write about so ordinary a year, one without a great war or depression or discovery or…

Ordinary? 1927? It was anything but. If any year was grand and glorious in modern American history, and yet a portent of the tragedies and terrors to come, it was 1927.

Bill Bryson sounded a bit mystified himself about how he had chanced on the emblematic year of the 20th century. He had just wanted to write a book about baseball, he explained. The 1927 New York Yankees being legendary, and Babe Ruth a hero of his father's, he chose '27. But to get the book published in England, where baseball is about as interesting to readers as cricket would be to us, he knew he would have to expand it. And, well, after that, the book just grew.

As luck would have it, great good luck in this case, for the author and for his readers, Bill Bryson had happened on the one year that still sums up the promise of American life.

Really? Yes. Just look at what all happened in '27, the kind of Roaring Twenties year that superficial historians might mine mainly only for its oddities and anecdotes. See the first edition of "The Perils of Prosperity" by William E. Leuchtenburg before he had second and more mature thoughts. His was an understandable oversight. After all, the country had decided to Keep Cool with Coolidge, and so nothing much could have been happening, right?

Wrong. No assessment could have been wronger. Just look at a few things 1927 heralded, and pick the most intriguing and prophetic, which isn't easy, there are so many contenders for that distinction:

--The Great Flood of '27. All of us in Arkansas (and the whole Mississippi Valley) know about that, and yet when Katrina struck, we were surprised, shocked, caught unprepared. Even after the hydrologists, geologists and just plain respecters of Nature had been warning us for years. Sure enough, there are people now determined to rebuild in the most vulnerable spots along the East Coast even after Hurricane Sandy devastated it less than two years ago. Those beachfronts are a kind of oceanic flood plain, but those eager to rebuild there remain oblivious to the danger.

--The school bombing in Bath, Michigan (May 18, 1927) that killed 45, mostly children, a forerunner of today's run of school massacres, is now pretty much lost to history. As it was when it happened, and was almost immediately overwhelmed by other news, such as:


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.