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1927, The American Year

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

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:

--LINDBERGH LANDS IN PARIS! Charles Lindbergh, 25, makes the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic -- solo, a single man in a single-engine plane, and the Spirit of St. Louis transforms aviation, Europe's idea of America and, far more important, America's idea of itself. What generations of immigrants knew -- that America was not only the New World but a new world -- now had become common knowledge: This was the land of the future, and the future had arrived. On wings. Lucky Lindy! The Lone Eagle. ALONE! You could see the future coming on the boyish face of a young American aviator May 21, 1927.

--"The Jazz Singer" with Al Jolson opens October 6, 1927. A talkie! The era of silent films is over, the medium that will challenge the novel as the great repository of our dreams, fears, hopes and social chronicles in the coming century is born. Talk about transformation. A transformation of sensibility. How different from the film-noir vision of the future in a jaded Europe. (Fritz Lang's dystopian "Metropolis" would also open in 1927. Silently.)

--Two days later, on October 8th, 1927, the legendary, the classical, the mythic 1927 New York Yankees, led by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, would conclude their four-game sweep of the World Series that year. As usual, baseball and jazz were the twin keys to the modem American ethos, with their unpredictable combination of individual achievement and graceful teamwork.

--The last Model T, the flivver that had revolutionized not just American transportation but American life, aka the Tin Lizzie, rolled off the Ford assembly line, to be succeeded by the Model A.

And so tellingly on, from the announcement of Werner Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle in physics to Babe Ruth's record-setting 60 home runs.

What a year -- a whole kaleidoscopic peek at the world to come. But what we may learn most from the past is how little we seem to learn from it.

Oh, yes, 1927 was also the year that saw "Show Boat" open on Broadway with its lyrical summary of the whole Nature vs. Nurture debate, "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man." The song came down decisively on the side of Nature: "Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly/I gotta love one man till I die...." That's American for what the medieval philosophers called Agere Sequitur Esse -- our actions flow from what we are, not something apart from Nature but part of it. Natural law, it's called in jurisprudence, however much lawyers, judges and politicians disdain it. Which may be their nature, too.

If forced, absolutely forced, to choose the two most American, most compelling, most telling figures in this almanac of the year 1927, a chronicler could do worse than pick Charles Lindbergh and Henry Ford. The feeling persists that, if only we could understand them, we would understand America. But who can understand them, or America? Both men headlined 1927, both embodied and symbolized the American Dream, both ended as isolated old men as America and the world passed them by. And what began as unlimited promise ended in tragedy.

What was it that they lost? What is it that America has lost since that wondrous year 1927? If forced, absolutely forced, to put it into a single phrase, maybe it would be: The Sense of Possibility. Where has that spirit gone as the circus in Washington continues? Now it is not enough for us to debate and disagree and contend with each other as usual. Now we must demonize each other. Which is a kind of American tradition, too, but not one to encourage.

It is not enough to defend the latest form of social insurance, aka Obamacare, but we must denounce those who would change or challenge it as hoping America will fail. It is not enough to criticize our entrepreneurs and adventurers and gadgeteers, our Henry Fords and Charles Lindberghs, but we must tell them: You didn't build that! If It's not all the fault of the Greedy Rich, then it's the fault of their puppet -- the radical, rabid tea party. Negotiate? Compromise? With those people? Never!

It is not enough to disagree with a president's policies; he must be branded as some kind of subversive alien agent. That birth certificate was faked, you know. Meanwhile, the Birthers and Truthers construct their own parallel universe.

So we go on talking past one another. But it will come back, that American genius for sensing, even grasping, the possibilities all around us. Perhaps in the dead of night, just as a single craft, not the Spirit of St. Louis this time, but a perfectly dropped doohickey, our era's version of the Tin Lizzie, came drifting down, down, down -- second by second of the suspenseful countdown -- onto the dusty Martian soil and set about exploring it inch by inch by the light of two moons. For no better reason than man's insatiable curiosity. It is well named, that gizmo called Curiosity.

We forget, but the age of wonder has not yet ceased, but may be only beginning. As in 1927.

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