Bill Bryson: Biography & Books

Instructor: Zach Watkins

Zach earned a master's degree in creative writing and has designed and taught college literature courses.

Bill Bryson is one of the most humorous and accessible authors of nonfiction writing today. His popular works cover travel, history, language, and science. This lesson covers Bryson's life and links it to his work.

Bill Bryson: The Early Years

William McGuire Bryson, better known to readers as Bill Bryson, was born in 1951 in Des Moines, Iowa, and was raised there. Both of his parents were journalists, providing Bryson with a foundation in writing. He recounts stories from his seemingly all-American childhood in his 2006 memoir, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. The Thunderbolt Kid was young Billy Bryson's invented alter ego, derived from a lightning-bolt sweater that allowed him to zap people he didn't like at any given moment. The memoir utilizes humor to avoid overt sentimentality, as Bryson reminisces about his friendships, his family, and the nostalgia surrounding the 1950s. Alongside the more personal stories, Bryson delves into the social and technological developments of that decade as well.

Bill Bryson. Photo by Simon Berry
Bill Bryson. Photo by Simon Berry

During a hiatus from college in the seventies, Bryson traveled Europe twice in two years. He ended up finding a job in Surrey, England, and lived there for a time. That's where he met his future wife, Cynthia Billen. After moving back to the United States to finish his degree, the couple relocated back to the United Kingdom in 1977.

The Writing Life

Bryson took up work as a journalist and editor for some of the most widely read newspapers in Britain. However, by 1987, he had set out to forge his own trail as an independent writer. He wrote some well-received books on travel and the English language, including Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe, which flashes back to his earlier European travels, and Mother Tongue and Made in America, two histories of the English language.

The Brysons decided to move back to the US in 1995. Bryson took one last trip around the UK, as much as possible by public transportation, in order to experience as much of the island as he could. His resulting travel book, Notes from a Small Island, explores Britain's history, architecture, language, and not least of all, its people. The British reading public received this book so well that in a 2003 BBC poll they voted it as the book that best represents England.

Though an American by nationality, Bryson's writings often show a strong affinity for his adopted homeland. Yet one of his great breaks came, strangely enough, after the Brysons moved back to the US. He wrote a newspaper column about the oddities and strangeness of repatriating himself. The column reached widespread acclaim and became hugely popular in the United Kingdom. In 1999, the pieces were compiled into a book, I'm a Stranger Here Myself (alternately titled Notes from a Big Country in the UK).

Bryson was busy building on his reputation before the eventual release of I'm a Stranger Here Myself. He made a plan to walk the entire Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine as a way of rediscovering his native country. The resulting travel memoir, A Walk in the Woods, continues Bryson's balance of personal narrative and thorough research. A Walk in the Woods explores the changing environment, America's political past, and the history of the trail itself.

Section of the Appalachian Trail. Photo by Nicholas A. Tonelli
Section of the Appalachian Trail. Photo by Nicholas A. Tonelli

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