One of my earliest memories is of summer, late one evening on the front porch.
I’m either two or three, and my Aunt Zenna is in town from Indiana with her teenage daughters. I’m out there with them, and my parents too; and we are all watching fireflies darting just above the newly mown lawn. The streetlamp is far enough up the way that it doesn’t compete with the miniature light show these swarming insects are performing. Innumerable crickets chirp throughout the neighborhood too, so many that their din is concordant—an unbroken, monotonous jingle. At one point, I step down from the porch to chase after one of the fireflies. Toddling barefooted on the grass, I follow the “lightning bug” around the corner and along the south side of the house. It is dark in the narrow space between our place and the neighbors’, but I venture on, alone. I am not afraid.
That is all of it. I guess “memory” is almost too expansive a term, really. Slice-of-life is probably closer. Moreover, I cannot say why this transitory scene has remained in my recollection all of these years, while so many others have not. But it often comes to mind when I think of summer; and I believe it also has something to do with the fact that I love this season more than all of the others combined.
Summer: I relax into its heat. I draw excitement from its storms. I am comforted by its characteristic sounds, like the passing freight trains that rumble outside my open bedroom window at night, only to fade away up the line. I love the clang of wind chimes too, and the coo of a mourning dove at sunrise. Summer is also the time of year when I am most at peace with myself and with others. I feel freer to roam, both physically and creatively. After the punishing, confining Wisconsin winter, I am suddenly at leave to walk outside on a whim, and in my bare feet if I so desire. I’m better suited to hold out hope for a particular future. My spiritual resilience is at its apex.
But it’s not all wanderlust and awakenings. Summer is also a season for taking things easy, a space where laziness can be excused as if by special dispensation. In the United States, this is expressly true in the southern regions, where the intense seasonal climate often reduces one’s options for physical activity, in much the same way that winter does up north. F. Scott Fitzgerald, a Minnesotan by birth, uses climate contrast to underscore regional and cultural differences in his early short story, “The Ice Palace,” drawing setting details from his own courtship with Zelda Sayre, the Alabama belle who became his bride only after he demonstrated the capacity to earn his way as a writer. In the lyrical, metaphor-rich fashion that would become his trademark, Fitzgerald describes a late-summer southern tableau—in particular, an early twentieth-century neighborhood—in which:
…sunlight dripped over the house like golden paint over an art jar, and the freckling shadows here and there only intensified the rigor of the bath of light. The Butterworth and Larkin houses flanking were [entrenched] behind great stodgy trees; only the Happer house took the full sun, and all day long faced the dusty road-street with a tolerant kindly patience.
This is a heavy setting, personifying an enforced languidness and a loath to change. As a matter of fact, the only rigorous agent here is the summer sun. And it is in this setting that nineteen year-old Sally Carrol Happer sits at her bedroom window in the opening scene, gazing down “sleepily” at her world of “lazy days and nights.” She dreams of a life elsewhere, perhaps in the north—a cooler, more energetic place where, she believes, “things happen on a big scale.” But as Sally is about to discover, there are reasons for everything; and sometimes one’s choice of locality is best left unchanged.
Fitzgerald actually employs seasonal warmth and light as a determinant in several of his best stories, most of which, paradoxically, are set in the northern states. Perhaps he was influenced by his own origins in a region where the change from winter freeze to something more bearable is an annual event. I can only speak from experience and observation when I say that we northerners greet the first blush of warm weather with an elation that approaches religious proportions. For some (though not for me), the heady bliss gives way later on in the season, as the summer grows humid and tiring. But the initial impression is invariably one of joy. In “May Day,” Fitzgerald incorporates the change of season as a means to illustrate the material splendor of fashionable Fifth Avenue in New York, at least as it appears at first glance. It is 1919, and the First World War is over, presenting a cornucopia of heretofore unrealized potential and promise. It is the dawn of Fitzgerald’s “Jazz Age,” and America is embarking on what he would later term its “greatest, gaudiest spree in history”:
The wealthy, happy sun glittered in transient gold through the thick window of the smart shops, lighting upon mesh bags and purses and strings of pearls in gray velvet cases….Working girls, in pairs and groups and swarms, loitered by these windows, choosing their future boudoirs from some resplendent display which included even a man’s silk pajamas laid domestically across the bed. They stood in front of the jewelry stores and picked out their engagement rings, and their wedding rings and their platinum wrist watches…meanwhile digesting the sandwiches and sundaes they had eaten for lunch.
The brief glimpse of this bustling, ravenous and acquisitive crowd is rendered even more powerful by its juxtaposition with the hordes of disaffected returning veterans mingling about the city, a group that includes one of the principle characters, a down-on-his luck artist by the name of Gordon Sterrett. Upon Sterrett and these other unfortunate souls, the “wealthy, happy sun” shines down with lesser intensity; and “May Day” unfolds largely as a story of the interplay between haves and have-nots in early postwar America.
But the author’s best use of climate as a setting technique, and arguably one of the best uses in all of literature, is his portrayal of the summer afternoon encompassing the climax in The Great Gatsby. That particular day, according to narrator Nick Carraway, “was broiling, almost the last, certainly the warmest” one of the season. Nick’s cousin, Daisy Buchanan, has summoned him to the sprawling Long Island estate that she shares with her philandering, plutocratic husband, Tom. The other two guests are Jordan Baker, a golf professional who is dating Nick, and the mysterious nouveau riche tycoon, Jay Gatsby, with whom Daisy is having an affair.
Nick arrives at the Buchanans’ to find Jordan and Daisy lying “upon an enormous couch, like silver idols, weighing down their own white dresses against the singing breeze of the fan.” They protest in unison that it is too hot to move, but as soon as Tom steps out to make drinks, Daisy rises to kiss Gatsby, who has been standing silent in the center of the room, staring about in fascination at the interior of his lover’s home. And later, at lunch in a dining room darkened “against the heat,” Daisy begins to give in to the strain and confusion of her husband and Gatsby occupying the same space. Teetering “on the verge of tears,” she babbles inanities now, her voice struggling “through the heat, beating against it, moulding its senselessness into forms.” Finally, she reaches her limit of endurance. “Who wants to go to town?” she cries out in desperation.
Gatsby’s eyes floated toward her. “Ah,” she cried, “you look so cool.”
Their eyes met, and they stared together at each other, alone in space. With an effort she glanced down at the table.
“You always look so cool,” she repeated.
She had told him she loved him, and Tom Buchanan saw. He was astounded. His mouth opened a little and he looked at Gatsby and then back at Daisy as if he had just recognized her as someone he knew a long time ago.
“You resemble the advertisement of the man,” she went on innocently. “You know the advertisement of the man—”
“All right,” broke in Tom quickly, “I’m perfectly willing to go to town. Come on—we’re all going to town.”
He got up, his eyes still flashing between Gatsby and his wife. No one moved.
“Come on!” His temper cracked a little. “What’s the matter anyhow? If we’re going to town let’s start.”
His hand, trembling with his effort at self control, bore to his lips the last of his glass of ale. Daisy’s voice got us to our feet and out on to the blazing gravel drive.
They end up at the Plaza Hotel, where they rent a parlor to escape the oppressive sun. There, with only a couple of open windows to facilitate a cross-flow of air, Tom confronts Gatsby about his affair with Daisy. The resulting faceoff between these two consummate narcissists succeeds in driving everyone, and especially Daisy, to a point of distraction—a state that proves tragic later, on the drive back to Long Island. Even Nick Carraway has been so absorbed in the blistering tension he soon discovers he’s forgotten the personal significance of the day: his own thirtieth birthday.
It occurs to me here that I’d begun this essay earlier today as a paean to summer temperatures, and it is now concluding as a condemnation of sorts. But then again, I did digress into a discussion of climate as a setting strategy in the craft of fiction, so I suppose the change in tone stands to reason. Fiction, at least compelling fiction, ought not to be written with the aim of lulling the reader into a state of serenity. Rather, we who compose stories and novels are charged with the responsibility of using whatever means we can to intrigue readers to the point where they can’t wait to see what’s on the next page. So if the seasonal weather in a story is hot, it probably should be hot in a way that underscores tension in the plot or development of characters. I can get behind that idea.
Still, in my own non-fictional existence, I unapologetically adore the summer heat whenever and however I can get it. I love it so much, in fact, that I’m planning to visit Florida later this year, during the dog days of August. How’s that for ratcheting up the tension?
Here’s to a happy summer, 2014. Get out there, get barefooted, and enjoy it!