Summer and Smoke, an American Cauldron

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The Fourth of July is approaching and with it the promise, or threat, of another long, hot summer.

It serves as a reminder, as if there were any danger of forgetting, that of all the seasons, summer can be the cruelest....

It’s not surprising, then, that American literature is a catalogue of summer disturbances, especially the literature of the South, thanks to geography. Its swamplands and deltas bristle with heat-stoked tensions. In William Faulkner’s fiction, the “ardent and unheeding sun” pours down mercilessly on parched country roads and backwoods hollows. “Heat quivered up from the asphalt, giving to the familiar buildings about the square a nimbus quality,” Faulkner writes of a sleepy town in his novel “Light in August.” Elsewhere he describes the grim fates dealt in “the bloody September twilight.”

The same friction is found in Tennessee Williams’s plays, beginning with their sultry titles: “Summer and Smoke,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” No literary work captures the languid menace of summer better than “A Streetcar Named Desire,” its characters squeezed into a sweltering tenement in New Orleans, all gnawing at one another. “Temperature 100 on the nose, and she soaks herself in a hot tub,” Stanley Kowalski growls when his sister-in-law, Blanche, the corrupt hothouse orchid, hogs the only bathroom in his cramped, overheated apartment.

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