Charles Lindbergh with The Spirit of St. Louis.
Do you remember what was happening in the world a decade ago? Which celebrities were we following in 2005? Which events changed the world? What were the inventions? We may look back and scoff at how things were, it may feel like a lifetime ago, but where would we be now without YouTube, and how different would New Orleans look now if Hurricane Katrina hadn’t swept the city away?
Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie is set in 1937 (or thereabouts - some of the information we’re given in the text is a little inconsistent), so the equivalent distance of time takes us back to 1927, the setting of Bill Bryson’s One Summer.
At first glance, going back ten years in order to understand a play written seventeen years later might sound a bit farfetched, but this choice has to be situated within a period when the world was changing rapidly and the reverberations from front page news could stretch across time. If we go back to 2005 again, for example, we see how the London Bombings impacted our current attitudes to ISIS and terrorism, whilst the list of popular films from that year -Harry Potter, Star Wars, Batman Begins - tells us just as much about now as it does then.
The central argument of Bryson’s book is that the America we know today was not in an insignificant way formed in the summer of 1927. During four months, dozens of events shaped a political, cultural and technological consciousness which can still be understood today. It follows, then, that the events of summer 1927 would have had a huge impact, consciously or not, on the lives of Amanda, Tom, Laura and Jim.
Working back from the ages and dates given in the play, we can also work out how old these people were during that time; Laura would turn fourteen in June, Jim was thirteen and Tom twelve. Amanda’s age is less clear, though she’d have probably been in her early thirties. If we take these as read, then, it’s safe to say that the children were at an age when they were just starting to look out at the world, to take note in major events, and were at an age when their environment could change their world-view.
So what happened in Summer 1927?
The first event Bryson touches on in his book is the one which frames the whole of the subsequent narrative and which is, perhaps, most useful to our story. On the 21st May 1927, 33 hours and 30 minutes after taking off from Roosevelt Field on Long Island, Charles Lindbergh landed in Le Bourget Field in Paris, marking the end of the first ever flight from New York to the European mainland. The name of the plane? Spirit of St Louis. Overnight, Lindbergh and his aircraft became world-famous, and could lay claim to being one of the first truly international ‘celebrities’. For the Wingfields, then, and for Tom specifically, it suddenly became clear that escape was possible, not least on an aircraft which bore the name of their home city. It’s hard to imagine in an era of constant travel, but a lone pilot leaving New York City one day and arriving in Paris the next would have been extraordinary to a twelve year-old boy in 1927; not least because that very same pilot would come to St Louis itself and delight “a crowd of 100,000 in Forest Park with aerial acrobatics”. Suddenly, the world had become smaller and adventure was available.
In a similar vein, Hollywood was really coming into its own in 1927, not least because the era of ‘Talkies’ truly began with the release of The Jazz Singer in October. Whereas movies up until this time had used captions and live music to convey meaning, now actual sound filmed on set could transport audiences to an even more believable alternate reality. And though The Jazz Singer was by no means the first film to use this technique, it was for some reason the one which caught the public imagination and was, in Bryson’s words, “the picture that made talking pictures real”. Now, at the weekend, perhaps with their mother waiting outside, Tom and Laura could visit one of St Louis’ many cinemas and hear - as well as see - their heroes having adventures and travelling the world.
Pre-Depression America was a different world, and Bryson paints a clear picture of this “land of gods”. He notes how “ American homes shone with sleek appliances and consumer durables… Every year America added more new phones (781000 in 1926) than Britain possessed in total,” which lends a particular resonance to the fact that the Wingfields’ father was a “telephone man who fell in love with long distance”. On the other side of the coin, of course, was a world of underhand dealings and treachery caused by the widespread (and largely failed) policy of prohibition, which “created a world of rattling tommy guns, and turned ordinary citizens into criminals”. Tom’s joke about visiting opium dens suddenly feels a whole lot more concrete.
The other major through-line in One Summer is the severe flooding which happened throughout the US in Bryson’s chosen year. One chapter begins ominously with the words “Most people couldn’t recall a time like it. For months on end, across much of the country, it rained steadily, sometimes in volumes not before seen”. As a result, some of the major rivers burst their banks and caused chaos up and down the continent. In St Louis, for example, the Mississippi flowed at a rate of two million cubic feet per second, taking mountains of debris along with it. It’s easy to see this obsession with water in many of Williams’ plays, where sudden showers often bring with them some tragic event. In the first scene of The Glass Menagerie, for example, Amanda suggests that the reason no gentlemen callers will be arriving is because "There must be a flood". Then, in later scenes, this threat becomes manifest as a storm brews with Jim's entrance and builds along with the drama. Though Amanda believes that “the air [is] delightful after the shower,” she is in fact blinkered to the destruction it has brought with it.
At the beginning of The Glass Menagerie, Tom tells us that the 'quaint period, the thirties' included the Spanish revolution, Guernica, and “disturbances of labor” in American cities form the “social background of the play”. In this, of course, he isn’t quite telling the whole story; in ten short years, America had gone from prosperity and comfort to stagnation and depression. And though it may be somewhat churlish to suggest 1927 was as present in the mind of the Wingfields as more recent years, we cannot shy away from the fact that the only reason the ‘bad times’ feel as such is because we have something better against which to measure them. Regardless of whether they were away of it, 1927 was an important year for the Wingfield and - as a corollary - for the Williams families. This was the world which made them; 1937 was the year which broke them.