was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it.
In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop . . . [s]omehow
it was hotter then . . . bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked
flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s
stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before
noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like
soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum. . . . There
was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money
to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb
County. But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people:
Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear
but fear itself.
This quotation, from Chapter 1, is
Scout’s introductory description of Maycomb. Scout emphasizes the
slow pace, Alabama heat, and old-fashioned values of the town, in
which men wear shirt collars, ladies use talcum powder, and the
streets are not paved, turning to “red slop” in the rain. This description
situates Maycomb in the reader’s mind as a sleepy Southern town;
Scout even calls it “tired.” It also situates Scout with respect
to the narrative: she writes of the time when she “first knew” Maycomb,
indicating that she embarks upon this recollection of her childhood
much later in life, as an adult. The description also provides important
clues about the story’s chronological setting: in addition to now-outdated
elements such as mule-driven Hoover carts and dirt roads, it also
makes reference to the widespread poverty of the town, implying
that Maycomb is in the midst of the Great Depression.
“We have nothing to fear but fear itself” is the most
famous line from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inaugural speech,
made after the 1932 presidential election.
From this clue, it is reasonable to infer that the action of the
story opens in the summer of 1933, an assumption
that subsequent historical clues support. The defeat of the National
Recovery Act in the Supreme Court in 1935,
for instance, is mentioned in Chapter 27 of
the novel, when Scout is eight—about two years older than at the
start of the novel.