What is it About the Dog Days of Summer?

We are now firmly entrenched in the dog days of summer. If you have been following news in the United States, you might have noticed from headlines across the country that there is something about these scorching hot days which seem to capture America’s imagination—and its angst. But what is it about the late summer days that have earned this stretch of time such a ubiquitous, often misunderstood moniker?

To begin with, the phrase “dog days of summer” is not uniquely American—far from it—nor is it derived from lazy canine behavior induced by oppressive heat. “Dog days of summer” is derived from the “Dog Star,” Sirius. So global is this concept, that it stretches back to the age of classical antiquity. According to National Geographic, “To the Greeks and Romans, the “dog days” occurred around the day when Sirius appeared to rise just before the sun, in late July. They referred to these days as the hottest time of the year, a period that could bring fever, or even catastrophe.”

Sure, the idea of the dog days being the cause of fever, lethargy, and catastrophe are largely rooted in superstition. Nevertheless, this superstitious trope seems to have morphed into a cultural one wherein the hottest days of summer have been host to radical moments of cultural upheaval.

Around this time exactly one year ago in Charlottesville, VA, members of the alt-right, neo-Nazis, anti-Semites and neo-Confederates took to the streets, clashing with a number of liberal counter-protestors. The rally resulted in the deaths of 3 people, injuries of more than 38, and ignited a period of intense civil unrest still going on today. In a likely response to the Charlottesville rallies, the dog days of 2018 have seen the premieres of two hugely successful films directed by African-American men and about race.

In previous years, the dog days have witnessed the March on Washington in 1963, the Freedom Summer of 1964, the Watts riots of 1965, Woodstock in 1969, and the effects of the Watergate Scandal culminating in Nixon’s 1974 resignation. They have also influenced artistic works that explore the ways the NYC heat seems to encourage unruly behavior and uncomfortable conversations. See: Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” and this fantastic piece about the Loving Spoonful’s 1966 hit, “Summer in the City.”

Most of us in America have been doing what we always do during the dog days of summer: work—and by the way, even in Europe, more people have traded in their month-long summer vacations for shorter trips throughout the year. But let’s not ignore this seemingly cosmic vibe of change that grips our world around this time of year. Listen:

Hot weather opens the skull of a city, exposing its white brain, and its heart of nerves, which sizzle like the wires inside a lightbulb. And there exudes a sour extra-human smell that makes the very stone seem flesh-alive, webbed and pulsing―Truman Capote

Truman was always colorful in his prose and intense in his metaphors, but I think the point stands. For those of us stirred by summer heat, the dog days feel like a time where anything can happen. What will it be this summer?

What do you think?

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