In my few years of Southern California living, I’ve acclimated fairly well to the not-so-quarterly seasons that shape the climate. It rains a lot for about six weeks in “winter,” plants start blooming in February and March, then it gets hotter and drier until, about six months later, much of the state is on fire — and this is followed by a cooling period before the cycle begins anew.
The tradeoff for perennially warm and often beautiful weather is concentrated in that (lengthening) fire season, which I refer to by the euphemism “Summer 2.” This sweltering, stifling period is agony for obvious reasons, but adding insult to injury is the eagerness amid the temperate climes for the annual passage of something called “fall,” or, if you like, “autumn.” People voice fondness for sweaters and layered looks, look forward to the switch from iced coffee to hot, celebrate the riot of leaves in red and yellow and orange, and taste a certain invigorating bite in the air.
Such rhapsody was lampooned in 2012 by The Onion in the article “Mr. Autumn Man Walking Down Street With Cup of Coffee, Wearing Sweater Over Plaid Collared Shirt,” so memorable a satire that the model for its header art — AV Club editor Erik Adams — is bound to pop up on your Twitter feed each September. “The way people anticipate it, it makes it feel like I’m the star of a beloved holiday TV special,” Adams told MEL’s Quinn Myers in a 2019 interview.
But the premise rests on the understanding that everyone, in fact, loves fall, which makes it ridiculous to adopt the pose of a singular autumn enthusiast. In the digital context, stating your positive view of this atmosphere can be taken as “normie” or altogether “basic” behavior, as demonstrated by the ongoing backlash to various food and beverage brands’ seasonal pumpkin spice items.
But what, exactly, is behind the semi-universal thirst for fall?
It’s not possible that the New England stories of John Cheever have brainwashed this many millions of people, and I refuse to believe that a single Instagram photo in a pumpkin patch is cause for such giddiness. No, I have a more complicated theory, one that accounts for the regional rivalry between places that have “real” autumn and those like California, Texas and Florida, which don’t.
First, remember that fall is tied to themes of death and decay. It brings the harvest, but we pay respects to our ghosts with Halloween, watch the trees shed foliage until bare and skeletal and wait for a killing frost. This is the stuff of Romanticism and poetry — a gothic turn in the calendar that points us toward the cold, barren winter. As happy as a New Yorker may be for some crisp afternoons in October, they are subconsciously celebrating the inexorable approach of another bed-bound depression.
To me, this hints that a frenzy for autumn is a subtle way to privilege the mind over the body. Think about it: Fall has an intellectual appeal, and not merely in its wistful mode of marking time. It’s when school starts up again, when the academic’s wardrobe of wool and corduroy makes its comeback. It is no accident that The Onion’s “Mr. Autumn Man” wears glasses and a cardigan, prime symbols of advanced literacy.
Despite the pleasant, mild temperatures, activities move inside, to the philosophical hearths, delighting the self-proclaimed introvert. Instead of light beers at the beach, you’re sipping fine whiskey at your desk, back to the serious business of brooding. Whereas you get horny for summer, you are mentally stimulated by fall. You need a high IQ to enjoy it, really. Here, pretension reigns supreme. And if you’re not buying this, then check out how unnatural it sounds when someone applies Hot Girl Summer language to autumn signifiers:
The sapiosexual fall favoritism can only be read as a rebuke of the flirtatious and physical pleasures associated with spring and summer, and a judgment of the cities and states celebrated for sun-drenched vapidity. It’s not enough for autumn to be nice, it must also be better than the months of tight bathing suits, mega-blockbusters, gluttonous cookouts and noisy fireworks. Rumination overrides lust, and a cozy calm eclipses the hedonistic vibes of summer.
Well, I’m not going to stand for this sneaky claim of superiority any more. Fall is refreshing and beautiful, but if you hype it too much, it means you consider yourself above the extravaganza of sweat and sluttiness that precedes it. You’re all buttoned-up in that flannel. Don’t you realize you can have cinnamon anytime you want? That puddles of icy slush are just around the corner? “Fall is the best,” says someone apparently too good for the long blue twilights of June and July.
Enjoy it, then — nobody can stop you — but we see right through the propaganda. Autumn isn’t a highbrow heaven because you neglect to mention football and deep-fried Thanksgiving turkey. By all means, scroll through the best scarves on Etsy, fill the living room with scented candles and find a park bench where you can scribble in your Moleskine (pronounced mol-eh-skeen-eh). You’re cultivating an image every bit as common and superficial as a pool party in the Hollywood Hills.
The difference is you want extra credit for it.