The story begins in a small, dark log house amid "scores" of other tiny log houses like it, the homes of black sharecroppers. We learn their crop is cotton, meaning the story is set in the south. The sharecroppers live amid their pigs, cows, and chickens in a piney wood. Later we learn that Jeff had gone once as a young man to New Orleans, which would place the story in Louisiana.
The other setting is the car, a "battered" old Model T with a cracked radiator, in which the elderly couple take their last ride along the "dusty wagon path" road that runs alongside a deep, churning river that is "noisy" and "wild."
Bontemps wrote the story in 1933, and the tale is set around that time--the couple has a Model T which is old. (These cars were produced between 1908 and 1927.) The tale is set before the New Deal is enacted, as the aging couple know they have no social services they can fall back as they age.
The story "A Summer Tragedy" takes place in the Mississippi River Delta. This is the rich, fertile area where the Mississippi River runs into the Gulf of Mexico, in the states of Mississippi and Louisiana. The story takes place around 1930, at the beginning of the Great Depression. A clue to the time the events take place is given in the fact that the Pattons drive through the countryside in an old Model T Ford, an automobile that was manufactured only during the early part of the 1900s.
The setting of the story is critical to its theme - the untenable suffering of its two protagonists, Jeff and Jennie Patton. The Pattons, who are African-American, have been sharecroppers on the Greenbriar Plantation on the Delta for forty-five years. The time of slavery is over, but the South is still a hotbed of racism; although the land is productive and fertile, the work has been exhausting, and the sharecropper system keeps its farmers mired in poverty. Grieving for their lost children and crippled by ill-health, encroaching old age, and dwindling financial resources, Jeff and Jennie see little hope for the future. Their best recourse in the face of insurmountable odds appears to them to be the oblivion of death.
The story was first published by Arna Wendell Bontemps (1902-73) in the year 1933.
The story takes place sometime in 1930 and in the region of the Mississipi Delta.