The Great Depression of the 1930s gave American men a widespread sense of impotence and failure as economic forces beyond their control left them unemployed and unable to provide for their families. For relief, Americans turned to the kind of escapist genre fiction and films parodied in Walter Mitty’s fantasies, featuring dashing heroes like Errol Flynn in hypermasculine roles. 1939 marked the transition from this long period of anxiety into a more prosperous era, with the comfortable routines of middle-class consumer culture representing the new American Dream.
Thurber makes a couple of specific allusions to local and world events: Mitty hears a newsboy on the street shouting about the Waterbury Trial of 1938, in which the mayor of Waterbury (also the lieutenant governor of Connecticut) and more than 20 other city officials were indicted for corruption and taxpayer fraud. It was the first such scandal in Connecticut history, and local residents were shocked to learn about their lawmakers’ corrupt “secret lives.” Mitty also picks up a magazine with the cover story “Can Germany Conquer the World Through the Air?” which refers to the growing power of the German military at the start of World War II in Europe—a situation that accounts both for the presence of war on Mitty’s mind and for anxieties about strength from America as a whole.