Literary Context: A Weed in the Hothouse
Any biography has to be based on the assumption that the author is, indeed, not dead. After four years of research and writing, Betty Smith has come to life in my mind, and hopefully she will take life in the minds of my readers. This living Betty Smith, of course, had her limitations. In this biography she sometimes looks and acts a little like Carol Siri Johnson, and understands the world a little like Carol Siri Johnson. These are the inescapable limitations of biography, and with these in mind, perhaps a shadow of the true person will cast itself on the wall. Or perhaps the facts that I have supplied will allow every reader to imagine Betty Smith in his or her own way.
One thing that can help us, reader and writer, to differentiate Betty Smith from our own projected images, is remembering that Betty Smith's time was different from ours. Betty Smith is a person, yes, but she is also a product of her times. The Betty Smith that published her bestselling novel in 1943 could not have done so in 1923, when publishing was the purview of the privileged few, or in 1963, when the world had different things on its mind. Not that Betty Smith wouldn't have written: she probably still would have produced that massive text, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but it would be in a kitchen cabinet, or a cardboard box in an attic somewhere. One of her grandchildren would read that manuscript, say "this should be published some day" and then it would go back into that desk drawer or cardboard box. But history was propitious for Betty Smith, her novel was published and it led her to spend her adult life in a different world from the one in which she grew.
Harper & Brothers
Of primary importance in this biography is Smith's relationship with her publisher, Harper & Brothers. Harper & Brothers and its editors--Edward Aswell, Elizabeth Lawrence, Frank MacGregor, Jack Fischer, and Evan Thomas--were the kind older sister and brothers that Smith never had. Moreover, they were instrumental in the literary product that became "Betty Smith," the public "Tree Lady" that is remembered by most people who grew up during the second world war. Harper & Brothers published her novels, even when she began to argue with them, and they pushed her to write until her final years. The personalities at the publishing firm and the inter-office memos are as much a part of this story as Smith herself. As a reader in the archives and a researcher in life, I was able to see many different sides to her story. This is the way in which a contextualized biography can go beyond the "personal" to give a wider picture of the forces that create a literary and public figure.
The basic theory of this dissertation, then, is that literature occurs at the intersection of three variables: the writing ability of the author, the context of history, and chance. When those variables coincide, i.e. Betty Smith plus 1943 plus Harper & Brothers, a book results. Conversely, if any of those variables had not happened - if Betty Smith had sat in a corner chair growling, instead of writing, if men had settled the moon in 1943, instead of going to war, or if Harper & Brothers had decided that, under no circumstances would they hire or publish women, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn would never have been published and the world would be the poorer for it.
For those of you who have not read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I urge you to do so. It is a beautiful and sad bildungsroman of a girl growing up in the tenements of turn-of-the-century Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Although it has acquired the reputation of being adolescent literature, let me assure you that few high school students in the United States could wade through its 430 pages. It is still read in Europe, and still provides Europeans with a picture of American city life. I read it when, in my twenties, I had just moved to Brooklyn and was making a daily commute on the crowded subway to Manhattan. Although A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was (and is) accused of being sentimental, it consists mainly of graphic details of inner-city poverty, so that reading it, for me, was more realistic than sentimental. Also, the academic reader can comfort him or herself with the thought that the text is sociologically valid and therefore justifiable. Doesn't sentimentality exist in the lives of the poor as elsewhere? One of the great beauties of Betty Smith's writing is the elevation of the quotidian to a transcendent gladness. The sadness of the novel comes from everyday losses.
A critic's theory is often dictated by his or her subject matter. My theory, that "Betty Smith" is alive but made possible only through the convergence of three variables (the writer's personality, history and chance) arose out of the study of Smith's work and life. Similarly, this dissertation will be paying special attention to those issues which were important in Betty Smith's work and life, on both the personal and the social levels. Smith's personal themes, which resound throughout her work, are her great love for her father and her grief at his death, her ambivalence for her mother and her complex feminism, and her love for her children. Her social themes also come from her life: poverty and class. For background research I have investigated biographical writing, working class writing, and the literary genres that were acceptable to publishers during the mid-20th century.
In Writing Lives: Principia Biographica, one of Leon Edel's principals is that the biographer must discover the keys to the private mythology of the subject. He calls it "searching for the figure under the carpet [or] the private self-concept that guides a given life" (30). Edel's theory is that "the public facade is the mask behind which a private mythology is hidden," and it is the biographer's task to "sort out the themes and patterns, not dates and mundane calendar events which sort themselves" (30). When I first began this dissertation, I thought that Edel had described the way that his subject, Henry James, was to be approached, and that his words would not apply to me and Betty Smith. I thought Edel was too mystical, too symbolic. Smith, I thought, was a straightforward plebeian working-woman whose concerns were money, her children, and writing work that would communicate with the world. However, Edel's theory applies as much to her as it did James: behind the hard-working, chain-smoking mother who wrote a novel despite her poverty, are the dreams which motivate her actions. It may be presumptuous of a critic to say "I understand the inner life of this writer" but sometimes a critic, who does not have so much invested in the outward form of things, can see things that neither an artist nor her loved ones can see. That is another benefit of biography.
Edel writes that it is the biographer's difficult task of "becoming for a while that other person, even while remaining himself" (40). In a way, it is like being a psychoanalyst: the biographer must strain to keep his or her mind open to the texture of the experiences of the subject, while at the same time seeking for resonances with her own experiences. Both ways--being separate and identifying--can lead to insights. "To be cold as ice in appraisal, yet warm and human and understanding, this is the biographer's dilemma" writes Edel (41). The inevitable transference must be tempered with the material in the archives.
Consequently, when I began this project, I started with some faulty assumptions that I had to change along the way. Most of these pertained to Smith's interaction with Harper & Brothers: I saw the publisher as the big bad wolf, forcing her to change her story to appease the moral majority. Imagine my surprise when I came across a paragraph, early in Smith's correspondence with her publisher, in which she offers, unsolicited, to make those very changes that I had attributed to Harper & Brothers! I learned that, when writing a biography, it is important to keep an open mind for as long as possible, and to let all of the facts take their place before drawing conclusions. And if there's one thing I learned, it's that you can't make any assumptions about the publisher-writer contract. They're all different, they're all complex. And, of course, they change over time.
I cannot avoid the topic "autobiography" in a treatment of Smith. Two of her novels are unabashedly drawn from her life experiences, following the events in her life closely, and the other two are events pieced together from memory and the emotions resulting from two marriages. All four are, in a sense, performance pieces about her life. She wove in contemporaneous autobiographical events, like the strange soldier who appears, out of nowhere, at the end of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, asks Francie to marry him, then abandons her to marry his childhood sweetheart. Although it is obvious, it was not until late in the dissertation-writing process that I woke up one morning, saying to myself: "that's Bob Finch! He did that to her, just as she was writing this!" Smith never could separate her fiction from her life.
In regard to her personal myths, I was surprised to discover how much her search for her dead father had influenced her life. In a way, it was responsible for her divorcing her hard-driving and ambitious husband George Smith; it was responsible for her search for solace in the writing of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; it was responsible for her divorce from the kind but predictable Joe Jones; it was responsible for her marriage to a confirmed and very sick alcoholic, Bob Finch. Also, her complex relations with her mother formed a kind of feminism not often found in feminist texts. Smith had a great ambivalence, distrust and sometimes hatred of women, but that stemmed from that assumption that women are the power structure, the leaders, the strong ones, that women are superior to men. This aspect of her personality allowed her to occupy the powerful position she created for herself and to have an elemental confidence in her actions at all times. What was special to Betty Smith is the same thing that is special to Francie Nolan: it is her heroic aspirations that made her want to tell her tale.
Paul Lauter, Resa Dudovitz and Nina Baym: Excluding Women, the Working Class and Minorities from Literature
Smith found a receptive audience for her tale in the 1940s, but over the decades her audience has eroded, especially in the academic world. Paul Lauter writes that "in the twenties processes were set in motion that virtually eliminated black, white female, and all working-class writers from the canon" (436). Smith is one of the casualties of this systematic exclusion, on two grounds: she is from the working-class and she is female. As Resa Dudovitz writes in The Myth of Superwoman: Women's Bestsellers in France and the United States, "Serious consideration of bestselling women's fiction which falls outside the area of formula fiction is still quite minimal despite that fact that women's fiction in all its many forms, in addition to being a multi-million dollar international business, reaches an enormous number of women throughout the western world" (1). In Melodramas of Beset Manhood: How Theories of American Fiction Exclude Women Authors, Nina Baym writes about how male psychology necessitates man's attempt to separate himself from woman, and therefore defining a literature of celibacy; consequently, woman becomes the "enemy" (130). This requires literature by-and-for men, just like the majority of commercial movie stories are stories by-and-for men.
Excluding the Literature of the 1940s
Even the decade of the 1940s has been excluded from the American canon: there is an assumption that, since the men were away at war, no writing was done; consequently, there is little critical work available on the war years. In one of the few literary analyses of the 1940s, Chester Eisinger presents the time period as one of great social conservatism and personal alienation, and although initially this sounds convincing, in two independent analyses of popular literature, both Ruth Miller Elson and Susan Ellery Greene found that 1940 marked the largest shift in ideology in American literature in history. Eisinger wrote that "The conservative imagination, on the other hand, finally won a secure place in this period as a part of the landscape of American fiction. . . . The quest for the self was intensified in the fiction of this decade in such a way as to assume the proportions of a movement" (5). In popular literature, Greene found exactly the opposite, the "emergence of a mature American middle and upper class willing to cope with the complexities of the modern world" (161). What could account for such diametrically opposed views? Eisinger was writing about a select group of novels that had been defined as "American literature" and Greene was writing about popular literature. But what, really, is the difference?
There are two separate threads of intellectual history that I am following, the history of reading in American universities, and history of the reading in the American public. The two threads are related: sometimes they twist together, sometimes they diverge. When Modernism was evolving, university reading split off from public reading, and made a separate, more serious space for itself. Popular reading has always followed its own course, obeying a different of rules, according to political and economic events in the culture at large. However, there is a great deal to be learned from changes in the public's choice of literature. Dudovitz writes "Until the massive take-over of the publishing world by huge financial groups, the bestseller was a fairly reliable indication of popular tastes and concerns. The examples are quite obvious: from Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) to Nevil Shute's On the Beach (1957) to Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward (1970), bestsellers have been books which address major concerns of a population" (25). Today a huge new genre of female teenage novels has emerged, perhaps filling the void left by Hollywood movies, which are mainly by-and-for men.
American Popular Literature of the 1940s
Despite Eisinger's view, popular American literature in the 1940s enjoyed a rich and progressive era. Politically, it was the culmination of New Deal philosophy (Greene 156). Elson writes:
Elson names Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck, 1939), Never Come Morning (Nelson Algrin 1942), Strange Fruit (Lillian Smith, 1944), Hiroshima (John Hersey, 1946), The Amboy Dukes (Irving Shulman, 1947), The Naked and the Dead (Norman Mailer, 1948), and Jailbait (William Barnard, 1949) as examples of topics that would not have previously been considered appropriate for literature. Subjects that had previously been taboo, such as poverty, slums, the experiences of Jews and Catholics, and relations between the races, became desired and desirable public reading for the first time. Therefore it was not a time of conservatism and introspection, but one of inclusion and change.
Women in Literature
Greene analyzes popular literature from 1914 to 1945 topic by topic, and on the subject of women she says:
I would add that in the 1950s another retrogression occurred, eliminating women from the workplace and the professions, including academics; the exclusion of women such as Betty Smith from the canon of American literature is part of that retrogression.
Bumper Year for Best-Selling Novels
At the end of 1943, the publishing industry released figures that showed that book sales were up 20 to 30% from 1942 1. On Dec. 20, 1943, Time Magazine wrote:
The article also mentioned that "It was a bumper year for best-selling novelists (most of them women)," naming Smith, Ilka Chase (In Bed We Cry), Elizabeth Janeway (The Walsh Girls), and Helen Howe (The Whole Heart), and mentioning Ayn Rand (The Fountainhead) and Christine Weston (Indigo) as previously remaindered writers who had become best sellers. Elson attributes this shift in the subject matter of popular literature towards socially-conscious realism to
This was likely the only time that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn could have been published: the public was hungry for realistic books about social problems in the 1940s and was willing to listen to the voices of women. It's hard to imagine this book being published in the 1920s, 1950s or 1960s, although it probably could have found a publisher today. In The American Dream and the Popular Novel, Elizabeth Long writes:
It was only in that brief era that publishing houses began to listen to other voices than that of the middle and upper middle class. This is a difficult fact for most readers to confront, and the mind immediately starts searching for exceptions to the rule, but Long has carefully tabulated her data:
Post-Depression Era Literature
It was the alignment of the political, social and economic forces of the depression and post-depression era that made middle-class book buyers interested in poverty; the writer Smith came of age during the Roosevelt administration, when the government took a positive and supportive interest in both the poor and the arts. Smith was later excluded from the academic canon partially on the basis of her class: she grew up in the tenements and, as she said in the New Yorker, she was always a poor person at heart 3. Although this was acceptable in American literature in the 1940s, later it became an embarassment as literary critics sought higher ground and thus higher status.
Published literature occurs at an intersection between a private world and a public one. To fully understand American literature, it must be placed within its social and economic context: "Ideally scholars and critics should know more about the literary marketplace of the author's time than the author would have known" (West 1). A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was a bestseller and bestsellers are social events that occur because of a peculiar need in a social order at a certain time. Bestseller criticism, then, must be contextualized. Without looking at the economic sources of literature the critic risks making conclusions from class-based assumptions, or operating within a closed world of signification, meaningful to a few elite, but meaningless to the world at large.
New Criticism failed to give a complete view of a work of art: the object, disconnected from its environment, lost meaning within that environment. According to Linda Brodkey in Academic Writing as Social Practice, New Criticism and "new New Criticism," such as Deconstruction, maintains "the unmitigated privileging of formal properties as the basis of `reading'" (67). In "Who Paid for Modernism?" Joyce Wexler interrogates the myth of James Joyce as a persecuted, alienated artist who could not find a commercial publisher: Joyce did not need a commercial publisher, because he had a patron. In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway complains continuously of poverty while living on parental subsidy. Indeed, the "artist in the garret" presumes wealth independent of work: after all "Garrets, studies, and libraries are obviously signs of the leisure requisite for writing" (Brodkey 59) and they require rent as well. One of Smith's favorite authors, Thomas Wolfe, had a patron who took care of those details for him while he was writing his tomes. Later, as Wexler writes "contempt for the commercial side of publishing was common among modernist writers" (440) and it still is. This is in keeping with the British tradition of patronage of the arts. James West writes that:
In this way Betty Smith is more "American" than most writers in the canon of American literature since American literature needs an active, aggressive author in order to connect with the publishing industry to get a book to the press. These factors, and the location of the publishing industry also favored writers from New York (Long 39).
Betty Smith was an extraordinarily hardworking and creative woman, but she did not live outside of history: her success as a best-selling working-class novelist would not have been possible if the economic and social conditions had not been propitious. Due to the depression, the American public was interested in the lives of the poor, the quasi-socialism of the Roosevelt administration gave Smith the leisure to write, and World War II drew men away from business, leaving women such as Smith and her editor, Elizabeth Lawrence, in control in their absence.
The critics loved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and the press loved the working-class celebrity Betty Smith, but during her lifetime, she saw a public shift away from the sensibility that gave her a place in American literary life. Increasingly her writing was accused of sentimentality, a derogatory term intended to exclude her from literary history. It worked. Until recently, the literary academy has concentrated on the upper classes and the events, politics and ideas that surrounded them. The writings of Betty Smith were by, for and about the poor and the events, politics and ideas that surround them. No one social group holds the key to life and writings of all economic, ethnic and gender groups are valuable. The writings of Betty Smith add a different vision and a valuable dimension to the critical study of American literature and her life needs to be made available to students and scholars. Thus I have posted this website here.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn captured the public's interest first in 1943 and still holds the public's interest today; the novel is still a strong seller and nearly everyone is familiar with the title, if not with the story of Francie, who grew up poor in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It is likely that the book's popularity with the general public will continue because it still speaks to incoming immigrants, the poor, and those who taught themselves lifelong learning at local libraries. Smith's tree, as described in the preface, is a metaphor for the poor and unwanted struggling to survive:
Francie's grandmother tells her, in broken English, that is only through reading and writing that one can escape her poverty and that is Francie's journey through the novel: she reads, educates herself and works her way towards the middle class. This is still the American dream, even though those of us who have already achieved it often forget it.
1. This is documented in many articles appearing between December 1943 and February 1944: a spokesperson for the publishing industry ust have mailed out a press release.
2. Time Magazine, 20 Dec. 1943.
3. Betty Smith, quoted in the New Yorker, 9 Oct. 1943.
Carol Siri Johnson © 2003