Biography of Betty Smith, Author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Welcome to the life of Betty Smith. I have posted my research here on
the internet so that everyone can have access to information about her
life. In a way, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn itself is Betty Smith's
biography. When reporters asked her, as they often did, whether the book
was "true," she had a stock answer: she said it was "not
as it was, but as it should have been." I never
realized the significance of this until a high school student (J. Zeise)
wrote to me and said that she looked up the word "true" in the
dictionary and one of the definitions was "such as it should be."
Smith couldn't tell the reporters that the book was true because
she was being sued by relatives, so instead she found a different way
to say it - Smith was very practical and probably went to the dictionary,
found the definition, and had a good laugh every time she used that answer
That is not to say that all of the details are true - she changed the
ethnicity of her family from German to Irish (she published the book during
WWII) and made other changes. But the details are a "slice of life"
that accurately portray the sort of life that many American immigrants
had during the early 20th century.
About this Dissertation
Betty Smith published the American novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
in 1943. I wrote this dissertation for The City University of New York
Graduate Center in 1994.
To do the research for the dissertation, I spent quite a bit of time at
Smith archives of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
That is where Betty Smith, who grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, moved
as an adult, and that is where she wrote her best-selling novel. I also
interviewed her daughter and others who knew her. Since I wrote this dissertation
at a time when digital media was not widely used, I did not collect images
while I was doing the research. However, since then some readers have
sent me images and I will include three here that will give you a fairly
good idea of what she was like:
at Peter Luger's Steakhouse in Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Smith playing bingo
The organization of this site is not chronological. I apologize for the
poor organization - the biographical and publishing material are separated,
so it cannot be read like a narrative. The part of this website that most
people will be interested in is the Biography.
That part of the site is split into the years of her life. Other than
the biography, the main chapters of this dissertation are in-depth analyses
of the publication of each of her books - he interactions with her publishers,
etc. Those portions of this website are footnoted, the biography is not.
of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in 1943: An account of Betty Smith's
interaction with Elizabeth Lawrence at Harper & Brothers, describing
how the novel was edited and changed.
- Literary Context
in American Literature: The place of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
in the canon of American literature with critical dialogues regarding
women's and working-class literature.
Will Be Better, Maggie Now,
and Joy in the Morning: Smith's three
after A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, none of which achieved critical
acclaim (although Joy in the Morning was made into a movie).
citing works and sources.