Joy in the Morning, Part I
After Maggie-Now, Smith lapsed into another three-year period without publishing anything. Harper & Row must have given up on their bestselling author, because they no longer pursued her, and when she requested an advance, in 1961, for her next novel, they sent her $1,000 as "an advance against all earnings derived from the sale of all your books published by them" 1. Smith was appalled. This meant that they did not think she was going to be able to write or sell another novel. And she was furious. She wrote to Helen: "I got to trembling terribly inside and I couldn't eat or sleep and took too many sleeping pills which made even more sick. He has made me feel that my writing was worthless" 2. Although Cass Canfield immediately sent her a brief note apologizing for the mistake, adding "We are quite willing to change this so that the money will be an advance against author's earnings on her new book" 3, Smith wrote to Helen that the check was unacceptable, and put Helen in the awkward position of returning it. Strauss arranged for Canfield to issue a new check, but this was not enough. As Smith later wrote: "Cass' attitude on my request for that small advance on the new book was the last straw in a whole lot of minor humiliations" 4; she wrote a letter to him terminating her relationship with Harper & Brothers:
Harper & Row did not succeed in maintaining respect for the peculiarities of Smith's artistic temperament, but fortunately Helen Strauss was there.
Helen Strauss, Agent
Smith increasingly depended on Strauss to mediate her relationship with her publisher. Harper & Brothers was no longer a small, intimate publishing house--it was on its way to becoming a corporate conglomerate. Consequently, "many authors came to feel more loyalty toward their agents than toward their editors or publishers. The agent, one presumes, will always be there; the editor may be gone tomorrow" (West 100). Helen Strauss had a personal philosophy of agenting that made it possible for her to work with the authors like Betty Smith, and guide them through the necessary legal, financial and emotional tangles. In her autobiography she describes the requisites of being a successful agent:
Helen understood Smith well enough to never get on her bad side. First she went to a great deal of trouble to get Cass Canfield to change the wording on the voucher, and when that did not satisfy Smith, she put her own professional relationship with Harper & Brothers on the line by backing her up in her search for a new publisher, agreeing with Smith that "they had acted very cheaply" 6.
Harper & Row then sent Evan Thomas, who had just been made Executive Vice President, down to Chapel Hill to smooth things over. Strauss mediated the reconciliation, and by July 11th, Smith was back in the saddle, signing a contract in New York for her next novel. She explained her long-standing anger to Thomas in a letter:
Shortly thereafter the fight was forgotten and Smith regained the voice with which she had written A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. She wrote to a friend: "Right now, I am happily engaged in writing my fourth novel: Annie Brown by Betty Smith. I mean I'm happy because it's nearly four years since my last book was published and this novel is `coming easy'" 8.
In the field of sociolinguistics, it has been demonstrated that local language variations can be overcome with practice during adult life, but that, as people age, they return to the language that they knew as a child. Betty Smith was aging, and she was ill: more and more she lived in a world of memories, the same ones that she had used in writing her first novel. Perhaps she was also inspired by her mother's illness and death, since it lead her to transcribe her mother's nearly illegible letters, and some of this writing appears in Joy in the Morning. Whatever the reason, Smith returned to the spare simplicity of her earlier writing, and, working directly from memory, produced a novel that was about her first marriage and her first pregnancy: Joy in the Morning.
Evan Thomas did not quite know what to make of the parts of the manuscripts that she sent him. Twice he admitted that he had had to send it to "the ladies" for assessment. "I trust women more than myself," he admitted to Smith, and named Lawrence and Gene Young as his readers 9. This is probably due to the topic: the novel is about a young woman who has married early, followed her husband to college, gets pregnant and has a baby. This is clearly not "literature," but "women's writing," soft stuff for the fans of romance. But Smith's novel was not romantic: the heroine has difficulty feeling sexual, even after marriage, because of memories of sexual abuse, and the young couple does not go off into a rosy future, but rather deals with the daily drama of finding enough money for food and shelter throughout a pregnancy. By her very choice of topic, Smith had just written herself out of the prevailing concepts of literature. But she did not care. She knew what she was writing about, and it was "coming easy."
As 1963 neared it became clear that they would be able to publish Annie Brown on the 20th Anniversary of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, thereby fulfilling Smith's superstition, as well as reaping the rewards of publicity. As usual, there was difficulty in selecting a title; the editor, the agent and the author all offered suggestions, but, as usual, it was Smith who hit upon the final choice. Smith must have forgiven Thomas for his role in the cutting of Maggie-Now since how he took a large role in the revision and cutting of this novel, although Elizabeth Lawrence and Gene Young were making suggestions as well. Thomas wrote to her "I cut more than my lady friends cut in the hospital [birth] scene, because it seemed too long and too clinical . . . " 10 and unfortunately Smith followed his advice. She wrote to him that "Fifty-five pages or 16,500 words have been cut from the book" 11. Perhaps this accounts for it being the slimmest of Smith's four novels.
Smith's petty squabbles with Harper & Row were not over, however. Their accounting department deduced $169.46 from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn royalties for "merchandise" she had ordered and Smith wrote to bookkeeping sending them cancelled checks to prove that she had already paid. When they didn't answer within three weeks, Smith hit the ceiling: she would always be touchy about money taken from her accounts for that novel, since she would always feel that they did not pay her enough. Smith acrimoniously wrote to Thomas, and he tried to calm her down, and later she explained: "It is great agony for me to write a business letter. It takes all day because my hopes and fears and temperament get into it" 12. Later Smith admitted it was her mistake, but this process of accusing others of stealing from her and badgering them incessantly with letters had become a part of her life. She got into a legal squabble with a contractor and a bank over her cottages at Nag's Head. It got so complicated that it was impossible for me to untangle. It is unlikely that she ever resolved anything in this way, but perhaps she vented some of her feelings of frustration at her own increasing helplessness.
Smith made a lot of money on Joy in the Morning. Joy in the Morning rose to fifth place on the best-seller list, and is a strong seller even today: unlike Tomorrow Will Be Better and Maggie-Now, Joy in the Morning is in print. Strauss also sold Joy in the Morning to MGM for $100,000 13. And in 1964 Harpers put out their new Perennial Library, which is the present edition available in the bookstores. Although she immediately started on another memoir, Smith's relationship with her publisher was coming to a close. Thomas moved to Norton and Smith had a series of new editors among them Raymond I. Bradbury and Buz Wyeth. But Smith never published another novel.
Like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Joy in the Morning is a semi-autobiographical novel relying on memory rather than plot. It is a simple novel recalling Smith's move to Ann Arbor, the early days of her marriage and her first pregnancy. Smith brilliantly portrays the misunderstandings between a young couple, the joys and problems of pregnancy and birth. The subdued message is that love and marriage are not perfect, but worthwhile nevertheless.
The novel starts in a town hall in a midwestern state where Annie McGairy, just arrived from Brooklyn, is marrying Carl Brown, a young law student. Carl is ambitious and has pretensions, whereas Annie is sometimes ashamed of her accent, yet feels a working class solidarity. When Annie speaks, the clerk is astonished by her accent, and Carl corrects her grammar. As soon as the ceremony is done, the young couple sits down on an outside bench and counts how much money they have so that they can get through the upcoming week. Carl had been earning his meals working as a bus boy in the cafeteria, making five dollars a week on a paper route, and receiving five dollars a week from his mother. Carl's mother discontinues his allowance when he tells her he is married, and, as a married student, he is not eligible for a tuition loan or a scholarship. They realize that Carl will be working so hard that they will almost never see each other. Carl complains about being poor but Annie says: "But it's not the tenement kind of poor. That's being poor for nothing" (128).
Hunger is also at the core of the book. When Annie and Carl eat, they eat fast: "They had little to say to each other during the meal; both, as usual, being very hungry" (38). There is very little plot in Joy in the Morning. The young couple marries, argues, works and eats; Annie gets two jobs; Annie starts auditing a class and learns she has a gift for writing; then Annie gets pregnant and there is a crises when they try to figure out how they are going to be able to afford to continue eating. In fact, there are several times when there is not quite enough food, but the young couple, ever resourceful, manages to scrape by.
Annie's special quality is that she makes friends with just about everyone she meets on the street--and no one from the college. When Carl plays tennis with a Japanese-American friend, she hears his perfect English, and finds she cannot relate to a world so alien. Instead, she befriends the owners of a grocery on the wrong side of town--a taciturn Native American and his Swedish wife. Smith portrays their use language compellingly.
The main source of tension in the novel is in the relationship between Annie and Carl. The impediments to their success are great: they are living on almost no money in the same room, Annie is left on her own while Carl is constantly busy, their parents disapprove of the marriage, and they are elementally very different people. The miracle is that they get along at all, and often the tension is broken by that magic--that everything, at this age, seems possible.
The joy in this novel is the joy of adventure, discovery and pregnancy. Annie is very happy while she is pregnant. During the summer
But then they ran out of money for food. Carl desperately searched the town for a job, but there was nothing until the university opened in the fall. They pawned his tennis racket, ice skates and watch, and then they had nothing left to pawn. They wrote to their parents for money: Carl's mother says "I told you so" and Annie's mother tells her to write to her step-father, which she refuses to do. Finally Carl gets a job as a night-watchman in a factory, which means they will never be together, neither during the days nor the nights, but they will have enough money to survive.
And, as the pregnancy progressed, Annie's attitude changed:
Carl was on edge, too, worried about money and about being able to be there when Annie had the baby. Joy in the Morning really captures the feeling of impending change brought about by childbirth: it is when everything is centered around that one thing, waiting, for weeks, just before your life is about to change forever.
Finally it is time and Annie goes to the hospital for the first time in her life. The description she gives of the birth has an abbreviated sense about it, probably due to Thomas' editing. It is suggested that after a long labor they want to give her a cesarean, but through sheer willpower she pushes out an eight pound boy. And, like with all babies of a certain generation, the doctor put the baby on formula "because the child needed more nourishment than Annie could supply." That made Annie feel like only half a woman, and this is probably the first time this very common issue is approached in a novel (268). Then Annie sells a story, her play gets published in a book, Carl graduates and gets a job, and they plan to move. The end.
All this may sound like nothing to those expecting Sturm and Drang, but it's a wonderful thing to read about common reality. Young couples go through these things all the time, but they are never thought worth of immortalizing in fiction. The slow accumulation of everyday detail is part of the process of growing up which is so exciting in one's younger years: every time you do something for yourself, for the first time, it is new, it is fresh, and even if it is difficult it will never be this exciting again. It's a process whereby middle and lower-middle class Americans learn how to make a place for themselves within this world. And back in those days, women only left home by marrying. Their life, then, became a process of growth with a stranger at their side, a stranger who they learned about as they had experiences together. In that way, Joy in the Morning can be looked at as the bildungsroman of a woman.
Sordid and Sentimental
The sentimentality of which the book is accused may be read in the care that Annie puts into buying a ninety-eight cent clock and ashtray for their room, her attempt to copy the dress and walk of the co-eds, and her unabashed love of the campus library where she walks among the stacks talking to the books. It is also in the first plays she writes, out of boredom while Carl is studying, in which a direct depiction of reality metamorphoses into a wish-fulfillment, just like in daydreams. And in the sections of the novel when Annie is in the classroom, Smith is able to give us a brief history and criticism of her own writing. Although she gets an A in her playwrighting class, her teacher chastises her for writing "a combination of sordidness and sentimentality . . . The two do not mix well . . . However, the dialogue is authentic" (147).
Sometimes the dialogue, especially between Annie and Carl, seems insipid and childish, but if you imagine it being spoken you realize that this is the way people really talk. For instance, Carl calls her a nut, and she says "Just call me Hazel" (61). Smith had a great gift for rendering colloquial language. When Lopin Lopin (the Native American) comes to pick up his son who Annie had been babysitting while his wife gave birth, Annie asks him whether it was a girl or a boy, but he won't say, so she said: "`You ask him, Carl . . . He's too proud to talk to a woman.' `How's the wife?' asked Carl in a hearty, man-to-man voice. `She ketch a girl off me' said the Lopin of few words" (165). For continuation, see Joy in the Morning, Part II.
1. Harper & Row, voucher accompanying check, 30 Jan 1961.
2. Betty Smith, letter to Helen Strauss, 14 Feb. 1961.
3. Cass Canfield, letter to Helen Strauss, 8 Feb. 1961.
4. Betty Smith, letter to Helen Strauss, 11 April 1961.
5. Betty Smith, letter to Cass Canfield, 18 Feb. 1961.
6. Helen Strauss, letter to Betty Smith, 14 Feb. 1961.
7. Betty Smith, letter to Evan Thomas, 30 April 1961.
8. Betty Smith, letter to Abe Burack, 14 Aug. 1961.
9. Evan Thomas, letter to Betty Smith, 25 Feb. 1963.
10. Evan Thomas, letter to Betty Smith, 25 Feb. 1963.
11. Betty Smith, letter to Evan Thomas, 7 Mar 1963.
12. Betty Smith, letter to Jane Wilson, 27 Oct. 1963.
13. Helen Strauss, letter to Betty Smith, 10 June 1963.
Carol Siri Johnson © 2003