Joy in the Morning, Part II
The critics hated Joy in the Morning. The New Yorker wrote:
In a review in The Saturday Review, Smith is taken to task for not taking into account the world events of 1928, the year in which the book was set--"there is no evidence either of them ever saw a newspaper" (thereby assuming that any novel worth reading must include current events)--and Joy in the Morning is named a "sentimental myth" 2.
The Day of the Barbie Doll
The tag of sentimentality had attached itself firmly to Betty Smith's writing. One review, "Sentiment Takes Over Betty Smith's New Novel," bemoans that "We live in the Day of the Barbie Doll" 3. In a review entitled "Just Too, Too Sweet" the author wrote: "Sentiment is an effective ingredient in personal retrospective fiction if it is used wisely and in moderation. Otherwise, the warm may blow to heartburn" 4. It is possible to read many things in a novel, and at this point all the reviewers were reading sentimentality. The descriptions of finding small pleasures in everyday life are sentimental, but no more so than, say, the running narrative of Henry James in The Golden Bowl or James Joyce's fond description of the bar tap in Ulysses. I'm not claiming such immortality for Joy in the Morning, certainly, but I'm saying it's not all so different. The sociologist Long writes "people generally pay attention to messages that accord with their existing attitudes, screening out communications they do not want to deal with" (52), and thus the intent of Joy in the Morning was largely lost to them: Betty Smith was merely "sentimental." One reviewer noted that "Betty Smith Writes a Charming Novel for the Ladies" 5. Betty Smith's writing had been ascribed a genre.
In The Modern American Novel 1914-1945: A Critical History, Linda Wagner-Martin writes:
Joy in the Morning is not about male experience and belief: in fact, Carl sometimes comes off as callous. It is also written with the simplicity that made it accessible to all segments of the population, even those with the most rudimentary reading skills. Therefore, Joy in the Morning was never a candidate to be considered as serious literature, merely by Smith's choice of subject and style. The reviewers here functioned to reify the increasing hegemony of modernistic belief.
One reviewer, Virgilia Peterson in the New York Times, actually seemed to have enjoyed the book, but attached a negative conclusion to her review. Peterson wrote that, overall, the secondary characters are far too nice and concludes "As you will have guessed by this time, 'Joy in the Morning' is, if not in American life, then most assuredly in contemporary American literature, an anachronism. From start to finish its sentimentality is unalloyed. The little couple is touching enough and their ups and downs are universal. But you forget all about them the moment the book ends--just as you forget, when you emerge from a movie, the false light of the silver screen in the uncompromising reality outside" 6. It was as if, to give a bad review to this book was a critical imperative. Smith had crossed an unstated boundary and this step had cost her serious consideration as a writer in America.
It's actually a wonderful book. One positive review summarized it:
It's simple, it's sweet, it's entertaining, it's about Native Americans living within America, it's about poverty and how to live with it, it's a love story where the couple doesn't "overcome" all simply with a kiss, it's sort of a manual of what life can be like if you are 18, have no money, and get married. And that's why it's a brave novel. No one had dared to write about a topic as simple and as real as that. No one had dared to approach something so common to the people of America.
Writing for the Poor
Joy in the Morning found the right complex of qualities for it to become a popular novel. It is a novel of the ideology of poverty--not the ideology of the hegemony, justifying the causes of poverty, but the ideology of joy in the lives of the poor themselves. "Mary Poovey has pointed out that ideology is enabling as well as restricting; so, too, is literary form as long as we recognize not only its potential imposition of stasis, but also its enabling power in yielding new understandings of women's lives" (Frye 47). In this ideology, the simple becomes momentous, and joy can exist in the most commonplace of daily activities. Joy in the Morning resolves how poverty, anxiety, and individual happiness can coexist.
When Smith began teaching herself how to write, she really had no model on which to base her novels: the writers that she read were mainly either women from the upper-middle classes, or men. She was a woman from the lower-class, and she had to figure out how to tell her own story in her own way. Consequently, it took her two novels after her first to find the voice that was hers. When she did find her voice it was simple and clear enough that everyone could understand it, including people with a very low reading level. To remain true to herself and her message she had to address this audience: they were her world. And in this way Smith wrote herself out of the canon:
Perhaps the wide-ranging intellectuality of the late twentieth century will be open to the study of a culture through the life of one of its writers. And if this is true, what better life to study than that of a writer who was popular enough to share her vision with millions of readers?
Smith remained friends with Evan Thomas for the rest of her life, and even tried to explain the motivation of her novels to him:
Nancy Smith Pfeiffer notes that it was assumed by Smith's editors and agent that the novels represented the men in her life: Johnny Nolan in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was like her father, Frankie Malone in Tomorrow Will Be Better represented Joe Jones, Claude Bassett in Maggie-Now represented Bob Finch, and Carl Brown in Joy in the Morning was George Smith. This is probably also true.
Smith's novels are complex and there are no easy conclusions to be drawn. Her two middle novels, Tomorrow Will Be Better and Maggie-Now, are problematic because they are both extremely well-written and extremely distressing. And yet they have literary integrity in that they are about something real, and are written from the viewpoint of an author who was well-practiced and brave, and who, like all truly great artists in Western culture, stepped outside of the boundaries of what had been said and what had been done: Betty Smith approached the unapproachable, she wrote about the taboo subjects of poverty, abuse and co-dependency. There is a simplified way of looking at her writing, however: that is that Smith's first novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was about the most important person in her life, herself; her second novel, Tomorrow Will Be Better, was about the second most important person in her life, her mother; Maggie-Now was about the third most important person in her life, her father; and Joy in the Morning, her return to happiness, was about the other most important people in her life, her children. Perhaps each novel can be seen as a portrait of those figures; and perhaps, in that way, we can look at the work of Betty Smith as a whole, rather than as a series of successes and failures.
1. New Yorker, 31 Aug. 1963.
2. Babette Hall, The Saturday Review, 24 Aug. 1963.
3. Jay McCormick, ?.
4. Judith L. Light, Long Island Press 22 Sept. 1963.
5. Dennis Powers, Oakland Tribune, 11 Aug. 1963.
6. Virgilia Peterson, New York Times, 13 Aug. 1963.
7 C. M. Siggins, Best Seller, 1 Sept. 1963.
8. Betty Smith, letter to Evan Thomas, 15 April 1964.
Carol Siri Johnson © 2003