1943 Publication of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn: Betty Smith and Harper & Brothers
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is an American classic. When it first appeared in 1943 it was an immediate bestseller and has since become an icon of our cultural consciousness, a symbol of the American Dream. Even now echoes of the title are heard in newspaper headlines across the country; many people remember the story of Francie, who grew, like the tree, in the tenements of Williamsburg. Nevertheless, so little is known about the author that she is included in an anthology of Irish American writers even though she is of German descent. Betty Smith was an anomaly: as a member of the working-class and a woman, she became a major figure in the literary life of the 1940s.
When A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was published, it was a social phenomena: it was widely publicized as one of the best novels of 1943, it was read by thousands, and it became the staple of religious and social club discussions. Smith herself became a celebrity and all her activities were relayed throughout the press. The reason that it was such an astounding success was, in part, because it was the first American novel about the lives of ordinary working-class people that was written in a style that ordinary working-class people could understand. And yet this very style has kept A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Smith's other novels out of the canon of American literature. Although it has acquired the reputation of being a romance, or a teen novel, it is neither. This chapter will explore the generic evolution of style in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
Published literature occurs at an intersection between a private world and a public one. When Smith started writing A Tree Grows in Brooklyn she was sitting by herself, smoking, and meditating on the world that she lived in for her first twenty-three years, a world distant from the heat and magnolias that surrounded her. She was in a dialogue with herself about her past. She was also writing with her dramatic assumption, developed over the years, that there was an audience at the foot of the stage, sitting in the dark, waiting for her words. And at this point she imagined an approving audience, since her plays had won awards and were highly praised in the newspapers.
American Literary Marketplace and 'Failed Masterpieces"
After the novel was accepted for publication, however, it entered the public sphere. In American Authors and the Literary Marketplace since 1900, James West writes "One of the major problems for scholars who work with twentieth-century American writing . . . is to come to terms with the alterations wrought on modern American literature by editors in trade houses" (72). Publishing in the United States was, since its inception, fueled mainly by a market economy rather than private patronage. This resulted in what Amy Kaplan, in The Social Construction of American Realism calls the "failed masterpiece":
In a smaller, more homogenous society, it may be possible to come up with some static set of boundaries called "genre," but in the fluid, interactive mass culture of the United States, with all of it's competing nationalities, classes, dialect, and economies, with its ethic of opportunity and change, nothing stays stable long. Therefore, if you are going to judge things according how well they conform to a static model, rather than a fluid one, American literature will always be a literature of "failed masterpieces." Betty Smith's novel but when it had to go to press, it underwent a final re-formation. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is almost a perfect book; it began with the linguistic simplicity she had developed in her writing for the Federal Theatre Project, but it is marred by a sudden shift towards the end that turns what would have been a tour de force into a slow winding-down of events and "nostalgic leavetakings" 1.
Post-Depression Socialism and the Federal Theater Project as Influences
It is difficult to estimate to what extent authors work with an idea
of form in their minds. Writing takes place in dialogue with a writing
community, and when Smith began writing A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,
she was influenced by several things. One was her work on the Federal
Theater Project. Perhaps she was remembering the words of Hallie Flanagan
regarding the Living Newspaper: "Authenticity should be the guiding
principle . . . Assemble a wide, firm foundation of factual material"
2, when she walked her reader through the
Williamsburg neighborhood in which she lived, taking them into every store
and describing the contents of the shelves 3.
Certainly she was encouraged to use the material from her past by the
teachings of Proff Koch: his main focus was to encourage dramatists to
use "the legends, superstitions, customs, environmental differences,
and the vernacular of the common people" (Spearman 16). The acceptance
of socialist ideas in the post-depression decade allowed the emergence
of material that had previously been taboo.
Literary Influences on A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Thomas Wolfe was an influence on Smith's writing as well. Like Smith, he had been trained by Koch with the Carolina Playmakers--and he was writing stories and novels from the same vein that Smith wanted to tap. She often said that she was originally challenged to tell her story when she read his short story "Only the Dead Know Brooklyn" and felt that he got it all wrong: "I realized that he had caught the lost feeling of Brooklyn, but his stories weren't authentic. This challenged me to write what I know about Brooklyn, to show it as it really is" 4. The first notes regarding A Tree Grows in Brooklyn were scribbled in Of Time and the River. On the front flyleaf there are some emotional and philosophical meandering not unlike Wolfe's own, and on the back cover there is an outline which roughly conforms to the plot of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Although she continually refers to Wolfe as her major influence, Smith was inspired more by his method than his style: whereas Wolfe's sentences can run for several pages, recalling every nuance of a memory or thought, Smith's style is short sentences with simple diction, and creates a rhythm through repetition. Smith was probably partially captivated by Wolfe's unashamed self-absorption, since she was quite capable of this herself. As her later friends remember: "Everything revolved around Betty" 5.
John Steinbeck, James T. Farrell, and Henry Roth. She wrote plainly, but without the condescension of some popular depression writers, such as Erskine Caldwell. Smith's style directed to the uneducated reader: it was simple, it included dialect, and it used repetition as a stylistic device, what Arthur Miller in Timebends calls "the thrilling lyricism of the thirties" (Athas 26). She read and respected Farrell, who also wrote about the life of the urban lower classes, but she soon outstripped him in readership since she had the gift of including humor in the vision of the struggling classes. The style that she eventually developed was her own. "She worked hard to make her language simple and easy. It wasn't an accident of style, but one she worked at consciously" 6. Little did she know this style, based on the grim realities of the times and influenced by Russian writers as well, would serve to keep her out of the canon, classified as "high-school literature" 7.
Henry Roth's Call It Sleep, published in 1934, indubitably influenced Smith's confidence in her subject matter as well. Nancy Smith Pfeiffer recalls that when it was published in 1934, it was "the cutting edge with experimentation with style," and says that Call It Sleep gave Smith "permission" to write down her memoirs 8. The subjects of Smith and Roth are nearly identical--the brutality of childhood and youth, one "Irish" and female, the other Jewish and male, in the immigrant tenements of New York--and the same somber tone pervades both novels. But again, Smith's style is nearly opposite to Roth's. Roth's novel was a literary experiment with transcription of actual language change and stream-of-consciousness that did not always take the reader into account, or, rather, assumed a patient and literate reader. Smith made reading as easy as possible for her reader. Later she would tell the press that the writers from whom she had learned most were Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson and Thomas Wolfe 9.
Smith was able, over the years, to develop her own style, but she often relied on others for form. Her plays and novels remained fluid until publication (some of the plays underwent transformations after publication as well) and Smith was always open to considering the ideas of others in the process. As a playwright, working with George Pierce Baker at Yale and Koch and Green in North Carolina, she learned to use collaboration as an element of her writing, and this largely affected her form.
Submissions and Rejections: Introduction to Harper & Brothers
These are some of the threads of the American literary dialogue that Smith brought with her to the kitchen table with her yellow foolscap to type out her life, ten pages a morning for several years. It was a singular and personal meditation, but Smith had no intention of leaving those pages in a box somewhere. She continually submitted batches of them to publishers: in December of 1940 she sent fifty pages of "They Lived in Brooklyn" to Houghton Mifflin and a section to Random house; in 1941 she submitted sections to Scribner's, Greenburg Publishers, Ives Washburn and Little Brown & Co.; in 1942 she submitted it to Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer. And she was repeatedly rejected. Finally, in May of 1942, she submitted it to the Harper & Brothers 125th Anniversary Nonfiction Contest, carefully referring to it as a "manuscript" rather than a "novel."
Smith's hopes that she would have a chance in the Harper & Brothers contest must not have been great, because a week later she wrote asking to have her "novel" sent back so that she could work on it some more. This must have prompted the publishers to look at it because there is a handwritten note on her letter in the Harper files: "Since it is a novel it is not a candidate for the contest. Too literate to dismiss quickly. Write & say it is being read as a regular entrant - put in weeded pile." The note is signed EFL--EFL is Elizabeth Lawrence who eventually became Smith's editor and confidante. Lawrence's secretary wrote Smith a noncommittal letter that her novel was being considered "in the regular way," and that they would notify her "in a week or so" 10. A month later, in an agony of expectation, Smith wrote back asking their decision. Lawrence had passed her findings along to the senior editor Eugene F. Saxton, and he wrote to Smith that her book has been held up because it had "aroused a great deal of interest," and also asked whether any of the characters in the book represented real people 11.
Eugene Saxton and Elizabeth Lawrence
Smith had been waiting too long for her big break to let this opportunity
take its own course. She immediately wrote back a long letter, giving
an account of her background, her writing, her projects, and the revisions
she planned on making, ending it by saying she was coming to New York
in a week so that they could discuss it in person 12.
There she met Elizabeth Lawrence, and the meeting went well 13.
When Smith returned to Chapel Hill, she received a phone call, via her
upstairs neighbors, that her novel had been accepted for publication.
In July Smith travelled to New York again, this time meeting with Eugene
F. Saxton as well as with Lawrence. After the meeting, Saxton sent her
a contract, but she returned it unsigned: it was a 50/50 split, and Smith
was worried about the film rights, of which the Leland Heyward agency
expected a share. Her impatience finally got the better of her and she
wrote a letter giving Harper & Brothers fifty percent of everything.
Later she would regret this hasty move.
At the time, however, Smith was dependant upon the support of her publisher: "Young authors are particularly vulnerable to high-handed editors because they are eager to be published and will make almost any compromise to see their work in print" (West 69). In Irving to Irving: Author-Publisher Relations 1800-1974, Charles Madison writes about the publisher-author relation:
Smith was overjoyed that her book was going to be published, and grateful to both Saxton and Lawrence. Her letters to them immediately took on a personal and relaxed tone. The support and friendship that she received through the firm over the years may well have been worth 50% of her first novel.
Eugene Saxton was a senior editor at Harper & Brothers. In Up & Down & Around: A Publisher Recollects the Time of His Life, Cass Canfield describes him:
Canfield credits Saxton with bringing in most of the big writers in the firm. It is a chance of history that World War II made men scarce, so that when Saxton became ill, there was no man to replace him. Even though Harper & Brothers, like other publishing firms, did not hire women as editors, the war created unusual opportunities for women.
Women in Publishing
Elizabeth Lawrence began as a reader, but became one of the first female editors 14. Lawrence recalled that "The position of temporary copy editor at Harpers was to be for one month. At the end of one month I was asked to stay another month. Then after several months they just forgot to ask" 15. According to both Cass Canfield in his memoirs and Eugene Exman in The House of Harper, Lawrence was the editor who discovered Betty Smith. Lawrence was tactful, thorough, and an extremely successful editor. Cass Canfield credits her with being able to empathize with her readers (204). He referred to her editing projects as the "Lawrence Mysteries," since she seemed to have a magical knack for choosing novels that would become best-sellers 16. Lawrence was among the most beloved editors in Harper & Brothers' history 17. For continuation, see Publication, Part II.
1. Elizabeth Lawrence, letter to Betty Smith, 12 Jan. 1943.
2. Undated mimeographed handout written by Hallie Flanagan in the Betty Smith Papers.
3. One fan wrote to say that he knew exactly which stores she was talking about, and others wrote recalling other details from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
4. Raleigh News May 9, 1943.
5. Drs. Fullilove and Lesage, personal interview, 18 May 1992.
6. Nancy Smith Pfeiffer, notes on draft, 25 April 1994.
7. Nancy Smith Pfeiffer, personal interview, 10/11 May 1991, notes that Smith was put on many high-school reading lists due to the accessibility of her writing.
8. Nancy Smith Pfeiffer, interview, May 10-11, 1991.
9. John K. Hutchens, New York Herald Tribune 11 Aug. 1963.
10. TH.G., secretary to Elizabeth Lawrence, letter to Betty Smith, 18 May 1942.
11. Eugene F. Saxton, letter to Betty Smith, 24 June 1942.
12. Betty Smith, letter Eugene F. Saxton, 27 June 1942.
13. Elizabeth Lawrence, letter to Betty Smith, 7 July 1942.
14. The only other woman made an editor at this time was Joan Kahn. Genevive Young, telephone conversation, 18 Sept. 1992.
15. Elizabeth Lawrence, letter written by Mary Jo Reiter to author, Dec. 1992.
16. Reiter, Mary Jo. Letter, Dec. 1992.
17. In my research, everyone that remembered her loved and respected her. Cass Canfield dedicated his memoirs to her.
Carol Siri Johnson © 2003