teaching technical communication A Decade of Research: Assessing Change in the Technical Communication Classroom using Online Portfolios Betty Smith, author of the best selling novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, an example of American working class literatureThe Steel Bible: A Case Study of 20th Century Technical Communication
Biography of Betty Smith, author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Publication of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the best selling novel by Betty Smith, published by Harper & Row in 1942 American literature
Literary context of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, within the context of working class American literature
Tomorrow Will Be Better, a novel by Betty Smith
Maggie Now, a novel by Betty Smith
Joy in the Morning, a novel by Betty Smith
Bibliography of the writing of Betty Smith, author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

  The Second Book

In her first letter to Eugene Saxton about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Smith wrote: "This is everything I know. I don't know anymore than what is in this book" 1. She had to confront this problem nearly immediately after publication, because Harper & Brothers wanted another book; Lawrence kept in constant contact with her, encouraging her to follow up A Tree Grows in Brooklyn with a second bestseller. It was only one month after publication that Elizabeth Lawrence wrote to Smith, "Do you have time these days to give any thought to the next novel?" 2. Smith was under great pressure: the public demands on her were constant; she had endless professional opportunities, in film, on Broadway, and on radio. Smith knew that Harper & Brothers would publish whatever she wrote, so she felt her next novel had to prove her literary ability.

But Smith was in a bind. She also felt her next novel had to offend no one. She had been very much frightened by the lawsuit, and by the reaction of a few Catholic churches. Consequently, so she made a special effort to use none of the people she knew as characters, and to avoid mention of the church. The only mention of Catholicism in her second novel is when a minor character states: "The Church only takes normal men for priests. So they pour all the love they could have for wife and children into the Church and the people Church and the people of the Church" (205).

Smith set out to work within literary plot conventions. Joanne Frye writes about "how closely our plot expectations are linked to gender expectations: heroines do not kill bears or set out to travel the world; they do not prove themselves in battle or test the boundaries of human survival; they merely fall in love or fail in love" (Frye 1). When she sent a version of the manuscript to Lawrence she wrote: "I am happy about it because it convinces me that I can write another novel and another without depending on biographical material" 3. But Lawrence knew how important memory was to her writing; Lawrence wrote back:

Remember, also, not to be afraid to draw on your own experiences. Your life is the best material you have. Borrow from it all you need -- so long as characters and situations are not reproduced with photographic fidelity. If you could develop a thick skin it would help. . . .4

Smith, however, had been shocked by the power of her first novel and was terrified of offending thousands of new readers by her second. She had humiliated her devoutly religious mother by her treatment of the Catholic Church and she had exposed the secrets of her tight-lipped German family. This time when Smith sat down to write, she had, in her mind, a huge, varied, and critical audience peering over her shoulder as she wrote. But she also felt that "I may never achieve lasting literary distinction, but I have to have that goal in mind, otherwise I cannot bring myself to sit down and put words on to paper" 5.


While Smith was working on her novel, she faced continual distractions. Her marriage to Jones was comprised mainly of meeting briefly between trains; her daughter Mary needed much help in making the adjustment to motherhood; Smith bought and renovated the old Mangum house; her play "And Never Yield" was continually on the verge of production; the film of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn premiered, World War II ended, and then Smith traveled to Switzerland to work on the screenplay "School Bus." In January of 1944 Smith she wrote to Lawrence: "I can't seem to get settled enough to get started. I thought the talks and broadcasts and fan mail would be temporary. But now I've come to think that as Hardy said, the temporary is the all" 6. However, with those words, Smith had begun.

Smith worked on the manuscript on and off during 1944, during the summer of 1945 and intensively from January to June in 1946; then she sent Lawrence her "finished" manuscript 7. Smith was understandably nervous about Harper & Brothers' reaction to Tomorrow Will Be Better. On one hand she felt it was a good novel, better than A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and yet on the other, she felt that it may be too humorless and too "spare" for the reading audience of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn 8. She compared her novel to one of James T. Farrell's recent novels, Bernard Clare, citing that she was sure her's was the better of the two. Still, she apologized to Lawrence at Harper for the lack of "dramatic conflict" 9. Smith was still working in the vein of folk realism that she had learned from Fred Koch in her association with the Carolina Playmakers, but this time her subject of folk-analysis was an urban working-class marriage. It is possible that Smith was influenced in her choice of this topic by Paul Green's popular play "Fixins'." Both rely heavily on the use of eggs as a focal point for relentless poverty. The miserable details of these sad lives are made explicit. Smith was right--Harper & Brothers did not want the photographic realism of the WPA years, or one more depressing novel in a series like James T. Farrell's: they wanted a book that would make people laugh and cry rather than think, a book that would sell in large numbers.

Literary Criticisms

Immediately all her editors at Harper & Brothers sent her letters saying that everything was fine, and they wanted to see her soon: they knew Smith was under a lot of pressure and they planned the meeting with care. Lawrence wrote a note to Edward Aswell and Frank MacGregor saying that they should take care not to appear to "gang up" on her 10. Instead, they all had a friendly lunch at Giovanni's, and afterwards Lawrence met with Smith alone to discuss the book in detail. This was an unfortunate move on Lawrence's part: Smith never forgave her for the criticisms she made. In a later memorandum, Lawrence recalled what she had said to Smith:

My principal point was that the story failed for us as good theater - that her characters lacked the warm humanity of the people in A TREE and so did not take hold of the reader's imagination - that the conflict was so muted as to be almost non-existent. In A TREE the characters were fighting their environment, they were in vigorous contact with life - either acceptance or rejection - and the reader cared dreadfully what happened to them. In the new novel the characters seemed passive, they took what came, drifted - with the result that they remained for the reader as drab as their background.

We explored possible ways of introducing color and variety and a change of mood through secondary figures, like the boss with the mother-fixation and the girl friend in the clipping bureau who went off to be married. . . .

Cutting was suggested as a way of sharpening. For example, the family bickering that went on so long and repetitiously, and the tiresomely detailed washroom gossip among the girls of the clipping bureau.

I said I had a feeling that she was writing more self-consciously than in A TREE, that she could not forget her audience looking over her shoulder 11.

Smith, who had once been able to take criticism so well, was tired from her publicity rounds, tired from rewriting her unproduced play, tired from her unproductive marriage--she was feeling very discouraged. Harper & Brothers were aware of her state of mind. When Smith returned to Chapel Hill, there was a flurry of letters in which Aswell wrote that he and MacGregor backed Elizabeth 100% and that they all have faith in her, despite her moments of self-doubt 12.

Temporarily conciliated, Smith responded: "I am humble about wanting to learn. All my life I've had to keep learning things to ... as the social workers say ... rise above my environment" 13 but this humility was short-lived. Trouble was brewing and Harper & Brothers were walking on eggs with their bestselling, working-class novelist. Even in England, Geoffrey Halliday at Curtis Brown Ltd., the international agenting firm, met with Smith on her way to Switzerland and reported back to Lawrence that "for the moment I think there are no special problems" 14. But Smith did not feel that way. She had set aside the novel until she had a new editor.

Elizabeth Lawrence vs. Betty Smith

The trouble had been brewing for a long time. Even though the editorial relationship she had with Lawrence would turn out to be the closest she would ever have, Smith had been chafing at the bit, and did not appreciate Lawrence's professional criticism. She especially did not like to work with a woman. She had given Lawrence some hint of that when she wrote:

But coming from a matriarchal family ... my father died when I was ten ... and having all aunts and few uncles and mostly all female cousins ... one of which or whom sued me and having two daughters who sometimes make demands on me that a son wouldn't, I just get the feeling that I don't like women 15.

Lawrence wrote "I somehow doubt that this is true, but if it is true you are to be pitied for we women aren't on the whole a bad lot at all" 16. But Smith was on the warpath, and she was intent on blaming her problems on a woman. Years later Smith explained to Max Steele that she just could not get along with Elizabeth Lawrence, and offered him this anecdote, which he relayed:

[Betty Smith] said "You know Elizabeth got so upset when my cousin sued me for $50,000, and said `I hope you remember from now on. . . . '" And Betty said "Well, Elizabeth, Harper's made four million off that story and I made a million, and I think $50,000 is not too much to pay for that kind of success. We can afford it." And Betty said "I wonder if Harper's will still be nice to me when I'm living in a hallway bedroom" and Elizabeth said to her "Oh, Betty, I think Harper's can afford that" 17.

Given Smith's talents for embellishment, this anecdote is probably more expressive of her feelings towards Lawrence than actual fact. Smith was angry about having struck a bad deal with her publishers.

Adversarial Interactions

It is easy to forget, among literate and polite people, that, as James West writes, "all author-publisher dealings are initially of an adversary nature" (85). Underlying Smith's dislike of Lawrence as a woman and her annoyance at the criticism she made of Tomorrow Will Be Better, there is also the fact that the contract that Smith signed for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was not to her best advantage. Of all the editors at Harper & Brothers, Lawrence was the one who guessed that it was going to be a run-away success, and perhaps Smith resented her for not protecting her rights. But, as West writes,

Within reason, publishers wish to secure the right to manufacture and sell literary work on terms most advantageous to their houses. Authors wish to receive the highest payment possible for their labors and to retain as many of the subsidiary rights, or percentages of them, as they can (85).

Perhaps the break between Smith and Lawrence was inevitable. When Smith returned from Europe, Lawrence sent her a routine letter about a broadcast, and Smith blew up: she sent a telegram "ASTONISHED YOU ARRANGED BANTAM BROADCAST WITHOUT TELLING ME THIS BROADCAST IS AGAINST MY WISHES" 18. Lawrence immediately returned a telegram stating that she had had no intention of antagonizing her and that she thought it was a strictly routine matter, explaining that "In connection with the launching of the Bantam edition of A TREE, there will be a radio program dramatizing a couple of incidents. . . " 19. Smith immediately sent a letter explaining her anger: "I thought how awful that something I worked on for nearly four years could be so hacked and patched to fit a 25 minute program" and apologizing 20. But that would be the last apology she would make.

From then on Smith refused to correspond with Elizabeth Lawrence. Smith sent her subsequent letters to Cass Canfield, the editor-in-chief, asking him to do the routine matters that Lawrence had once done. That made it easier for her to call him and ask for a new editor. Canfield agreed to make Edward Aswell her editor and Smith was overjoyed 21. In Up & Down & Around: A Publisher Recollects the Time of His Life, Canfield remembers Smith as a writer who presented "editorial problems" (200). Canfield dwells mainly on the difficulty of the transition of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn from "non-fiction" to "fiction": since Harper first received A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as a submission to a non-fiction contest, this story, that the novel had to be rewritten into fiction, subsequently arose. But Canfield probably did not recall the real source of the trouble, which occurred mainly in the editing of the second and third novels.

In her first letter to Aswell as her editor, Smith wrote something that she wanted Lawrence to see:

It is very difficult to explain to a woman ... "Look! I admire and love you and you are a wonderful editor. But there is something essential missing between us which I cannot explain or describe and without which I cannot function freely as a writer" 22.

Although Lawrence kept tabs on Betty Smith behind the scenes, they never corresponded again. For continuation, see Tomorrow Will Be Better, Part II.


1. Betty Smith, letter to Eugene F. Saxton, 31 July 1942.

2. Elizabeth Lawrence, letter to Betty Smith, 24 Sept. 1943.

3. Betty Smith, letter to Elizabeth Lawrence, 1 July 1946.

4. Elizabeth Lawrence, letter to Betty Smith, 1 Aug. 1946.

5. Betty Smith, letter to Edward Aswell, 15 June 1944.

6. Betty Smith, letter to Elizabeth Lawrence, 4 Jan. 1944.

7. Betty Smith, letter to Elizabeth Lawrence, 1 June 1946.

8. Betty Smith, letter to Elizabeth Lawrence, 1 June 1946.

9. Betty Smith, letter to Elizabeth Lawrence, 8 Aug. 1946.

10. Elizabeth Lawrence, note to Edward Aswell and Frank MacGregor.

11. Elizabeth Lawrence, memorandum to Edward Aswell, 15 May 1947.

12. Edward Aswell, letter to Betty Smith, 1 Aug. 1946.

13. Betty Smith, letter to Edward Aswell, 8 Aug. 1946.

14. Geoffrey Halliday, letter to Elizabeth Lawrence, 23 Sept. 1946.

15. Betty Smith, letter to Elizabeth Lawrence, 22 Dec. 1945.

16. Elizabeth Lawrence, letter to Betty Smith, 19 Dec. 1945.

17. Max Steele, personal interview, 24 May 1991.

18. Betty Smith, telegram to Elizabeth Lawrence, 3 Feb. 1947.

19. Elizabeth Lawrence, letter to Betty Smith, 31 Jan 1947.

20. Betty Smith, letter to Elizabeth Lawrence, 3 Feb. 1947.

21. Betty Smith, letter to Edward Aswell, 10 March 1947.

22. Betty Smith, letter to Edward Aswell, 10 March 1947.

Tomorrow Will Be Better, Part II

steel bible carnegie bureau instruction history iron Carol Siri Johnson © 2003
Contact: carol@ringwoodmanor.com