TOMORROW WILL BE BETTER:
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"
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.
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.
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.