A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
by Betty Smith
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in Brooklyn, New York, about 1900 to 1919; published in 1943.
A young girl of an Irish immigrant family comes of age in the Williamsburg slums of Brooklyn.
Betty Smith, in the first novel of her career, presents a picture of Brooklyn that she knew well. Like her main character, Francie Nolan, Smith lived in the slums of Williamsburg. In a show of courage and hope, however, both Smith and Francie managed to rise above their surroundings to achieve the dream that originally drew foreigners toward the shores of America.
Brooklyn, New York
In 1898 the New York state legislature expanded the boundaries of New York City, nearly doubling its population overnight. The new area, Greater New York, was divided into five sections known as boroughs. These included Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Richmond, and the Bronx. To some elderly New Yorkers, the new territories seemed so uncharted that they might as well have belonged to a foreign country.
Lying between the East River and the Atlantic Ocean at Coney Island, Brooklyn stretched across an expanse of land three times larger than that of Manhattan Island. Its population, at 2.5 million residents, likewise surpassed the area formerly considered New York City proper. Within its streets, one could travel between merchant wharves and warehouses, skyscrapers, apartment buildings, suburban homes, and slums. Like their counterparts in Manhattan, low-income areas such as Williamsburg, Brownsville, and Red Hook housed the city’s poor in tenements.
In the novel, Francie Nolan and her family make their home in Williamsburg. States one author, “Nothing was more characteristic of New York than the rapid degeneration into slums of areas formerly fashionable” (Morris, p. 274). Some enterprising individual, generally an Irishman, would lease an old mansion, then subdivide it and rent it out to tenants on a weekly basis. Overcrowded, dirty, dank, and full of foul air, such tenements often contained grocery and vegetable shops in their cellars and sometimes grog or liquor shops and dance halls.
More prosperous New Yorkers did not remain entirely insensitive to the plight of the poor. At the turn of the century, philanthropic efforts such as the Henry Street Settlement, begun by Lillian D. Wald and Mary M. Brewster, attracted the attention of socially conscious citizens. The settlement house developed into an organization that provided social services and a forum where members of labor and management could resolve their disputes. Not all of the poorer classes, however, welcomed its existence. Like Mrs. Nolan, many “hated anything that smacked of charity” and rejected such assistance (Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, p. 188). Instead they made their way as best they could and dreamed of one day owning a permanent residence.
In the novel, Mrs. Nolan’s mother counsels her on the day of Francie’s birth, “Before you die, you must own a bit of land—maybe with a house on it that your child or your children may inherit” (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, p. 78). Although incredulous at the notion, Katie Nolan nonetheless saves a bit of her money every day in hopes of some day owning her own piece of Greater New York.
Irish immigrants in New York
Beginning with a potato crop failure in 1822 and culminating in the Great Famine of 1845-1847, Irish citizens abandoned their nation in droves, searching for more prosperous surroundings. During this period, some 1.5 million Irish immigrants made their way to the United States. Cities like Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and New York swelled with new Irish arrivals. According to an 1890 census, the Irish comprised as much as one fourth of the population in the city of New York.
Mostly a young group averaging under thirtyfive years of age, the Irish immigrants found jobs, for example, on riverboat and railroad lines. Those who did not work in labor-related industries generally earned their living in domestic-servant positions. Away from work, they tended to focus their lives on the home, the Roman Catholic Church, and the neighborhood saloon.
Irish American drinking
The saloon, along with the church, became a focal point of community life in Irish American neighborhoods. It was intimately connected to three main facets of the Irish immigrant existence—politics, jobs, and individual identity. Cities were divided into wards, each with its own set of street gangs and social clubs controlled by a ward boss, a politician who supplied the people in his ward with jobs, food, and drink. It was common for a ward boss to own and operate saloons himself. Sometimes he would frequent the drinking establishment in person, but usually he dispatched heelers—men who performed his legwork and put pressure on constituents to vote for their candidate.
The relationship between ward boss and constituent was not necessarily as unfriendly as it might sound. A boss, either himself or through his heelers, treated others to a drink to stay in their good graces, meanwhile influencing them with the political talk that followed. “If a barkeeper is given money with which to treat the boys,” explained one observer, “even the fairly respectable men who are at the bar, after a round of drinks, look with favor upon the saloonkeeper’s candidate. Other things being equal, the man who has the greater number of saloonkeepers on his side will surely be elected” (Stivers, p. 123). Meanwhile, a lot of men frequented these establishments not to become politically informed, but rather in hopes of securing one of the jobs that the ward boss doled out.
The drinking establishment served another function too. It became a place where Irish Americans were welcomed in a society that often shunned them. The help-wanted ad that follows is a realistic example of the prejudice that the Irish encountered at the time: “WOMAN WANTED—To do general housework.... English, Scot, Welsh, German, or any country or color except Irish” (Stivers, p. 138).
Irish Americans withstood such prejudice with the help of a tight family unit. Children were usually born at home, and Irish families maintained close ties. As a rule, the family unit worked together to ensure its survival. Fathers frequently died prematurely in their thirties or forties. In fact, the “widow woman” became a classic Irish communal figure. When Francie and Neely’s father dies in the novel, the two children take on jobs to help the family. This type of response was typical. If a father passed away, the remaining family members would work to make up for the economic loss.
The Irish in New York politics
In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Francie’s father Johnny Nolan—like many Irish American men—becomes quite involved with the local Democratic Party machine, then known as Tammany Hall, after the name of party headquarters. He takes the family on an allday boating excursion and picnic hosted by the party leaders and participates actively in election activities. Initially, the Democratic Party had kept the Irish out of its domain as part of its general anti-immigrant stance. On April 24, 1817, however, a group of angry Irishmen stormed Tammany Hall to demand the nomination of the Irishman Thomas Emmet for Congress. A fight broke out and Tammany began to listen to its Irish constituents. By 1821, when the New York State constitutional convention awarded suffrage to every male citizen, Tammany had become a decidedly Irish operation.
The New York political machine during the early 1900s had its roots in the neighborhood. Children learned songs such as the one Francie sings in the novel:
Big Chief sits in his teepee,
Cheering brave to victory,
(A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, p. 156)
Neighborhood politics in New York operated under an unofficial citywide leader who headed a “shadow government,” a power structure that was often more responsible for many of the community’s aspects and events than its elected governing body. The unofficial leaders collected revenues from local saloonkeepers, gamblers, and contractors. Using these funds, the political party would aid the destitute even if the party was not in office. It might provide legal counsel for those New Yorkers who could not afford it, or help Irish immigrants find their way through a set of confusing governmental regulations so they could become citizens. If the party was in office—that is, when a representative held a New York government post—the political machine could provide more valuable commodities. These included jobs, generally on public works projects.
For most of the time period of the novel, the political boss of Tammany Hall was Charles F. Murphy, under whose administration one company, New York Contracting, won millions of dollars in contracts to construct rail lines. It is unknown whether Murphy profited personally from such deals. Tammany politicians had a reputation for embezzling funds for themselves, but Murphy, in fact, cleaned up the machine during his tenure. He stopped the practice of taking payoffs from saloons, gambling houses, and brothels and instead resolved to get funds from business contracts. There was still corruption in city government, however. Tips were passed on about where the city was about to build a new bridge so that someone could buy the property and then turn around and sell it to the city for a high profit. Such dealings were unethical, but nevertheless more legitimate than in the past. By the end of Murphy’s tenure (1902-24), says one historian, Tammany Hall had been turned into “an extraordinarily successful and responsive organization dedicated to the betterment of society” (Allen, p. 231).
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn opens with the image of a tired tree “struggling to reach the sky” (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, p. 7). The author quickly expands this metaphor to encompass not only the setting of the novel, but its characters as well. The story is the struggle of one family to survive in spite of the awesome odds it faces.
Francie Nolan has seen only eleven years of life at the beginning of the novel, yet she displays a wisdom beyond her age. Growing up in the tenements of Brooklyn at the turn of the century, Francie knows hunger and suffering. She watches her mother go to work each morning as a janitress, and she helps her father when he stumbles home drunk every day. Together with her brother Neely, however, Francie finds joy in her world. She never feels shame for her father. She knows him only as the fun and charismatic man that she loves. Francie and Neely help the family however they can—for instance, collecting lead bottle caps to exchange for pennies. Continually dreaming of a better life, Mrs. Nolan and her children contribute weekly to their tin can savings bank.
The novel does not merely focus its energies on the day-to-day hardships of Brooklyn’s poorer classes. It maintains, even in its most abysmal moments, an aura of hope. Katie Rommely Nolan, Francie’s mother, is a first-generation American, the daughter of Austrian immigrants. Although poor, she and two of her three sisters do read and write. They represent the family’s first literate generation. As her mother, Mary Rommely, explains, “Don’t you see? . . . Already, it is starting—the getting better . . . . This child [Francie] was born of parents who can read and write . . . . To me this is a great wonder” (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, p. 75). This optimistic attitude prevails throughout the novel.
Before Francie graduates from elementary school, her father dies of an alcohol-related illness. He leaves behind not only his widow and two children, but also the unborn baby that Katie carries. Francie postpones her hopes of high school and college to take a job in a factory. When Katie insists that Neely enroll in high school in the fall, Francie becomes the family’s primary provider. She also, over this period of time, grows into a young woman. Francie learns not only about her changing body, but also about boys. She discovers that some men will take advantage of women and girls, and she suffers through her first broken heart.
The baby born after the death of Mr. Nolan seems to represent the survival of hope. When Katie eventually remarries a wealthy public official, Francie remarks about the baby, “Annie Laurie McShane! She’ll never have the hard times we had, will she?” (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, p. 414). Her brother replies, “No. And she’ll never have the fun we had either” (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, p. 414). Although the Nolans did struggle, they faced life’s hardships together.
The close of the novel finds Francie headed off to college in anticipation of a brighter future. Coming full circle, Smith again returns to the tree. She states, “this tree in the yard—this tree that men chopped down . . . this tree that they built a bonfire around, trying to burn up its stump—this tree lived!” (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, p. 30). So too does the Nolan family.
The Irish American sense of community
The Irish saloon provided an important focal point for immigrant families, and for the Nolans, this certainly held true. Johnny Nolan, throughout his life, drank heavily and eventually died of alcoholism-related complications. Following his death, however, the saloonkeeper at Johnny’s favorite watering hole comes to the aid of the Nolan family. Unable to “get Johnny out of his mind” (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, p. 268), McGarrity calls on the Nolans. He does not feel guilty about his possible role in Johnny’s demise, for McGarrity reasons that “if he didn’t get it [alcohol] here, he would have got it somewhere else” (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, p. 268). McGarrity simply enjoyed Johnny’s company and wants to help out the family. This type of commitment to the community was typical of Irish Americans.
One historian writes, “There were two unwritten rules the rising tradesmen and professional men usually obeyed. One was to live in the neighborhood.... The other requirement was a willingness to help the worst off in time of need” (Shannon, p. 37). Neighbors would only patronize the local businessmen whose families they warmly regarded. Everything in the Irish American community came back to the family. Engaged in difficult, physically consuming work, Irish American males typically perished early in life. If a laborer died without insurance, the community would take up door-to-door collections for his remaining family members. No one who hoped to survive in the neighborhood would turn down the collector. From an early age, Irish children were taught the importance of this group survival.
The young boys’ gang was a typical sight in an Irish American neighborhood. In the novel, Neely belongs to one of these street fraternities. The gang demanded of its members the qualities of loyalty, cooperation, and obedience, as well as the values of aggressiveness and self-motivation. The raids and street fights that gangs engaged in usually proved who “ran” the block. Within these gangs, however, one’s position in the hierarchy usually depended on personal initiative. In this manner, young boys learned the importance of the individual within the community. These ideals, found in childhood, helped the Irish in forming their strong political and communal groups. Community and neighborhood organizations, from an early time, helped to shape Irish American lives.
While Betty Smith never disclosed any clear sources for her novel, most critics agree that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn contains a variety of autobiographical references. Like Francie, Smith grew up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. After leaving school at the age of fourteen, she worked at various jobs ranging from factory laborer to office clerk. Eventually she returned to school and completed her degree at the University of Michigan. Like her main character, Smith found a way to complete the education she so desired.
The Prohibition movement
Francie’s father was not alone in his struggles with alcoholism. In fact, the lawmakers of the early 1900s so feared the nation’s relationship with alcohol that they sought to prohibit it altogether. The close of the novel shows McGarrity preparing for such a reform by stockpiling alcohol in a warehouse just outside of the city. He hoped to become one of the many to earn his fortune during the era of Prohibition.
Prohibition was the result of a long reform movement begun by the Protestant churches during the 1880s and the 1890s. Organizations such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement and the National Prohibition Party lobbied for the restriction of the sale and consumption of alcohol. During the early 1900s, antisaloon leagues sprang up nationwide. These groups, largely composed of middle-class Americans, sought not only to stifle the sale of alcohol but also to regulate the social habits of the working classes. Urban reform committees became proponents of antisaloonism and Prohibition. Members argued that industrialization, with its expansion of leisure time, had begun a social collapse that only political and legal influences could halt. These organizers viewed alcohol as a dangerous drug that disrupted lives and families. They felt it the duty of the government to relieve the temptation of alcohol by banning it altogether.
In January of 1919, the United States Congress ratified the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution. This outlawed “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” on a national level. Nine months later, lawmakers passed the Volstead Act, providing the means of enforcing such measures. Much to the dismay of Prohibitionists, however, the act had little effect on the behavior of the American public.
One usually had little trouble obtaining alcohol during the era of Prohibition. Rural distillers manufactured the liquor and “rumrunners” smuggled it into cities for resale in bars like the one that McGarrity planned to open. Eventually the government realized that Prohibition had had little effect on the drinking habits of Americans. In 1933 the Twenty-First Amendment passed Congress, annulling Prohibition altogether. By the time Smith completed her novel, the ban on alcohol had run its entire course.
The evolving Irish American
Whereas the Irish immigrants of the early 1900s struggled against antiforeigner sentiments, latter generation Irish Americans enjoyed the fruits of their ancestors’ hard-won battles. With a growing group of respectable merchants, public officials, and civil servants, the Irish changed their image. No longer did the public view them mainly as wild, drunken laborers; as a community, the Irish Americans held too much money, power, and diversity for such a stereotype. That is not to say that they had entirely penetrated the Protestant American inner circles, only that they had achieved a certain elevation over other immigrant cultures. Compared to the newly arrived Italians, Greeks, Poles, and Russian Jews, the Irish were the group closest to wide public acceptance. Ironically, the economic circumstances of the Great Depression helped to boost the Irish American community.
With the virtual collapse of the national economy in 1929, America turned after the Depression to the Democratic Party as the voice of hope. Since this was the political group to which the Irish overwhelmingly belonged, the community stood poised to rise. Coupled with this circumstance was the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 into the White House. A more open-minded president than prior Democrats like Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson, Roosevelt welcomed diversity in his cabinet. For the first time, Irish Americans found themselves in positions of high political power.
In 1933, the Irishman James Aloysius Farley rose as head of the Democratic National Committee. He helped Roosevelt mediate between the administration and the local party organizations through a grassroots campaign. In this manner he built up and solidified the Democratic Party on a national level. A second key player in Roosevelt’s administration was Thomas Gardiner Corcoran, or “Tommy the Cork.” As an advisor in the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, Corcoran helped to draft legislation, write speeches, and lobby congressmen. Another Irishman, Joseph P. Kennedy, headed the newly formed Securities and Exchange Commission, which policed stock market practices. He eventually became the United States’s first Irish American ambassador to England.
A goal of Roosevelt’s New Deal administration was to redistribute America’s wealth on a more socially conscious level, and Irish Americans—who had long been known to “take care of their own”—seemed natural candidates to help carry out this goal. Their progress in politics was mean-while accompanied by progress in other areas, beginning in earlier decades and continuing at the time the novel was written. When Francie heads off to college at the close of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, she achieves a goal that no family member before her had reached. Given that her immigrant grandmother was illiterate, Francie’s educational success indicates another type of Irish American advancement.
One of the novel’s opening scenes finds Neely and his gang confronting a young Jewish boy. While playing in the street, they “bedevil” the boy as he makes his way to temple. In a show of neighborhood dominance, Neely and his friends yell, “Don’t show your puss on Devoe Street . . . and keep away from Christian girls” (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, p. 20). In the cramped quarters of a Brooklyn neighborhood, people of different nationalities lived only a few streets away from one another. Yet despite this physical proximity, most ethnic groups kept strictly to themselves. Even in the melting pot of immigrant New York, old-world prejudices died hard. A Jewish immigrant of the era, Edward Steiner, recalls being taunted by an Irish lad whose “delight in my suffering made him invent new cruelties, every hour” (Stivers, p. 124).
The novel depicts anti-Semitism in the early 1900s. Overseas it had escalated to deadly proportions by 1943, when the novel was published. Under the leadership of Adolf Hitler, between 1933 and 1938 Nazi Germany boycotted Jewish businesses, forbade marriage between Jews and Gentiles (under the Nuremberg Laws of 1935), and opened its first concentration camps at Oranienburg, Buchenwald, and Dachau. With the onset of World War II in 1939, Germany moved its campaign of Jewish extermination outside the German borders. Beginning with his invasion of Eastern Europe, Hitler planned to systematically eliminate all peoples of Jewish descent. Tragically, much of this genocide, which eventually took nearly 6 million Jewish lives, occurred without direct protests from those who were aware of the mass murders.
On August 1, 1942, Gerhardt Riegner, the representative of Switzerland in the World Jewish Congress, received a report that he could not ignore. Up until this point, the question of murder had only been grounded in “unconfirmed accounts.” On that fateful August day, however, Riegner received word from a German informant that the Nazis had ordered the extermination of all Jews in Europe. The information even related the specific mode of murder, prussic acid administered through communal showers at Germany’s various concentration camps. Although reports previous to this one had reached both the United States and Great Britain and had even seen publication in various newspapers, neither government could confirm that a specific order had been issued by Hitler and the Nazis for the complete annihilation of Europe’s Jews.
Despite the seemingly overwhelming evidence, the U.S. State Department still suppressed the release of Riegner’s information. U.S. officials claimed a need for further documentation. Finally in November of the same year, after much work and frustration, Riegner compiled and documented what the State Department considered to be sufficient evidence for action. On December 8, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt received a twenty-page document entitled Blue Print for Extermination. Soon Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union moved jointly to both condemn and prosecute the Nazis for their crimes.
Reception of the novel
Smith’s novel met with enormous success from among the reading public. The critical reception, however, varied. Orville Prescott wrote in The Yale Review, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a first novel of uncommon skill, an almost uncontrollable vitality and zest for life, the work of a fresh, original and highly gifted talent” (Prescott in Gunton, p. 422). A critic for The Nation, however, offered this impression: “Miss Smith . . . falls into the common error of forgetting that it takes time to learn the language of literary sensibility: at sixteen, even at eleven, her Francie Nolan thinks with the mind of the mature Betty Smith” (Trilling in Gunton, p. 422). Despite any critical misgivings, Smith’s novel found high favor among the general public, and praise as a faithful and almost poetic portrayal of the twentieth-century Brooklyn slums.
Allen, Oliver E. The Tiger: The Rise and Fall of Tammany Hall. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1993.
Gunton, Sharon R., ed. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 19. Detroit: Gale Research, 1981.
Morris, Lloyd. Incredible New York. New York: Random House, 1951.
Shannon, William. The American Irish. New York: Macmillan, 1963.
Smith, Betty. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. New York: Harper Collins, 1943.
Stivers, Richard. A Hair of the Dog: Irish Drinking and American Stereotype. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976.