The Hungry Artist: Rereading Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
When I ask women writers about it their faces light up: “I loved that book when I was a girl.” At other times the accolades come unsolicited, as I talk with a woman who is neither a writer nor even a particularly avid reader. There’s a moment when the conversation turns to books, when my friend remembers her favorite, the one she read at fourteen or twenty or thirty-five, the one she still vividly recalls. Favorite scenes are recounted; unforgotten characters described. Oprah Winfrey identifies it as “the book that moved me most when I was growing up,” and the New York Public Library classes it as one of the “Books of the Century.” Yet when I mention it to colleagues—the men and women who work with me in a college English department—the response is almost uniformly deprecating: “Sentimental,” they scoff, “trite”: “a book for young readers.” Diana Trilling inaugurated this line of criticism when, holding her ground against the “avalanche” of praise that greeted the novel in 1943, she dismissed it as “a conventional little book” that should not be considered “a serious literary experience.”
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith sold nearly 3 million copies in the two years after it was first published by Harper & Brothers, earning its author an unprecedented $95,805.76 and inaugurating a career that led to the publication of three additional novels. Smith was inundated with fan mail and became a popular public speaker. To date, the book has sold more than 4 million copies, been translated into 16 languages, and reached additional audiences in the form of a movie directed by Elia Kazan and a 1951 Broadway musical comedy that was recently revived in New York. Since its publication in 1943, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has never gone out of print; the current Perennial Classics paperback has a foreword by Anna Quindlen and a “P.S.” section of biographical and historical material. Yet Tree is rarely the subject of serious study or criticism. Apart from a thoroughly researched biography by Valerie Raleigh Yow, Betty Smith: Life of the Author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, all I have been able to turn up after numerous searches are a handful of articles, a few book chapters, and an unpublished dissertation by Carol Siri Johnson, portions of which are available online.
As I read and reread the novel, grappling with the disjunction between popular praise and critical attention, I try to understand what constitutes a “serious literary experience” and to assess the nature of my own response. For I, too, love it, and I love it more and more with each re-reading. Is my love based solely on my identification? Like its author, Betty Smith, I was raised in Brooklyn by struggling immigrant parents; like its protagonist, Francie Nolan, I was thrilled by the books I found in the local public library; and, like Francie, I learned from those books to shape and to follow my dreams. Yet I’ve also talked with readers who grew up in Virginia, in Minnesota, in Chicago, in California —people who are African American, Hispanic, Pakistani—the book’s appeal cuts across class and racial lines, even across gender: during World War II, in an Armed Force Services Edition, it reached thousands of men overseas. One letter to Smith tells of 200 soldiers on a waiting list for the book; another suggests the novel’s ability to evoke strong feeling:
The other day the book came and I started to read and just couldn’t stop. When it got dark I read by flashlight in a dugout and for those hours I was carried away, my heart was light with the Nolans’ triumphs and a thing I thought impossible, so impossible it never entered my mind was that I actually cried at the description of Francie’s and Neeley’s grief when John died.
Surely a book whose impact is so deep and so wide deserves more than cursory dismissal by scholars and critics of literature.
Part of the problem the book faces in attracting serious attention may be that its title has become a household phrase, a familiar icon of American popular culture. Even if, as Carol Simi Johnson points out in her dissertation, people “don’t know where it came from,” the title carries with it some “understanding of the plight of the poor” and, I would argue, quite a bit more. The title combines three powerful archetypes to evoke an indelible image of individuation in a hostile environment. We all know trees—sturdy, long-lived giants that develop from tiny seeds, providing sustenance for humans, deriving their nourishment from the elements: earth, air, water, and the fire of the sun. The Tree of Life, the Tree of Paradise, the Sacred Tree—trees abound in the formative myths of many cultures, serving as symbols of what Carl Jung called the Self, embodying the wholeness of each human psyche. Smith identifies the tree in her novel as an ailanthus, a type of sumac that “grows on neglect.” Popularly called the “Tree of Heaven,” it “struggle[s] to reach the sky” no matter what its circumstance. Thus Smith points to a specific tree while also invoking the archetype, carefully grounding symbol in fact, a technique she uses throughout the novel. “Grows” of course evokes the most generalized image of positive development. And “Brooklyn,” though certainly not archetypal in the strictest sense, has come—at least until the past few decades—to represent a place of sordid struggle—gritty, tough, and vital. Films and books set in Brooklyn tell the story: Last Exit to Brooklyn, On the Waterfront, Do the Right Thing, even Motherless Brooklyn. Brooklyn, even more than Manhattan, is a first stop on the way to America: a melting-pot, a cauldron, a volatile mix of ethnicities. Urban, but until recently without the cultural cachet of “the city,” Brooklyn is the concrete soil of the nation.
So the title, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, has an immediate, unconscious appeal, promising wholeness despite deprivation—not so much the “plight of the poor” as the universal struggle for survival in an indifferent or hostile world. Even before we read the opening sentences, we are prepared for a drama of unfolding, a drama that will correspond to our own inner drama, the drama whose positive outcome we all desire—and are perhaps ashamed to admit, even to ourselves. Carol Johnson calls Tree a “bildungsroman of the American Dream,” an “empowering representation of the immigrant and working-class myth.” Yet the dream of self-fulfillment is more than merely American, and the novel’s international appeal suggests that Smith is touching on something far more fundamental. Indeed, the book is less concerned with material escape from poverty than with spiritual freedom; less with the acquisition of wealth than with a new way of looking upon poverty.
Johnson maintains that critics have marginalized Betty Smith because “she is working-class, and she is female,” and she rightly notes that the New Critical esteem for irony would lead to a lack of academic interest in a book that is nothing if not sincere. But New Criticism is no longer the dominant approach in literary studies, and other books by working-class women have entered the mainstream of academic discourse; other sentimental or non-ironic texts are valued by both critics and ordinary readers. It may be that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has been neglected not because its author is working class and female, nor even because its subject matter is the life of a working-class female, but because the book embodies what might be called a working-class or “folk” aesthetic while simultaneously eschewing the radical politics and social critique usually associated with proletarian literature.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in fact consciously addresses the ways in which language might best represent and potentially transform social reality; more künstlerroman than bildungsroman, it features the development of a young writer and foregrounds what Jane Tompkins identifies as the concerns of modern critics and writers: “questions about the self, the body, the possibilities of knowledge, the limits of language.” Yet here what may most unnerve contemporary scholars of literature is that this novel affirms a faith in the power of literary language to “feed” the hungry soul.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn arises from a moment in American literary history when numerous writers were calling for—and creating—a radically new form of “folk” art. This movement was especially pronounced in the theater, where organizations such as the Federal Theatre Project and the Carolina Playmakers worked to develop a populist art that would appeal to the widest audience. Hallie Flanagan, Director of the Federal Theatre Project, established by the W.P.A. in 1935, worked toward a theater that would satisfy “the hunger of millions of Americans.” It was to be a “living theater” grounded in “its own time and country” while also drawing on the lessons of the ancient Greeks and of contemporary European experiments. Flanagan has been called “one of the most important women in America,” shaping, along with Eleanor Roosevelt and Frances Perkins (the initiator of the Social Security Act), the “lives, attitudes, and opinions of millions of our citizens.” The most successful—and innovative—ventures of the Federal Theatre Project were its “Living Newspapers,” controversial dramas illustrating current events and designed to appeal to the widest possible audience: Triple-A Plowed Under, about the American farmer and the New Deal; Injunction Granted, about the history of the labor movement; One-Third of a Nation, about tenement life (recently revived in New York); Power, about the politics and economics of utilities; and Spirochete, about the history of syphilis. These plays galvanized the nation, sparking debate in Congress and drawing huge audiences.
In North Carolina, the Carolina Playmakers had been working since 1918 to create what their visionary director, Frederick Koch, called a folk drama. “The chief concern of the folk dramatist,” wrote Koch, is
man’s conflict with the forces of nature and his simple pleasure in being alive . . . But the ultimate cause of all dramatic action we classify as “folk,” whether it be physical or spiritual, may be found in man’s desperate struggle for existence, and in his enjoyment of the world of nature. The term “folk” with us applies to the form of drama which is earth-rooted in the life of our common humanity.
Koch also emphasized the importance of the locality, believing that “if the locality were interpreted faithfully, it might show us the way to the universal. For if we can see the lives of those about us with understanding—with imagination—why may we not interpret that life in significant images for all? It was so with the Greeks before us, and with our own English forebears. It has been so in all lasting art. It should be so for us here in America.”
Betty Smith began her writing career as a playwright, winning the prestigious Avery Hopwood Award at the University of Michigan in 1930 and attending Yale Drama School from 1931–32, where she studied with George Pierce Baker. After working as an actress on the “subway circuit” for the Civil Works Administration, she was hired by Hallie Flanagan in 1935 to write for the Living Newspapers. In 1936, Flanagan sent her with three other Federal Theatre Project writers to North Carolina to work with the Carolina Playmakers. It was in North Carolina, in the late 1930s, that Smith wrote Tree—even as she worked with Koch and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Paul Green to develop and produce folk plays such as Green’s The Lost Colony and her own numerous one-acts. During these years, she may well have crossed paths with her contemporary Zora Neale Hurston, who worked for the Negro Unit of the New York Federal Theatre Project in 1935 and who later collaborated with Paul Green, presenting a lecture in Chapel Hill in 1939 on the creation of a Negro folk theater. Like Hurston, who, in Their Eyes Were Watching God produced a folk-play of rural African-American life, Smith applied the lessons she learned from her work in the populist theater to the creation of a novel that is, as Johnson suggests, a folk-play of immigrant life in Williamsburg. Instead of portraying the “forces of nature,” Tree depicts the forces of early twentieth-century urban life that contribute to what Koch called the “desperate struggle for existence”; instead of the “enjoyment of the world of nature,” the novel vividly portrays its protagonists’ deep appreciation of their urban landscape.
On the first page of the novel, we meet an eleven-year-old girl sitting on a fire escape, searching for the “word you could put” to her experience of Brooklyn. After considering several alternatives, she chooses “serene”:
Somber, as a word, was better. But it did not apply to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Prairie was lovely and Shenandoah had a beautiful sound, but you couldn’t fit those words into Brooklyn. Serene was the only word for it; especially on a Saturday afternoon in summer.
From the outset, Smith signals her protagonist’s interest in the relationship between language and reality. Francie tries out words that are appealing for their own sake but rejects them in favor of a word that more truly fits her experience. Yet she also recognizes that disparate realities may be linked through words, that words have the power to create as well as express or reflect experiences. Sitting on her fire escape, she has the “same fine feeling” as when she recites Longfellow’s Evangeline at school:
This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld . . .
Surely Brooklyn is not the forest primeval; and the ailanthus tree Francie contemplates from her perch is neither a pine nor a hemlock. But the feelings evoked by the poem and Brooklyn are the same. By opening her novel with an extended quote from Longfellow, Smith juxtaposes her twentieth-century realism with Longfellow’s nineteenth-century romanticism; slyly linking her contemporary urban fiction with his historical pastoral poetry, she suggests that her work too belongs in the American literary canon.
We soon learn that Francie is, above all else, a reader, having committed herself to reading a book a day for as long as she lives, until she has read “all the books in the world.” Many factors contribute to Francie’s becoming a reader and later a writer, and the novel carefully delineates them—her Irish father’s “sentimentality” and “passion for beauty”; her Aunt Sissy’s “love for life”; her mother’s “soft ways”; and her own isolation as a sickly child. Most important, though, is the legacy of her maternal grandmother, Mary Rommely, an illiterate, poor, unhappily married immigrant from Austria who wants her granddaughter to be taught the value of reading and writing, so that she will “grow up knowing what is great—knowing that these tenements of Williamsburg are not the whole world.” Grandmother Rommely also insists that Francie be told the legends of the old country:
as my mother told them to me and her mother to her. You must tell the fairy tales of the old country. You must tell of those not of the earth who live forever in the hearts of people—fairies, elves, dwarfs and such . . .
When Francie’s practical mother protests that the child will be disappointed by reality, her wise elder answers: “‘To first believe with all your heart, and then not to believe, is good too. It fattens the emotions and makes them to stretch.’”
Francie, then, is “fattened” on dreams and particularly the oral tales passed on from mother to daughter. In evoking this world of story, Smith firmly links the generations of women, aligning herself with all the women writers who have seen in women’s stories a source for their own creativity. Thus when Francie later determines to be a writer, she will be a writer who, like her creator, draws on oral as well as written sources. The novel is grounded in “the legends, superstitions, customs, environmental differences, and the vernacular of the common people” that Frederick Koch urged should be the basis for folk drama. And in tracing Francie’s imaginative development, Tree becomes a portrait of the artist as a young woman, celebrating not so much the literal escape from the reality of poverty and brutality as the ways in which imagination can transform and redeem that reality—not so much the American dream as the artist’s dream—the vernacular or “folk” woman artist’s dream.
The fire escape where Francie sits in the opening chapter is an apt emblem of the novel as a whole—and it is unfortunate that the cover of the most recent paperback edition features a soft-focus photo of a girl reading on a ledge. This image misses the point. For the fire escape is Francie’s special retreat, a private aerie that functions much like Jane Eyre’s curtained window seat in Charlotte Brontë’s novel. Brooklyn’s omnipresent metal fire escapes were built, not for reading and dreaming and looking out on a beautiful landscape, but for flight from a dangerous blaze in a building that would otherwise become a deathly trap. It may not be coincidental that the stylized set for One-Third of a Nation, the 1937–38 Living Newspaper production about tenement life, consisted of “a broken staircase, bits of crumbling walls, a fire escape, a leaky sink, and a toilet seat hanging from the flies.” At the end of the play, the tenement goes up in flames. As with the ailanthus tree, Smith uses the fire escape as a powerful symbol, transforming fact into figure: the fires Francie escapes could scorch her spirit; the freedom she achieves preserves her imagination.
Every Saturday afternoon, Francie brings rug, pillow, ice water, and peppermint wafers in a glass bowl to the fire escape as she settles into her weekly ritual. The book she reads, on this particular Saturday, is one of her favorites, Justin Huntly McCarthy’s 1901 novel, If I Were King. Set in fifteenth-century Paris, the book is a fantasy about the proletarian poet François Villon and the French king, Louis XI. In the novel, the king, inspired by tales of Haroun al Raschid, goes out in disguise among his people; in a rowdy inn he meets—and is charmed by—the outspoken poet. But when Villon attacks one of the king’s ministers, he is imprisoned and sentenced to death by hanging. Again inspired by al-Raschid, the king decides to give Villon a week to live as a nobleman. Within that week, the poet manages to save France from invasion by the Duke of Burgundy, to earn the loyalty of the people of Paris, and also to win the love of the haughty Katherine de Vaucelles. Witnessing their love, the king commutes Villon’s sentence, and the poet and his beloved are free to live out their improbable romance.
If I Were King can be found today only on dusty library shelves (or in a lovely online Google Books edition!); but in 1938 it was a popular film, staring Basil Rathbone and Ronald Colman; Betty Smith’s 1943 audience might well have been familiar with the hero of Francie’s fire escape reveries and would have understood the reason for her attraction to him. François Villon; Francie Nolan. Is the young Brooklyn girl an avatar of the French poet, her name echoing his? Like him, she is passionately “fond” of life, however “squalid” and “sordid,” with its “brute pleasures of food and drink and warm sleep”; like him, she adopts a policy of carpe diem; and, like him, she finds a magic in language and believes that language can transform her fate. And the novel of which she is the heroine affirms the integrity of the “soul” that gives a person character whatever “way of life his wheel of fortune might spin.”
In her provocative 1981 essay, “‘Sister to Faust’: The City’s ‘Hungry’ Woman as Heroine,” Blanche Gelfant identifies a “recurrent figure in fiction written by women about women,” the “hungry heroine,” who
sets out alone to find for herself, within herself, the power of transformation. Like Faust, she believes that books will give her possession of power, and so she reads—compulsively, looking for ways to change her life.
Gelfant uses Thomas Wolfe’s Of Time and the River as a point of departure for her study of female Faust figures who seek knowledge and fulfillment. Interestingly, Wolfe began his career as a writer with the Carolina Playmakers; Smith’s first outline of Tree is sketched inside her copy of Of Time and the River.
Gelfant rightly includes Francie among the many heroines—Sara Smolensky in Bread Givers, Selina in Brown Girl, Brownstones, Maxine Hong Kingston’s persona in Woman Warrior to name a few—who hunger “for knowledge and autonomy.” Yet she fails to note that in Tree the heroine’s hunger is painfully real, not merely metaphorical. The book recounts in devastating detail the Nolan family’s efforts to feed itself. Because Francie’s charming but alcoholic father Johnny Nolan works only intermittently, Francie and her brother collect rags, foil, and paper to earn a few pennies from the junk man; Francie’s mother labors long hours on hands and knees as a janitress; and still the children are so hungry “they could have digested nails had they been able to chew them.” Smith links this actual hunger with Francie’s imaginative growth—again creating a powerful symbol that never loses its literal truth.
Thus Francie’s first “organized” lie is about food; and this lie inaugurates her career as a writer. At Thanksgiving, the year Francie is ten, a tiny pumpkin pie is brought in to school to symbolize the holiday. The teacher asks if anyone wants the pie to take home; when no one comes forward, she orders that the pie be thrown away. Hungry, Francie cannot watch as good food is wasted: she raises her hand and promises to bring the pie to a poor family. Ravenous, she furtively devours it on her way home. The following Monday, she concocts an elaborate story about how the pie saved the lives of two girls. When the teacher pretends amazement at how such a small pie could save two lives, Francie realizes she has been found out, and begs the teacher not to tell her parents. But the teacher is compassionate:
Gently, Teacher explained the difference between a lie and a story. A lie was something you told because you were mean or a coward. A story was something you made up out of something that might have happened. Only you didn’t tell it like it was; you told it like you thought it should have been . . . Francie always remembered what that kind teacher told her . . . “In the future, when something comes up, you tell exactly how it happened but write down for yourself the way you think it should have happened. Tell the truth and write the story. Then you won’t get mixed up.”
At that moment, Francie determines to become a writer.
Her first stories, the ones for which she earns A’s in her English classes, portray “how things should have happened,” with sentences like
A giant poplar, tall and high, serene and cool against the sky . . . Softly the blue skies arch overhead. ’Tis a perfect October day . . . hollyhocks like distilled sunsets and larkspur like concentrate of heaven.
But after her father’s early death from alcoholism, Francie begins to write stories about him. These are brutally criticized by a new teacher, who condemns them for focusing on the “ugly” subject of “poverty, starvation and drunkenness.” The writer “must strive for beauty always,” the teacher insists. When Francie asks “What is beauty?,” the teacher lamely offers Keats’s dictum, “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Francie protests: “Those stories are the truth.” But the teacher insists that truth is “the true nobility of man and mother-love and love for one’s country.”
Although Francie knows better than to accept the teacher’s condemnation of the life she knows, she decides to write a new story to show the teacher she has “imagination.” The heroine of this story is a girl named Sherry Nola, “conceived, born and brought up in sweltering luxury.” Sherry plans an elaborate dinner, rejecting “breast of pheasant under glass” and “hot-house asparagus” in favor of “a dozen charlotte russe, some strawberry shortcake and a quart of ice cream.” As Francie describes the fanciful meal, a drop of water falls on the page. She looks up. “No, the roof wasn’t leaking, it was merely her mouth watering.” With a start Francie realizes that her topic is the same as it has always been—her own hunger—only now she’s “writing it in a twisted, round-about silly way.” She burns the pages of the novel along with all her other “pretty ‘A’ compositions,” preserving only the four truthful—albeit “ugly”—stories about her father and the family. “‘There goes my writing career,’” she mourns.
Even earlier, Francie, who—like her creator—is drawn to the theater, had found herself “dissatisfied with the way things just happened in the nick of time.” What would happen, she wondered, if the hero didn’t save the heroine from the villainess, what would happen if the money to pay the mortgage were not magically produced? “The pretty heroine would have to get on piece work in the factory; her sensitive brother would have to go out peddling papers. The mother would have to do cleaning by the day. But they’d live.” Francie decides to write her own ending for the plays she sees, “what would happen if,” and decides to become a playwright. Smith describes a significant moment in one of the plays Francie watches. A character in a shop grinds coffee:
There was an awed silence as the odor of ground coffee permeated the theater. Then bedlam broke loose. Real coffee! Realism in the theater! Everyone had seen coffee ground a thousand times but on the stage it was a revolutionary thing.
The smell of freshly ground coffee in the theater, Francie’s dismay at deus ex machina endings, along with her transformative encounter with her teacher, remind the reader that she is reading a book about hunger and poverty and drunkenness, and that Smith has created a writing career built on truthfulness to the lives of ordinary people.
No doubt because of Betty Smith’s commitment to the truth of the people about whom she is writing, another form of hunger runs through Tree like a thick rich current: a “fierce love hunger”—raw, wild, and uncontained—that is a force for both good and ill. The women and men in Tree all long for sex, and they feel its power from an early age. Thus, Francie at eleven contemplates the girls washing below their arms as they prepare to go out with their “fellers”: “There were so many girls in so many windows washing this way that it seemed a kind of hushed and expectant ritual.” She notes the distinction between a woman who is “starved” for men and another who is “healthily hungry.” And, astonishingly, in this 1943 novel about a Catholic family, Francie’s mother responds with candor to her daughter’s question about whether she should have spent the night with a young soldier she had known only two days:
“As a mother, I say it would have been a terrible thing for a girl to sleep with a stranger . . . But as a woman . . . I will tell you the truth as a woman. It would have been a very beautiful thing.”
The novel’s realism about sex extends to include sexual violence, both within and outside of marriage. Francie shudders as she overhears the nightly exchanges between a young woman and her “ape-like truck-driver husband”:
The bride’s voice would be soft and pleading, his, rough and demanding. Then there would be a short silence. Then he would start snoring and the wife would cry piteously until nearly morning.
Her grandmother Rommely suffers the “brutal love” of a husband whose cruelty extinguishes “all of her latent desires”; many women in the neighborhood “rigidly” endure lovemaking, “praying all the while that another child would not result . . . To most of them the love act had become a brutality on both sides.” Early in the novel, we meet neighborhood men who prey upon young girls: the junk man who likes to pinch little girls’ cheeks, the candy store keeper who “inveigle[s] a little girl into his dismal back room”; the music teacher who asks his young female students to take off their shoes and socks so he can ogle their feet while they sing. Later, men on the crowded subway put their hands on Francie’s body, leaving her in “desperate futility.” There is even a murderous pedophile who prowls the neighborhood the year Francie turns fourteen.
But the most positive representation of sexuality in the novel is Francie’s Aunt Sissy, a likeable woman who is “very wild as far as men were concerned.” Sissy works in a condom factory. Discreetly called a “rubber factory,” it produces toys “as a blind,” while earning its profits from “other rubber articles which were bought in whispers.” Not coincidentally, it is from Sissy that Francie acquires her first books. When she was born, her grandmother had told her mother she must read to the child each day from the Protestant Bible and from Shakespeare. Katie commissions her sister Sissy to get the books. So Sissy buys a tattered Shakespeare for 25 cents from a librarian, and finds a Gideon’s Bible in a hotel room she is sharing with a married man. The man tells her the Bible is there to be taken, in the hope that people will reform and repent. Sissy promises not to reform. As they prepare to leave in the morning, the man watches her “snap a red silk garter over the sheer lisle stocking she had pulled up over her shapely leg”:
“Give us a kiss,” he begged suddenly.
“Have we time?” she asked in a practical way. But she pulled the stocking off again.
That’s how the library of Francie Nolan was started.
So Francie’s hunger for reading and writing are linked with her healthy hunger for food and sex; A Tree Grows in Brooklyn eschews the typical disconnect we have come to expect in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century women’s fiction. Francie’s appetite is grounded in her body; for her there is no question of the conflict between “woman and artist.” The writer and the woman are one.
The sheer sensuality of experience is one of the strongest aspects of Tree, its language vividly evoking the intense life it describes. People who remember the novel remember its scenes: one woman recalls the moment when a mother paints her nipple black, with a red angry mouth on it, in order finally to wean her demanding four-year-old son; another remembers the description of the neighborhood library, with its “combined smell of worn leather bindings, library paste and freshly-inked stamping pads” which Francie liked better than “the smell of burning incense at high mass”; still another recollects the hilarious moment when the Nolan children string a package of condoms (of course not knowing what they are) out the tenement window, causing such shame to the family that they leave the neighborhood and temporarily cut off communication with Sissy.
Smith’s eye for detail, along with her ability to coin a telling phrase, are extraordinary. Thus, when the young Francie walks through the Williamsburg streets, she notices “feather beds bellying out of windows”; at the five-and-ten-cent store she indulges in an “orgy of touching”; the end-of-tongue she buys from the cantankerous butcher is “only the memory of meat.” New York, from the roof of the Nolans’ tenement building, looks “like a fairy city made of silver cardboard”; the airshaft bottom in her building reminds Francie of “what the priest said about Purgatory . . . only on a larger scale.” Much of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn illustrates Francie’s fascination with the things that make up her world. An entire chapter is devoted to an evocation of the neighborhood stores that “hold the beauty” she longs for. There is the pawnshop, which Francie loves for “the three large golden balls that hung high above the shop and gleamed in the sun or swayed languorously like heavy golden apples when the wind blew”; there are also a bakery, a paint shop, a tobacco store, a tea, coffee and spice store—“an exciting place of rows of lacquered bins and strange, romantic, exotic odors”—and, best of all, the Chinese laundry where Francie is enchanted by the proprietor’s India ink brushstrokes on “mysteriously textured paper.”
But it is not only beauty that attracts Francie. She finds herself drawn to the “stench” of Newtown Creek, and, when World War I begins, she commits herself to experience of all kinds:
Let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry . . . have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me be sincere—be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.
In a discussion of the art of the Carolina Playmakers, Paul Green attributes the source of great art to “becoming conscious of the marvel of being alive.” Arguing that “the world is for our appreciation,” Green advocates an art that will record the lives of ordinary people, “the pitiful and lost,” the slave, the oppressed:
For it is by such living records, records and more records that we can pack up, store up and hand down accumulated living unto those that shall come after, and they thereby shall be made more aware of the power and glory of man and the universe in which he struggled for a season. They will have more food to feed upon, more possibilities of quickening their lives to wonder and joy.
In this way, Green claims, a “living art” is produced.
In recording the life of Francie Nolan, Smith sympathetically delineates in vivid detail a young girl’s hunger for life. As we devour her book, we are brought face to face with our own hungers. But perhaps because, as Susan Bordo argues, female hunger—both literal and metaphoric—remains culturally taboo, we hesitate to study seriously and teach and write and talk about a novel that so unabashedly explores and celebrates that hunger. Allowing our passion for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to embarrass us, we miss a chance to come to terms with a writer whose work has reached millions. In ignoring Smith’s novel, we ignore the very heart of literary experience: its capacity to fatten our dreams.