Betty Smith Essay - Critical Essays

Smith, Betty


Smith, Betty 1896–1972

Smith was an American novelist and playwright. Although A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was a popular success, Smith's later writing did not fulfill the promise of this first novel, which has been termed a very Brooklyn Bildungsroman. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed., and Something about the Author, Vol. 6.)

Diana Trilling

[Like the heroine of "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn"], Miss Smith was born and raised in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, but even without knowing this fact we could guess that the story was autobiographical. Women authors, especially, always regard their own childhoods as if the process of growing up were an experience reserved for people who will one day have the sensibility to write a book about it, and Miss Smith even 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….

Because Francie Nolan is very poor, Irish, a Catholic, and I suppose because a member of her family drinks, I have seen "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" compared to the novels of James Farrell, and all to the credit of Miss Smith's novel. This makes me very sad both for the condition of fiction reviewing and for Mr. Farrell, whatever his faults as a novelist of stature. Of course Francie Nolan's story is more cheerful than Danny O'Neill's and a more popular commodity, but surely popular taste should be allowed to find its emotional level without being encouraged to believe that a "heart-warming" experience is a serious literary experience.

Diana Trilling, "Fiction in Review: 'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn'," in The Nation (copyright 1943 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 157, No. 10, September 4, 1943, p. 274.

Rosemary Dawson

[A Tree Grows in Brooklyn] has the charm of accurately remembered details, set down simply and with feeling….

As long as the book moves with the rhythm of life in Williamsburg and remains true to that setting it is a beautiful and moving piece of work.

But toward the end of the novel the rhythm is broken. As soon as Francie is out in the world, getting a job and finding the first love of her life, the novel takes on more of the mechanics of the usual popular piece of fiction and becomes less real….

And so it is a disappointment to find at the end that things are solved for the Nolans not through their own efforts, but by the intrusion of a perfectly pleasant and affable stranger who plans to marry Katie Nolan and to adopt Francie and the other children, to give them college educations and all the advantages. This is not what the reader wants for the Nolans; it is not true enough to the promise of the book…. It should show a way out for the families of the slums—or the lack of a way out—with the same truthfulness that it showed slum life while the family was living it.

However, there are beautiful passages in the book, and on the whole it is a moving, tender, and fine piece of work.

Rosemary Dawson, "The Charm of Betty Smith," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1943 by Saturday Review; copyright renewed © 1970 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVI, No. 37, September 11, 1943, p. 9.

Orville Prescott

[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. It is a story about life in the Williamsburg tenement district as lived by the Nolan family, particularly by Francie Nolan, aged one to nineteen in the course of the book—my favorite heroine for 1943….

The terrible misery, squalor, and grinding poverty of their lives are here in their unsavory detail. Miss Smith spares nothing. But she has the vision to know that loyalty and laughter and accomplishment and pride are also part of slum life, something too many writers forget; so A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a warm, sunny, engaging book as well as a grim one. It is also a rich and rare example of regional, local-color writing, filled to the scuppers with Brooklynese, Brooklyn folk ways, Brooklyn atmosphere. (p. vi)

Orville Prescott, "Outstanding Novels," in The Yale Review (© 1943 by Yale University; copyright renewed © 1971 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. XXXIII, No. 1, Autumn, 1943, pp. vi-xii.∗

Walter Havighurst

The mid-1920's in America are remembered as a time of prosperity and expansiveness, and the literature of those years shows us the Babbitts, the Gatsbys, and the Dodsworths living in a confident and careless country. But ["Tomorrow Will Be Better"] pictures the little people, whose lives are made up of poverty and postponements, in the mean streets and up the dark stairways that prosperity never finds. Through the cycles of economic change they carry their gnawing worries, their secret resentments, and their wistful dreams of tomorrow….

"Tomorrow Will Be Better" is a commonplace story, deliberately strung together of commonplace experience. It is a sequence, told in a level, unvarying key, of family scenes, office scenes, a routine courtship, a hopeful marriage, and finally, still in the muted key, a stillbirth in a makeshift Brooklyn hospital. Often the story is warm, real, poignant in its picture of hurtful human relationships. At times it lapses into obvious comment on youth's hopefulness and maturity's resignation and regret. The careful tracing of relationships, in a generally uneventful novel, produces a deliberate slowness of pace.

Miss Smith has taken pains to present a typical tenement family of Brooklyn, and all her persons merge easily into generalized conceptions….

While following the Shannons through defeating episodes of their unrewarding lives you may remember another folklore—of a Brooklyn that is brash and coarse and of its cunning and defiant people. This novel looks beneath that folklore and makes us see a more actual city, a city full of failure and loneliness, in which people are always being "shoved around."…

At every point in her limited experience Margy Shannon appeals to a reader's sympathy. She embodies the hurts of childhood, the hopes of youth, and the regrets that follow. But, perhaps because she is so typical, she rarely stirs the imagination. The novel leaves you remembering Brooklyn's folkways more vividly than its people.

Walter Havighurst, "City of Failure and Loneliness," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1948 by Saturday Review; copyright renewed © 1976 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVI, No. 34, August 21, 1948, p. 9.

Richard Sullivan

["A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" and "Tomorrow Will Be Better"], though quite different in intention and effect, have several obvious elements in common. They are both drawn from the same level of American society; they both deal with family life in Brooklyn. (Incidentally, in this very consistency of substance there is a admirable suggestion of integrity: here is a novelist sticking carefully to what she knows, to material she can responsibly handle, without faking or long-range research.) Again, both books exhibit the same fine warmth, the same intense, almost brooding tenderness for people. In both there is a quick feeling for pathos and for absurdity, and a talent for discovering, through fervent insight, the quality of simple, true drama in ordinary lives. Finally, both novels share the benefits of a prose style remarkable for its unpretentiousness—an easy, tidy, direct kind of prose which calls no attention to itself as a medium, but which by its very unself-consciousness lets the experience shine immediately through the transparent words.

Yet in spirit the two novels are noticeably different. By contrast with its successor, "The Tree" now seems in retrospect a more racy, more spontaneous, more joyous work. One might speculate as to whether the author, pondering on that body of material which she has made her own, has not developed during the years a graver, more somberly complicated attitude toward it. "Tomorrow Will Be Better" is...

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G. E. Miles

[Aside] from the paucity of Miss Smith's writing powers, the deficiencies of ["Tomorrow Will Be Better"] are great enough to exclude it from even the most summery of summer readings.

The aim to exploit Brooklyn is obvious, but the result fails to communicate any special sense of place…. There is not a single memorable image, no sensory impressions of odors or sounds of Brooklyn and Brooklyn flats, and no real understanding of the squalor of Brooklyn poor. The method used to denote the special geography of the story is restricted almost entirely to dialogue—and a monotonous burlesque it is—which marks the characters as queers, beloved by Miss Smith it must be presumed, but queers just the same....

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James P. Degnan, Jr.

The worst thing about Maggie-Now … is not its sentimentality, nor its staleness, nor even Miss Smith's monotonous narrative scheme, which grinds through four generations of tiresome people saying the same things over and over. The worst thing about Maggie-Now is its inexcusable lack of compassion. In dealing with the problems of the human spirit, Betty Smith exhibits very little vision, less sympathy and sensitivity, still less awareness of complexity. Her people are invariably malicious, ignorant, superstitious Liliputians. We can't hate them; we can't love them; we can't even take them seriously. Miss Smith's weakness as a novelist is a weakness that even a mediocre writer can't afford—a lack of...

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The Times Literary Supplement

Brooklyn in the early years of the century, swarming with immigrants of all nationalities, mostly warm-hearted, is a terrain not unknown to readers of contemporary fiction; and it is the setting of Miss Smith's new, long, curiously absorbing and shamelessly sentimental novel [Maggie-Now]….

Miss Smith narrates with that talent for the creation of interesting background detail, idealized sorrows and the polished surfaces of life, which is often characteristic of this kind of extremely skilful, cheerfully unscrupulous, semi-historical fiction. Everybody with the most rudimentary talent for letting go should enjoy it; those with a weakness for the horse trams, Irish cops, Heinie butchers, gaslit...

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Virgilia Peterson

In writing another novel about an Irish family in Brooklyn ["Maggie-Now"], Betty Smith has more courage than foresight. Her Brooklyn "Tree"—symbol of all the unsung beauty of the commonplace—has taken root in millions of hearts all over the world. No younger tree planted in the same spot can hope to be so vigorous; inveitably, it will be overshadowed….

If the Nolans were stereotypes; if their strength and weakness, their joy and sorrow appeared in picture-postcard coloring; if love and birth and death as described in "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" were distinguished only by the warm sentiment in which she bathed them, the book nevertheless embodied such authentic nostalgia that none but the...

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Virgilia Peterson

["Joy in the Morning"] is the story of the first year in the marriage of a pair very much in love—a subject with incontrovertible appeal—but it is nowhere near as appealing as Miss Smith's first book.

An air of familiarity, of the déjà vu, pervades the story. Already, in the opening scene, the sense of expectancy so necessary to engage the reader is dulled by an intimation of what to expect….

"Joy in the Morning" is, if not in American life, then most assuredly in contemporary American literature, an anachronism. From start to finish its sentimentality is unalloyed. The little couple is touching enough and their ups and downs are universal. But you forget all about...

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