A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn


Betty Smith

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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Betty Smith

Born to German immigrants and raised in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Smith never finished high school but was allowed to attend the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor as a special, non-degree seeking student after her first husband, George H.E. Smith, enrolled there as a law student. At Michigan, Smith wrote numerous articles, short stories, and plays. After winning the university’s Avery Hopwood Award for playwrighting, she enrolled at Yale Drama School and completed a three-year course but never earned a degree, due to not having a high school diploma. In 1934, she moved to New York City with her two daughters, Nancy and Mary, to work for the Federal Theater. Smith divorced her first husband in 1938. In 1942, she submitted an early version of Brooklyn to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as a script, but the story failed to generate interest at the movie studio. She also turned her manuscript into a play. In May 1942, she submitted the manuscript for Harper & Brothers’ 125th Anniversary Nonfiction Contest, obscuring the fact that the it was a novel, though it was closely based Smith’s life and family. Though the story was disqualified from the contest, Harper & Brothers agreed to publish it as a novel. Brooklyn became a best-seller and was twice adapted for film, as a theatrical release directed by Elia Kazan in 1945 and as a television movie in 1974. Smith soon married Joe Jones, a writer and journalist. During the Second World War, Jones was a soldier in the Army stationed in Virginia; he and Smith maintained a regular correspondence during his service, comprising 400 letters between them. Smith wrote other novels, including Tomorrow Will Be Better (1947), Maggie-Now (1958), and Joy in the Morning (1963), but none of them ever achieved the success of her debut. Smith divorced Jones in 1951 and married Robert Voris Finch, whom she’d first met at Yale Drama School. Smith was very active in Chapel Hill’s the theatrical community of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, writing plays and assisting with stage productions. With Finch, she often devised plot ideas for plays and later staged them. Finch died in 1959. Smith herself died of pneumonia at a convalescent home in Shelton, Connecticut at the age of 75.
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Historical Context of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Brooklyn was published in the midst of the Second World War. In 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, thereby involving the United States in a war that many Americans had hoped to avoid entering. In 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt ordered Japanese-Americans into internment camps in a gesture that mimicked, however inadvertently, the racist policies of the Nazis in Germany. In the case of Korematsu v. the United States, the Supreme Court ruled that the internment of the Japanese as a precaution to espionage was constitutional. In the year in which Smith’s novel was published, Detroit also erupted into a race riot that killed nine whites and twenty-five black people and injured seven hundred people. On April 12, 1945, President Roosevelt died, making Harry Truman the new commander-in-chief. A month later, Germany surrendered, concluding the war in the European arena. The dropping of nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war in the Pacific, after Emperor Hirohito surrendered on August 15, 1945. The Cold War with the Soviet Union began in 1947—a result of the United States’ refusal to acknowledge the Russians as legitimate allies, despite cooperation during the war, due to the Soviets’ wish to expand Communism.

Other Books Related to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Brooklyn was published during a period in which American literature began to depict stark social realities—such as poverty, addiction, and sexual abuse—in simple, direct prose and with dialogue that reflected how people actually spoke. By the 1940s, the new crop of American authors was more diverse than ever before, comprising more women, black writers, and homosexuals who openly wrote about how these social identities impacted people’s lives. Authors from this time include Richard Wright (Native Son), Katherine Anne Porter (Pale Horse, Pale Rider), Chester Himes (If He Hollers, Let Him Go), Carson McCullers (The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter), and Truman Capote (Other Voices, Other Rooms). Several of these writers, like Smith, reflected on their childhoods through fiction. Trends in American theater also strongly impacted the urge to publish socially realistic and uncomfortable subject matter. The plays of Tennessee Williams (The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire) and Eugene O’Neill (A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Hairy Ape, The Iceman Cometh) were particularly pertinent in exploring dysfunctional family life, class tensions, and alcoholism—themes which are also present in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. According to Betty Smith’s daughter, Nancy Pfeiffer, Roth’s 1934 novel Call It Sleep was a major inspiration in Smith’s decision to write about her own life as fiction. Like Brooklyn, Roth’s novel is about the hardships of growing up poor in New York City, though his novel takes place on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and is from the perspective of a Jewish boy. Both books, however, describe the lives of poor city kids in the period before the First World War, and both were published during cataclysmic eras in American history—the Great Depression and the Second World War, respectively.
Key Facts about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
  • Full Title: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
  • When Written: December 1940-May 1942
  • Where Written: Chapel Hill, North Carolina
  • When Published: 1943
  • Literary Period: World War II-era literature; Social Realism
  • Genre: Fiction; Coming-of-age novel
  • Setting: Williamsburg, Brooklyn
  • Climax: Johnny Nolan dies of pneumonia and acute alcoholism
  • Antagonist: Poverty and classism
  • Point of View: Third-person omniscient

Extra Credit for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

James Dunn. American actor James Dunn won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1946 for playing Johnny Nolan in the film adaptation of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. After having starred alongside Shirley Temple in the 1930s, Dunn’s career endured a slump in the early-1940s due to his reputation as an unreliable actor who drank heavily. Despite critical acclaim for Brooklyn, no more film offers came to Dunn. He chose to return to Broadway, where his career began, and starred as Willy Loman in a production of Death of a Salesman in 1951.