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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn | Context


Lasting Influence

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has become an icon of American literature. Its enduring influence is evident not only in the fact that it has long been in print since it was first published in 1943, but also in its adaptation for film. Greek-American filmmaker Elia Kazan's feature film directorial debut was the 20th Century Fox adaptation of Smith's popular novel in 1945. It was remade in 1974 as a TV movie. The novel was also adapted as a Broadway musical in 1951. Smith collaborated on the project with George Abbott, the American playwright, screenwriter, director, producer, and actor.

Smith's novel was also popular among servicemen during World War II. The U.S. War Department's Library Section, and later the Council on Books in Wartime, contributed to the effort to keep morale up by publishing affordable and portable contemporary titles. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was one of them. It was so popular among servicemen that it was selected for reprinting. In a note to a 1947 edition of the novel, Smith remarked on the letters she received from "foxholes, battleships, hospitals, recreational centers, and from training camps." The fan letters often mentioned that the book reminded them of their own childhoods.

World War I

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn takes place between 1900 and 1918. The threat of war looms in the background for much of the novel as a distant rumbling—distant because the United States occupies a continent distinct from Europe. That geographical isolation, combined with the fact that the country had also maintained political isolation through the 19th and early 20th centuries, meant that war seemed a distant prospect.

Yet, before the time period of the novel ends, World War I, also known as the Great War and the First World War, would eventually involve the United States, Russia, most European nations, Japan, the Middle East, and other regions. The Great War began on June 28, 1914, when Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb nationalist assassinated Austria-Hungary's Archduke Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo. The fighting that ended on November 11, 1918, yielded more than 37 million casualties.


The United States is a nation founded on immigrants. From the first settlers to the immigration boom in the late 19th century, entry into the United States was not regulated until the Immigration Act of 1924, which established annual quotas. The protagonist Francie Nolan is a descendent of that first wave of immigration. Both her mother and her father were born in the United States, making Francie and her brother, Neeley, unusual in their neighborhood. Most of the kids Francie's age are first-generation Americans, which means their parents were born in another country and immigrated to the United States.

The Irish population in the United States soared in the middle of the 19th century, when nearly half of the Irish emigrated. They left Ireland for a variety of reasons, including famine, unemployment (and resulting poverty), and civil unrest. Upon arrival in the United States, like other immigrants, they were often subjected to hostile, and sometimes violent, ethnic prejudice. This prejudice was based in part on their commitment to the Catholic faith.

American Growth and Industrialization

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is not only a coming of age story but also the story of a country. To this extent, it is a historical document—the history of the United States is a history of immigrants. Moreover, the novel reflects the end of the age of agriculture, and the first effects of the rise of the industrial age, which meant rapid development in large cities like New York. By the early decades of the 20th century, the United States had become, after all, the leading industrial nation. Dotted throughout the novel are references to factory work and the accumulation of wealth, which inspires poor immigrants and their children to work toward the American dream—the ideal that every citizen has the opportunity to achieve happiness and wealth through hard work. Barely 100 years ago, places now paved over and covered in high rises and other buildings were once farmland; as Francie grows up, she comes across open land in New York City, which informs the reader that the country itself is still very young.

Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the Early 20th Century

Separated by the East River from Manhattan, Brooklyn is one of the five boroughs, or districts, that comprise New York City. First settled by Dutch farmers in 1636, the regions of Williamsburg and Bushwick were annexed in 1855 to Brooklyn, which had gained status as a city in 1834. In 1898 Brooklyn became a borough of New York. Several times, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn mentions Francie's admiration for the Williamsburg Bridge and those who cross it into and out of Manhattan. They are the ones who are going places, seeing the world. Completed in 1903, the suspension bridge was, for some time, the longest such bridge in the world.

Williamsburg was a popular resort area in the 1830s. Rich European businessmen from Ireland, Germany, and Austria built their businesses and homes there. Industry also grew in Williamsburg, including the beginnings of companies such as Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, Standard Oil, and CorningWare.

By 1917, the year the United States entered World War I, Williamsburg's blocks were the most densely populated in the city. Immigrants from Russia, Poland, Lithuania, and Italy joined the Irish and others in Brooklyn, which had become a leader in producing manufactured goods. It is not surprising, given the massive increase of workers laboring in factories, often in dangerous and exploitive conditions, that unions emerged. Francie's father, Johnny, a singing waiter, is not subjected to the dangers of factory work, but he is still proud to be a union member.

Unions existed in the United States in some fashion from its beginnings, but trade unions came to the fore in the late 18th century, as labor transitioned from an economy in which the products of one's labor, or labor itself, are sold, to one in which labor is exchanged for a wage. This change reflects the influence of the industrial revolution on the social and economic structures. A union's basic purposes were to leverage the power of collective versus individual bargaining, and to ensure worker safety.

Poverty and Class Struggle in the Early 20th Century

Smith's novel is often characterized as autobiographical, and in an important sense it is. Smith herself notes, however, that it is an amalgamation of scenes, people, and events. Consequently, no one character is Smith herself, for example. Events that take place in the book happened, but were not Smith's own experiences. What this means, then, is that the work as a whole reflects a fairly broad dialogue on poverty and class; it is not exclusive to Smith herself, or even her era. This is one reason it resonates with readers across generations.

Poverty in the United States in the early 20th century was impacted by immigration. Poverty is a condition in which one lacks the basic requirements for survival or a minimum standard of living, for example, food, housing (or adequate shelter), clothing, and education. There was considerable growth in early 20th century both in England and the United States. This growth was due to industrialization and the consequent increase in urban populations. As the economy shifted from agrarian and handmade crafts to machine manufacturing, the production of goods increased, the relation between labor and the means of production (e.g., factories) transformed, and new energy sources fueled the development of innovative and original machines (e.g., the spinning jenny for weaving and the internal combustion engine).

In addition, government policies for dealing with poverty—informed by a wide range of sometimes false theories about the origins of poverty—were highly debated and varied from advocating pensions for mothers (a program that gave cash to widows with young children), to emphasizing moral improvement, to calling for the poor to be put into workhouses and have their children taken away. Other questions that were hotly debated included how much the poor were responsible for their own condition and what methods of relief would not create dependency. There were no such things as public welfare (a taxpayer-funded program to support people in need), no Social Security program (a taxpayer retirement system created in 1935), or expectation of job retirement.

Smith subtly shows the reverberations of these discussions in scenes such as the one in which Francie and Neeley are to be vaccinated. Some parents resist sending their children to school, precisely because they fear the vaccinations are harmful. Compelled by law to send their children to school, they cannot avoid immunization. In this case, being poor means not having any options, such as hiring a private tutor to educate one's children at home. Instead, even though the childhood immunization requirement may be the correct social policy, it's not as if the poor have much of a voice with which to dissent. The doctor who gives Francie her immunization shot exemplifies the common prejudices against the poor, as if they are morally responsible for their plight. The doctor shows how racism and ethnic prejudice is tied to negative perceptions of poverty, and the nurse, unwilling to submit herself to the same treatment, does not reveal her own origins. The poor, as a class, are thought to be inferior. This is why Francie's response is so powerful. She is a force of resistance against such attitudes, thereby contributing to the debate over the morality of poverty associated with prejudice.

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