The Case For A Tree Grows In Brooklyn As The Great American Novel

Why Betty Smith’s Novel About Optimism, Imagination, Ambition, and the Freedom to Succeed or Fail on Your Own Terms is My Pick For The Great American Novel

First edition of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

The trope of the “Great American Novel” comes from an 1868 essay by John William DeForest. In that essay, DeForest ponders the idea that the time has come for a novel that perfectly captures “the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence.”

“This task of painting the American soul within the framework of a novel has seldom been attempted,” DeForest continues, “and has never been accomplished further than very partially.”

Since the publication of DeForest’s essay, the idea of a “Great American Novel” has been an object of fascination for writers and readers alike. Is there a novel that singularly captures the uniquely American experience, either in total or for a snapshot in time?

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, Moby Dick, To Kill A Mockingbird, Lonesome Dove, Beloved, American Pastoral…what novel comes to mind for you when you think of the phrase: Great American Novel?

The question is, in the end, a silly one, of course. America is a different nation to different people in different places in different times, but still the question remains a fun one to try and answer.

If you had to pick one, and only one, novel that best represents America, the American experience, and the American soul, a novel that can rightly be called “great” both in its influence and in the skill of its creation, which novel would you pick?

I pick A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was first published in 1943.

A semi-autobiographical novel, the book tells the story of a young woman, Francie Nolan, growing up in Brooklyn during the first two decades of the 20th century.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a novel of many things. It’s a story of opportunity, its young narrator striving to achieve The American Dream her family imagined for her when they made the hard journey across the Atlantic.

It’s also a story of social change, the generations of our narrator’s family evolving quickly out of the class and gender roles they inherited from their parents and grandparents in Europe and into the wide open make-your-own-rules culture that America, at its best, wants to be.

First edition copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for sale at an Antiquarian book fair.

It’s a story of striving. The novel’s central metaphor is a hardy breed of tree that has such a strong will to live that it will find a way to thrive wherever you put it. When I think about what America should be, wants to be, often is (and sometimes isn’t) I think about Betty Smith’s admiration of that tree. America wants to be a land where people are free to strive, free to chase their dreams, free to take risks and succeed based on their ability to be of use to others, free to make their own luck.

And even free to fail. One of the most compelling storylines in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the troubled, tragic life of Francie’s father, a storyline that gets at fundamental truths about America that are just as salient as Francie’s ambitions and success. Even as Francie’s mother takes on extra jobs, and Francie uses her imagination to seek out opportunity and make the days more bearable, Francie’s father, Johnny, slides into alcoholism and dysfunction.

In the character of Francie’s father, Betty Smith shows us that there is a cost to the freedom that makes the American Dream possible. Johnny cannot handle the freedom that enables the Dream. Johnny is someone who would have done much better in the “Old Country,” a land where a man’s role is carved out for him and strongly enforced by a rigid social structure. In the Old Country, a family like the Nolans could never escape their social station, but a man like Johnny would have never been allowed to deteriorate so completely either.

James Dunn as Johnny in Hollywood’s take on A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Dunn won an Oscar for the role.

A bestseller when it came out, one that was immediately adapted into an Oscar-winning movie, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn holds a special place in American history not only because of its message and portrayal of the immigrant experience, but also because it was the nation’s bestselling book during World War 2. It should be and is a point of pride for Americans that during this most challenging time in history, when the whole world was at war with nothing less than freedom itself at stake, a novel about tenacity, about holding onto your idealism even when the world wants to break it, was the runaway bestseller that everyone was reading.

Even soldiers on the front line.

American GI in WW2 reading the Armed Services Edition of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A special “Armed Services” edition of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, one designed to be more compact and sturdy, was the most read book among the armed services during the war. In what is now sometimes called “The Publishing Industry’s Finest Hour,” the push to quickly print more copies of this inspiring book became a part of the war effort at home, with copies being spread around the populace as fast as they could be printed, and then shipped overseas to soldiers all over the world.

I can’t help but get a little emotional when I think about America in the 1940s, rising to the occasion in the face of one of its greatest challenges, both at home and on the battlefront, the whole nation enamored with a novel about a little girl who uses imagination and a can-do attitude to survive and thrive in the pressure cooker of turn-of-the-century Brooklyn, just like the tree she admires so much.

Betty Smith standing next to the tree outside her old house in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn doesn’t capture all of America — no novel can — but it captures more of America, both as it is and as I want it to be, than any other novel I know. It’s also beautiful, compelling, accessible, and was the most influential novel in America during America’s finest hour.

It is, to me, the Great American Novel.

Spencer Baum is the author of 7 novels. He is releasing the audiobook of his newest novel, in full, as a free podcast.