“She had become accustomed to being lonely. She was used to walking alone and to being considered ‘different.’ She did not suffer too much.” Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Ch. 20
What is the wall between rich and poor made of?
In my world as a middle schooler, it was largely made of denim. Size 10 jeans, to be exact. I still remember standing in the isle of the Memphis department store, holding a pair of Guess jeans, agonizing over whether I ought to spend several months’ allowance on the white-washed status symbol. (For those of you who are Anne of Green Gables fans, they were my puffed sleeves.)
Why was I so desperate to have those jeans? Was I just vain? Or was I trying, without even knowing it, to bridge the divide, to cross over into an entire world I felt shut out of—a world not just of money, but coolness and significance.
In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, of course, Francie is worried about far more urgent needs than jeans. She lives in a tenement house in Brooklyn prior to World War I, and it would seem that in the first 50 pages, her most pressing concern is food. The action of the story revolves around how shrewdly she shops for the family’s bread and meat, and in a segment just about any kid would find mouth-watering, how she plans to spend her own small amount of money for a piece of candy.
Published in 1943, the book became an immediate bestseller. Since then, it has of course lived on in numerous printings, including a pocket book form used by the armed services in World War II. (Apparently those army boys did look at something besides pin-ups of Betty Grable! Who knew?) And then there are the movie versions, as well as the Broadway production that ran for some 260 odd shows. According to the Sparknotes reviewer, Oprah Winfrey chose A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as one of the top ten most influential books in her own life.
When I first encountered Francie, the extreme poverty of her world was light-years away from my own. But I understood class. I knew that some kids (and their parents) would be your friend only if you could dress and look a certain way. Sometimes I made the cut. Sometimes I didn’t.
I have been trying to put my finger on the effect of this book in my own life. And while I’m sure it shaped my vision in a number of ways, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was one of the first books that brought to my mind the human cost of the walls between rich and poor. I had been taught that all people were equal, that money didn’t make the man. I had also felt in my own life the inordinate power of money. As an adolescent, I just wanted to to fit in, to be able to stand next to the other girls in my class and wear clothes that didn’t make me feel silly. I didn’t realize until recently this in itself was a love for the power of money.
Books like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (and there were many of them—John Steinbeck’s books, for instance, or stories by William Faulkner) helped me explore that tension, and confirmed for me in a powerful way that people like Francie—people with very little money—were ultimately just as significant as anyone else. And no matter how I failed in my own life to live as if it were true, Francie embodied the human dignity common to all people. From then on, I played the charade. I still shopped for cool clothes. I still tried to not look silly. I did, after all, have to wear clothes. (As Mark Twain put it, “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little to no impact on society.”) But I had joined the mass of readers who know it is all a facade. I knew that the real me was beyond class, that I would be the same person with the same dignity whether I had Guess jeans or not.
In other words, the ideal of money had been dethroned. Sort of. The problem is that even though I saw it was a sham, I still found myself worshiping it. Or at least being constrained by it.
Years later when I was in college, I remember the guilt I felt over something that happened in my sorority. One of our new members had only been a part of the group for several months. We warned her several times of our standards for public behavior. But the final straw had come that week, with the information she had been seen a few nights before “drunk and hanging all over some Mexicans.”
Race/nationality was a factor, but it wasn’t the defining one. If they had been wealthy and good-looking Hispanic boys, sons of lawyers and doctors in Jackson or Memphis, then no one would have batted an eye. But to be seen like that with boys who had no money, no influence—that was unforgivable. And so, serving briefly as president of the sorority, I knew that I would have to ask her to leave.
Aside from the night we debated over whether to invite a black student, this was probably the most crushing moment for me as a college student. She had done nothing that half the girls at Ole Miss hadn’t done. But she had done it with poor boys, and that made it unforgivable.
I hoped by leaving the sorority, I could set myself apart from such obvious double standards. But the reality was that the rules I had been asked to enforce weren’t just the private beliefs of a few individuals. They were the status quo of our culture—and perhaps just the way the world works. If you want to be successful, you have to look, dress, act certain ways. Those who don’t live up will have doors closed to them. In many cases, my sorority helped open doors for girls who would have otherwise been left out. But not everyone could be saved. Some would have the door shut to them.
While I can’t say definitively what has drawn readers to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for nearly 70 years, nor why it has appeared on middle school reading lists for the last 40-50 years, my guess is that many others have been drawn, like me, to its moral vision.
And yet, standing there with my mother in the Memphis department store in the early 90′s, with all my desire to rise above external status symbols, with all my desire to be different, to be on Francie’s side and in so doing tear down the wall…
I walked to the check-out counter. I forked over my allowance. And while I did find short-term gratification, you’ll be happy to know that those Guess jeans were perhaps the most uncomfortable jeans I ever owned and as such, cost me far more than $70 allowance in the end.
Did any of you feel this tension growing up? Or do you see it in your kids? The desire to dethrone money as an idol, and yet the inability to give up good things–especially things to make you more liked by your peers? In all honesty, I’m probably more tempted by material things now…even though at least I now understand my desire for beautiful things isn’t bad in itself. If you’d like to hear a fantastic sermon on money from another New Yorker, I highly recommend Tim Keller’s free download, Two Men with Money.
A few other posts on our site dealing with money–making it or saving it–are Janie’s series Three Cheers for Free Enterprise, and 10 Vacation Audiobooks for the Whole Family. And to see the beginning of Behind the Bookcase, my postmodern conversion story, go to Behind the Bookcase: In Search of a Hiding Place.