The idea of studying modern social problems in a methodical way emerges in the late 19th, early 20th century through the writings of scholars such as Karl Marx, Max Weber, Sigmund Freud and especially, Emile Durkheim and W.E.B. Du Bois. It’s not difficult to imagine why. This was, after all, a time, when the dark side of modernity was starting to become more apparent. People were poor and ragged and often left homeless in the streets, upward mobility through education was reserved mostly for rich, white women and working class men, and the rural, small town edges of the great, new 20th century cities seemed to be finally wearing off.
I learned all this not from the writings of Marx and Weber and Freud and all the rest, but rather, the writings of Betty Smith, an American novelist and playwright, whose classic 1943 book, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, I read, for the first time, when I was nine. Tree is all about the life and times of Francie Nolan, an Irish-American girl growing up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn just after the turn of the century, who made observations about the world like this: “‘It was as if this could be a whole life,’ Francie thought. ‘You work eight hours a day covering wires to earn money to buy food and to pay for a place to sleep so that you can keep living to come back to this place and cover more wires. Some people are born and kept living just to come to this … Maybe she’d never have more education than she had at that moment. Maybe all her life she’d have to cover wires.”
Or, even better, observations like this, Francie’s ideas about a man she sees sleeping on the street outside of Losher’s Bread Factory: “He is old. He must be past seventy. He was born about the time Abraham Lincoln was living and getting himself ready to be president. Williamsburg must have been a little country place then and maybe Indians were still living in Flatbush. That was so long ago … He was a baby once. He must have been sweet and clean and his mother kissed his little pink toes. Maybe when it thundered at night she came to his crib and fixed his blanket better and whispered that he mustn’t be afraid, that mother was there. Then she picked him up and put her cheek on his head and said that he was her own sweet baby. He might have been a boy like my brother, running in and out of the house and slamming the door. And while his mother scolded him she was thinking that maybe he’ll be president some day. Then he was a young man, strong and happy. When he walked down the street, the girls smiled and maybe he winked at the prettiest one.”
Though Smith didn’t use these exact words, Francie, was what sociologist Charles Lemert would call a practical sociologist, someone who sees in the everyday workings of life the larger social scene. As Smith herself wrote, “Francie stared (out at the world and) played her favorite game: Figuring out about people.” And Smith with her fictional stories about a very real Brooklyn has always been for me the very best kind of what, (again what Lemert would call), academic, scientific sociologist: Emotional, soulful and geographically sensitive. In other words, a careful and artful documentarian of place.
One last passage from Tree: “Losher’s bread factory supplied the neighborhood stores. The bread was not wrapped in wax paper and grew stale quickly. Losher’s redeemed the stale bread from the dealers and sold it half price to the poor. The outlet store adjoined the bakery. Its long narrow counter filled one side and long narrow benches ran along the other two sides. A huge double door opened behind the counter. The bakery wagons backed up to it and unloaded the bread right to the counter. They sold two loaves for a nickel, and when it was dumped out, a pushing crowd fought for the privilege of buying it. There was never enough bread and some waited until three or four wagons had reported before they could buy bread. At that price, the cutomers had to supply their own wrappings. Most of the purchasers were children. Some kids tucked the bread under their arms and walked home brazenly letting all the world know that they were poor. The proud ones wrapped up the bread, some in old newspapers, others in clean or dirty flour sacks. Francie brought along a large paper bag.”
It’s hard to say whether I would have cared or not about the ideas of the first academic, scientific sociologists had I not read Betty Smith, for she was the one who introduced the social problem of modernity to me. And so I think of her every semester when it comes time to teach the pillars of the sociological canon and think about all the core ideas and concepts it protects. Ideas and concepts, which emerged from the minds of men living so long ago they are difficult to verify and, perhaps even more importantly, difficult to imagine, let alone see.
End Note 1: The image above is the movie poster from Elia Kazen’s cinematic version of “Tree” made in 1945.
End Note 2: Here is a little list of all the things I learned from “A Tree Grows In Brooklyn,” very useful for these economically dark times: 1) Salvage and save everything, but always be prepared to let it go (from Tree’s heroine, Francie Nolan, who made money gleaning tin and other valuable trash from the street and trading it for money from the neighborhood junkie, i.e., garbage man); 2) When you spend money on something to eat or drink pick something that lasts (from Francie’s selection of peppermint wafer candies over all other candies and her mother, Katie’s, recipes for cooking with stale bread); 3) Take your fair share and do with it what you truly wish (from Katie, who allowed Francie one hot cup of strong black coffee a day even though Francie chose not to drink it); 4) Proceed through life steadily and methodically, but allow yourself to regularly stray from your self imposed routines (from Francie’s weekly ritual of checking out two books a week from the public library, one by moving alphabetically through the stacks and another by selecting one book purely by chance or for pleasure; 5) Try and love your brother no matter how many unearned privileges from your family and society he receives (from Francie’s enduring love for her brother Nealy, who, is allowed to attend high school when Francie is not); 6) Never be afraid to leave home, (from Francie, when she decides to leave Brooklyn and attend university in the mid-west)