Poverty and Beauty, Ugliness and Truth

a tree grows in brooklyn coverA short while ago, I reread this classic novel.  It’s one of the greats.  What surprised me this time around was that amidst the storyline and lyrical prose, its message speaks to the heart of what I’ve been presenting within my blog series, Giving Voice.

Very timely as the quotes I’ve pulled from within its pages read better than anything I could attempt to pen.

Meant to be read as a single ‘blog post’ the following quotes are from “A Tree Grows In Brooklyn” by Betty Smith.

Quote symbolSince her father’s death, Francie had stopped writing about birds and trees and My Impressions.  Because she missed him so, she had taken to writing little stories about him.  She tried to show that, in spite of his shortcomings, he had been a good father and a kindly man.  She had written three such stories which were marked ‘C’ instead of the usual ‘A.’  The fourth came back with a line telling her to remain after school…

“What’s happened to your writing, Frances?”  asked Miss Garnder.

“I don’t know.”

“You were one of my best pupils.  You wrote so prettily.  I enjoyed your compositions.  But these last ones…” she flicked at them contemptuously.

“I looked up the spelling and took pains with my penmanship and…”

“I’m referring to your subject matter.”

“You said we could choose our own subjects.”

“But poverty, starvation and drunkenness are ugly subjects to choose.  We all admit these things exist.  But one doesn’t write about them.”

“What does one write about?”  Unconsciously, Francie  picked up the teacher’s phraseology.

“One delves into the imagination and finds beauty there.  The writer, like the artist, must strive for beauty always.”

Quote symbol“What is beauty?” asked the child.

“I can think of no better definition than Keats’: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.’”

“Francie took her courage into her two hands and said, “Those stories are the truth.”

“Nonsense!”  exploded Miss Garnder.  Then, softening her tone, she continued: “By truth, we mean things like the stars always being there and the sun always rising and the true nobility of man and mother-love and love for one’s country,” she ended anticlimactically.

“I see,” said Francie.

As Miss Garnder continued talking, Francie answered her bitterly in her mind.

“Drunkenness is neither truth nor beauty.  It’s a vice.  Drunkards belong in jail, not in stories.  And poverty.  There is no excuse for that.  There’s work enough for all who want it.  People are poor because they’re too lazy to work.  There’s nothing beautiful about laziness.”

(Imagine Mama lazy!)

“Hunger is not beautiful.  It is also unnecessary.  We have well-organized charities.  No one need go hungry.”

Francie ground her teeth.  Her mother hated the word ‘charity’ above any word in the language and she had brought up her children to hate it too.

“Now I’m not a snob,” stated Miss Garnder.  “I do not come from a wealthy family.  My father was a minister with a very small salary.”

(But it was a salary, Miss Garnder.)

“And the only help my mother had was a succession of untrained maids, mostly girls from the country.”

(I see.  You were poor, Miss Garnder, poor with a maid.)

“Many times we were without a maid and my mother had to do all the housework herself.”

(And my mother, Miss Garnder, has to do all her own housework, and yes, ten times more cleaning than that.)

“I wanted to go to the state university but we couldn’t afford it…”

(But admit you had no trouble going to college.)

“…I know what hunger is, too.  Time and time again my father’s salary was held up and there was no money for food.  Once we had to live on tea and toast for three days.”

(So you know what it is to be hungry, too.)

“But I’d be a dull person if I wrote about nothing but being poor and hungry, wouldn’t I…I’ve taken all this time with you because I honestly believe that you have promise.  Now that we’ve talked things out, I’m sure you’ll stop writing those sordid little stories.”

… Miss Garnder handed her the ‘sordid’ compositions… “When you get home, burn these in the stove.  Apply the match to them yourself.  And as the flames rise, keep saying: ‘I am burning ugliness.  I am burning ugliness.’”

Quote symbolWalking home from school, Francie tried to figure the whole thing out.  She knew Miss Garnder wasn’t mean.  She had spoken for Francie’s good.  Only it didn’t seem good to Francie.  She began to understand that her life might seem revolting to some educated people…

…Furious…she ripped the copy-book apart and stuffed it into the stove.  When the flames began licking on it, her fury increased and she ran and got her box of manuscripts from under her bed.  Carefully putting aside the four about her father she crammed the rest of them into the stove.  She was burning all her pretty ‘A’ compositions.  Sentences came out clearer for an instant before a sheet blackened and crumbled.  A giant poplar, tall and high, serene and cool against the sky.  Another:  Softly the blue skies arch overhead.  ‘Tis a perfect October day.  The end of another sentence…hollyhocks like distilled sunsets and larkspur like concentrate of heaven.

“I never saw a poplar and I read somewhere about the sky arching and I never saw those flowers except in a seed catalogue.  And I got A’s because I was a good liar.”  She poked the papers to make them burn faster.  As they changed into ashes, she chanted, “I am burning ugliness.  I am burning ugliness.”  As the last flame died away, she announced dramatically to the water boiler, “There goes my writing career.”

14 thoughts on “Poverty and Beauty, Ugliness and Truth

  1. Jayne

    It’s time for me to go back and revisit this beautiful book. I just finished reading Maude by Donna Mabry, and I can’t help wondering what this teacher would have to say about the hardscrabble life that this writer so unflinchingly described in this memoir. And then yesterday I listened to Pat Conroy speak about his father’s cruelty (was listening on Audible) and was heartsick. All that to say, that life’s a lot more than blue skies and sunshine.

    Reply
  2. Dei Johnson

    Thank you, for sharing this Laura. It encourages me to write, even when my writing is considered “too sad”, or “too controversial”, or “too ugly”.

    I thought I read this book before, but I think not, or I would surely have remembered it. The lines you shared are profound. I’ll be buying it and reading it.

    Love & Peace xoxoxo

    Reply
  3. Donna

    You pulled wonderful and timely quotes, Laura. “Her mother hated the word ‘charity’ above any word in the language and she had brought up her children to hate it too.” My mother hated that word too.

    Reply
  4. L. Marie

    Such a classic book. This quote really resonated with me: “One delves into the imagination and finds beauty there. The writer, like the artist, must strive for beauty always.” I live by this!

    Reply
  5. Joe Finnety

    This is a beautiful quotation that complements your blog to perfection.

    Scottsdale’s winter weather lasted four days this year. Baseball’s spring training camps are up and running. We expect many frozen NYC and Chicago residents to move here this summer. It will take three months for them to thaw out.

    Reply
    1. laura bruno lilly Post author

      …And your comment is most timely, thank you.

      As always, I sense that Finnerty humor in your seasonal observation. Hope to read some more of your pieces, soon. (hint-hint: my e-mail inbox is waiting to receive ‘em)

      Reply
  6. Martha

    I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never read this book but that can be changed as I plan to order it tonight. Truth is indeed beauty.

    Reply
    1. laura bruno lilly Post author

      As you say, the not having read it can be changed…it’s never too late to pick up a novel and start reading! I find it interesting that a book I just finished also referenced Keats’ “Truth is Beauty”. Timing is everything and I’m taking this synchronicity as something to notice.

      Called, “A Fall of Marigolds” by Susan Meissner, it explores the in-between places we go to help heal after we encounter deep catastrophes in our lives. Following parallel lives of young women, one who experienced the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 in NYC and the contemporary protagonist who experienced 9/11 and is dealing with its 10 year anniversary in 2011.

      So, now will you add that to your bedside table reading? ;-)

      Thanks for stopping by, Martha.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *