This holiday season finds Tenured Radical well settled into the Brooklyn lifestyle. What am I thinking about on Christmas Eve? Naturally that scene in Betty Smith‘s classic novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943) in which twelve year-old Francie Nolan and her younger brother Neeley win a Christmas tree from the sadistic peddler who throws unsold trees at poor people. If the “customer” doesn’t fall down when hit, the tree is free.
This was the only way Francie was going to get anything at all for Christmas. As devotees of the novel know, Francie’s father Johnny is a charming Irish singing waiter who promises all kinds of grand things. He is also an alcoholic who is more likely to drink up every dollar in his pocket than to make a Christmas for his family. Therefore, on Christmas Eve, Francie visits the tree sadist, points to the tree of her dreams and, because it is so big, negotiates a deal in which both she and ten Neeley will stand up to the blow together.
However, the sadistic tree seller pauses before belting the Nolan kids with old tannenbaum. “He noticed how tiny the children looked,” and he is overcome by holiday spirit:
‘Oh Jesus Christ,’ his soul agonized, ‘why don’t I just give ‘em the tree, say Merry Christmas and let ‘em go? What’s the tree to me? I can’t sell it no more this year and it won’t keep till next year….But then,’ he rationalized, ‘if I did that, all the others would expect to get ‘em handed to ‘em. And next year nobody a-tall would buy a tree off of me. They’s all wait to get ‘em handed to ‘em on a silver plate. I ain’t a big enough man to give this tree away for nothin.’ No, I ain’t big enough to do a thing like that. I gotta think of myself and my own kids.’ He finally came to his conclusion. ‘Oh what the hell. Them two kids is gotta live in this world. They got to get used to it. They got to learn to give and take punishment. And by Jesus it ain’t give but take, take, take all the time in this God-damned world.’
Reluctantly, “he threw the tree with all his strength.” Francie has a split second to brace herself between the tree leaving the seller’s hands and having it smack her head on. Neeley almost crumbles, but she keeps him upright. The crowd claps and cheers when it becomes clear that the children are bleeding profusely but have not fallen — and have thus won the tree. The tree man screams: “Get the hell out of here with your tree, you lousy bastards!” But Francie knows that what he really means is:
“Good bye — God bless you!”
I probably read this passage thirty or forty times as an adolescent Radical, and only now do I wonder (as the trained scholar that I now am): is this some kind of a protest parable against the New Deal state, or what? Granted, the novel takes place in the Progressive era, but it was written during Roosevelt’s third term, and after the architecture of the liberal welfare state had been legislated. All that was missing in 1943 was the most massive entitlement program for middle class formation in history, GI Bill of Rights, otherwise known as The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944.
However, the plot of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn turns on the importance of self-reliance, the consequences of moral failure, and on family solidarity as the primary means of survival. Francie and Neeley earn the tree by paying for it in grit and pain. Both before and after Johnny’s death from alcoholism, Francie’s mother refuses to apply for relief of any kind, despite the fact that her children nearly starve. In the final third of the book, the fatherless family is saved by Francie sacrificing her education for a wage and, finally, by the mother agreeing to a second marriage that will lift her children out of poverty and allow Neeley to finish school. The message throughout the novel is clear: poor people can have charity or character, but not both. Furthermore, the tree seller’s crude economic philosophy is strikingly similar to the free market theory that would become popularized by Friedrich Hayeck in The Road to Serfdom (1944), published the year after A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
Fortunately we no longer throw trees at each other in Brooklyn on Christmas Eve: maybe a gigabyte or two, but no trees. So from our family to yours, God Bless you, and have a wonderful holiday.