It is no coincidence that Betty Smith's second novel, Tomorrow Will Be Better
was published five years to the day after her first novel, A Tree Grows In
Brooklyn. The phenomenal accomplishments of her first book made this association
extremely desirable for her publishers. Truly, Tomorrow Will Be Better owes
much of its success to its predecessor, falling into a distinct category of "second
bestsellers" that rely on the author's name and the achievements of his or her first
bestseller. Yet it is not solely through the connection with Smith and A Tree Grows
in Brooklyn that Tomorrow Will Be Better climbed its way to the top of the
bestseller lists in 1948. The novel capitalizes on a mixture of general public emotions
and sentiments during the postwar period to attract its readers.
Tomorrow Will Be Better is a classic example of a book that becomes a
bestseller in part because of the success of the author's earlier book or books.
Tomorrow Will Be Better was eagerly anticipated by Smith's fans, who plagued
her with hundreds of letters daily. In 1943, as a first time author, the success of A
Tree Grows in Brooklyn had been both phenomenal and astounding, selling a
whopping 2 million copies by the end of 1944 (Weidman, Assignment 2). It is no
surprise, then, that her second novel reached the bestseller lists, despite the slightly less
favorable reviews that it received. Smith herself had been propelled into the limelight, as
she described in her column for the June 6 1949 issue of Life magazine, "I
suppose I'm expected to say it's ?like a beautiful dream come true' . . . it's more like a
nightmare" (5). Smith was, of course, referring to her plethora of fan mail and the
impossibility of anonymity wherever she traveled.
It seems the failure of a second book would have been impossible. Starting from
the purposeful publication date on the anniversary of A Tree Grows in
Brooklyn's own publication, everything about the advertising campaign for
Tomorrow Will Be Better associated the second novel with Smith's first. The
dust jacket proudly proclaims, "By the Author of ?A Tree Grows in Brooklyn'" not only
on the front, but also on the spine and on the back. The inside flaps on the dust jacket
both talk about her first book. The back flap has its own box detailing the success of her
first book, from the number of languages that it has been translated into to the new
publication of an illustrated collector's edition. The review excerpts that can be found on
the dust jacket also make comparisons to the first book, saying, "Even better than A
Tree Grows in Brooklyn" (Dorothy Cansfield Fisher). The majority of reviews that
appeared in periodicals following publication compared the book with A Tree Grows
in Brooklyn. The association of the two books in The New York Times Book
Review was blatantly obvious- the article was entitled, "Brooklyn, Where the Tree
Grew". The advertisements found in periodicals also stressed association of the two
books. The top reads boldly, "Betty Smith, Author of A TREE GROWS IN
BROOKLYN, has done it again!" Farther down, the ad reads, "In Margy Shannon you
will meet a heroine as memorable as Francie Nolan, who made A TREE GROWS IN
This story is not anomalous to the world of bestsellers. In fact, there is a long
tradition of best-selling books by the same author. The book that directly follows the
first bestseller is obviously the most anticipated. This theory is what drives the writing of
sequels and their subsequent success. Consider Eleanor Porter's Pollyanna; with
the success of this book, could the subsequent Pollyanna Grows Up really have
failed? After Garrison Keilor's 1985 Lake Wobegon Days sold 1,108,016 copies
that year, could Leaving Home: A Collection of Lake Wobegon Stories really
remained unknown?(Barret Assignment 2 and Tankovick Assignment 5) This pattern
repeats itself in multiple ways throughout the twentieth century. Sinclair Lewis'
Main Street reached best-selling status in 1920, selling 295,000 copies that year
(Brower Assignment 2). Babbitt, published in 1922, would also reach the top of
the lists (Choi Assignment 2). It can be easily argued, that, had Margaret Mitchell not
died in a car accident, any book following her 1936 Gone With The Wind would
have achieved immediate fame (Dodd Assignment 3). Gone With The Wind,
selling one million copies only six months after its publication, would become so
celebrated that a sequel by Alexandra Ripley, written nearly six decades later, also found
its way to the bestseller list (Dodd Assignment 2 and Smiley Assignment 1). Other
examples of second books from best-selling authors reaching the charts can be easily
found. Le Carre's 1965 The Spy Who Came In From the Cold had sold 2
million copies by 1965, when his second book, The Looking Glass Wars, became
a bestseller (Martin Assignment 1 and Hornig Assignment 2). Had Tom Clancy not
achieved intense publicity when The Hunt For Red October became a bestseller
in 1984, it is doubtful that his 1986 Red Storm Rising would have become a
best-selling success with such ease (Dixon Assignment 5) .
Tomorrow Will Be Better and other "second bestsellers" like it
demonstrate an interesting public trend towards the familiar and the known. While
books are, at times, judged by their covers, it is also apparent that they are judged by their
authors. People read Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and loved it; it seems
only logical that her next book would be equally rewarding for readers. Readers
associate certain traits with authors. If the consumer is going to pay to read the book,
they want to spend money on something that is guaranteed to bring enjoyment, not
something that might possibly bring pleasure. Just like audiences craved spy fiction
from Le Carre, horror from Stephen King, and passion from Danielle Steel, they craved
the simple, emotional, and wholesome drama of Smith. Tomorrow Will Be
Better was a combination of the right factors at the right time. As a second book
from a beloved author, it was a sure bet for many consumers.
Tomorrow Will Be Better belongs to a class of bestsellers which
accurately reflect prevailing societal opinions and emotions of the time. Bestsellers
often succeed because they tell the public what it wants to hear, capitalizing on a need for
the comfort of the familiar or a reinforcement of beliefs. This is true of books like Pearl
Buck's 1931 The Good Earth, which depicted the struggles of agrarian farmers
in China against natural disaster and famine. At that time, America was in the midst of
the economic collapse of the Great Depression. It is easy to see how many American
people could identify with the struggles of the novel's characters (Rogers Assignment 5).
To some extent, this is also true of Margaret Mitchell's 1936 Gone With the
Wind (Rogers Assignment 5). Clearly, the events of the time period shape what the
public craves to read. The success Le Carre's The Spy Who Came In From The
Cold in 1964 was in great part due to the rising publicity of the Cold War espionage
culture (Martin Assignment 5). Likewise, Crichton's The Andromeda Strain
profited from the high exposure of the Apollo 11 moon landing (Van Reet Assignment
5). When Tom Clancy wrote about a World War III in his 1986 Red Storm
Rising, the threat of communist China, the rise of terrorism, and the constant danger
of nuclear war made the possibility of a third world war not just a fictional creation
(Dixon Assignment 5). It is easy to see how many bestsellers reflect anxieties, interests,
or problems of that time.
In the case of Tomorrow Will Be Better, the public was war-weary;
barely three years has passed since the end of World War II. A novel like
Pollyanna is just not possible after society had seen the graphic reality of world
war. People were tentatively hopeful for the future, yet the suffering of the past was
fresh. With any idealism shattered by two bloody wars and a grave economic depression,
the world around them was fragile and tenuous. This general feeling is largely evidenced
by the nonfiction bestsellers in 1948. With Dwight D. Eisenhower' s Crusade in
Europe and Winston Churchill's The Gathering Storm both holding places,
the raw experience of World War II was clearly still a matter of interest ("1940s
Bestsellers"). Anxiety is also present, not only with the historical beginnings of the Cold
War taking place, but in the books people were reading. In 1948, Carnegie's How To
Stop Worrying and Start Living, Liebman's Peace of Mind and Peale's
A Guide to Confident Living all appeared on the nonfiction bestseller lists
("1940s Bestsellers"). It does not seem strange, then, that an optimistic title like
Tomorrow Will Be Better also appealed to the public.
Smith capitalized on these sentiments of the time when she wrote her second
novel. The title itself is innately hopeful, yet the book does not leap to the happy ending
without serious pause and reflection. It is the story of the courtship and breakup of a
marriage; it is a coming of age and a loss of innocence. It is about the loss of a child.
These things were unconsciously familiar to many Americans, whose own naiveté was
shattered as they waited in vain for the return of husbands, sons, and friends from the
war. The war revisited many Americans daily in 1948, in the same way Margy's
reoccurring nightmares repeat throughout the book. "It was an old recurrent dream. . .She
knew the dream was coming and she knew the terror it held"(5). Smith seems to be
aware of the dangers of attachment too, when viewed in light of the pain of a loss. This
same aversion to affection is apparent in the way Flo regards her own family, as she
believes any affection will ultimately result in pain. The same is true of the character
Frankie in the book.
Smith knew well how to appropriately categorize the mixture of optimism and
disillusionment that pervaded throughout society during this time. She describes Margy's
hopefulness poignantly, "She had the optimism of the young to whom all of life shines
endlessly ahead; the young who are sure they can make their own destiny in spite of the
tritely spoken wisdom of older people who have had their chance at licking life and have
come out of the unequal fight with bloody and bowed souls"(136). While the future did
remain wide open, America could not easily forget the tragedy of the past decades. With
the sickening soldier death tolls, horror of the concentration camps, and introduction of
atomic warfare, World War II had ripped apart humans in a way that could not be
merely smoothed over, or fixed. Like the Shannons' semi-broken victrola, the mistakes
of the past could not be overlooked with ease.
The machine had stood silent for years, a symbol of the futility of their
days. The lost handle was proof to Henny that he was constantly being
pushed around and it was another strike against him as far as his wife was
concerned. . . A queer thing was that a lost handle could become so much
a part of the stuff that formed a family's life. Margy put the "Missouri
Waltz" on the turntable. She knew it couldn't play without being wound
yet she had an unreasonable hope that some miracle would make the
music come. In a small frenzy of desperation she stuck her little finger in
the handle hole and tried to turn over the machinery with her fingernail.
Then she began turning the record with her hand. A phrase of music came
grudgingly. She twirled the record faster. The music came limpingly and
incomplete. She hummed along with it, trying to make it a whole thing.
Suddenly she stopped (101).
Throughout the book, there is a sense of loss that cannot quite be compensated
for, a break that cannot ever really be made whole again. Whether it is a broken
Victrola, the death of a child, or a falling out of love, the despair of loss seeps from the
book. And yet, there is hope, against all odds. After Margy loses her baby, the doctors
tell her they hope to see her back again next year. After Margy realizes her marriage to
Frankie is virtually over, she thinks of the distant possibility of Mr. Prentiss as a husband
and father. America, believing in the possibility of a world without war, could clearly
sympathize with such hope. Margy says expressively, "I must get over this feeling of
hating everybody and thinking nothing at all in the world is any good. If I ever got to
really believing that things would never be any better than they are right now, I guess I'd
just as soon lay down and die"(254).
Tomorrow Will Be Better also capitalizes on post-war patriotic feeling.
Primarily, the book is a vivid portrait of the local color of Brooklyn, from the working
class distinctly Brooklyn accent, to the day to day accounts of bartering at the
marketplace and riding home on the tram. Smith writes in animated dialect, " I shoulda
done better than Henny and a cold-water flat on Maujer Street. Being as I always had big
ideas when I was a girl. You won't ketch me in no flat like yours, . . ."(17). The
characters in Tomorrow Will Be Better are strikingly familiar. Smith paints an
extraordinary picture of ordinary subjects, showing with realism and charm the struggle
of many Americans.
Patriotism is also categorized by a prominent belief in the American dream. It is
what makes both Frankie and Margy's parents demand a better life for their children. It
is what propels Sal's shoeshine business, Patsy Malone's study of undertaking, Henny's
night school, and Margy's careful scrimping and calculating of ways to save. "That's the
American Way, thought Sal, who had been born in America of Italian born parents. Do
something a little better than the next guy and you're in. The American Way"(193). It is
a distinctly American hope, that by hard work and smart sense, one can rise above
present economic afflictions to a life of greater comfort and security. It is categorized by
Horatio Alger's From Rags to Riches, and present in society still today. Henny
Yes, the great American dream had betrayed Henny. Sometimes he
wondered whether it had ever existed in the first place. But it must have
existed sometime in America. There were records, there was history to
prove it. The Dream was this: The important ingredients of wealth, fame
and success were backgrounds of poverty, hard work, ambition, rigid
honesty and systematic saving. Henny had had the correct ingredients.
And he had become neither successful, famous, or wealthy. But he still
believed Frankie would make good and his daughter would have a
comfortable life. He had to believe in something, otherwise he would
have found the going hard (147-148).
Smith attracts her readers by reinforcing a very patriotic hope. Yet she also
captures patriotism by clearly defining the otherness of things that are un-American.
When Margy goes to the Chinese laundry, she is afraid to go in the back with the Chinese
owner to pick up her shirt. She mistakenly assumes that the Chinese man cannot speak
English. When Margy goes out looking for a job, she takes a letter from her parish
priest, "It proved definitely that she was a Gentile. It eliminated her from having to clear
the hurdle of intolerance"(38). Ethnicity in the novel is carefully depicted- the reader is
constantly aware that Margy and Frankie are of Irish descent. While their match is
permitted, Reenie and Sal's is not. Reenie's mother claims, ". . .only he's not good
enough for you. . .Well, he's Eye-talian." Reenie responds, "So what? Everybody's
something. We're half German and Margy's Irish." Her mother retorts, "But your
parents was born here, so was Margy's. His come from Italy"(82-83). In the novel,
things that are not American clearly stand out from the normal Brooklyn scene.
Thus, Smith's novel is patriotic in its local coloring of a part of America, its
repeated obsession with fulfillment of the American dream, and its categorization of
people and things as not specifically and distinctly not American. But the threads of
optimism, disillusionment, and patriotism that run throughout the novel are not the only
postwar feelings depicted. The novel propels feminism and the working woman to the
very front of the book's consciousness. The heroine, Margy, drops out of school and
works to help support her family. The book opens with Margy out pacing the cold
streets of Brooklyn. "She was out walking the cold wintry streets because she was
seventeen and had a job. She was independent now. She didn't have to be in the house
by nine o'clock. She felt she had to use her hard-bought freedom even if it froze her to
death"(1). Her search for a job is carefully detailed, especially when she meets
opposition because she is not pretty enough. The storeowner who refuses to hire her
thinks to himself, "In short, he wanted a girl who would flood the small cubicle with
tremulous yielding femininity- someone with a curl to her hair and bows on her dress and
slow-swinging legs with high-heeled, rosetted slippers at the ends of them. Certainly this
plainly dressed, neatly combed girl wasn't the type"(42). Margy's life when she works is
starkly contrasted with her life when she is married and not permitted to work . She is
happy when working, bored at home. Smith describes a typical day in Margy and
Frankie's married life where Margy has nothing to do with herself after nine am. She
briefly contemplates washing the floor again, but realizes that she did that just yesterday.
The working woman reigns supreme, however, by the end of the novel. After Margy
loses her baby, she asks Frankie if she can go back to work to help them get back on their
feet. Even though Frankie says it will end their marriage and he will not stand it, the
book ends with Margy writing a letter to her old boss.
In the post-war ear, this sort of feminism is obviously appealing. While a
generation of men were shipped to fight in Europe and the Pacific, women took their
places in offices, factories, and businesses. Naturally, they resented being pushed out of
their positions of importance and independence when the war ended. The working
woman was born and here to stay. In 1942, Katherine Hepburn won an Emmy for the
film, "Woman of the Year" in which she played a career woman who has trouble finding
anything in common with her husband- a story not unlike Tomorrow Will Be
Better ("Woman of the Year,1942"). Smith's novel primarily depicts a woman's
struggle for a career through Margy, but also in more subtle ways. Men are not the only
people who have the American dream come true for them. When Margy goes to a store
to buy wool, the proprietress confides how she got started in business. The woman had
invented four new crochet stitches and had won a hundred dollar prize for it. "With that
money, she had rented the little store and got stock on credit and, before you knew it, she
said, she was in business for herself. Margy thought that was utterly wonderful"(202).
Smith uses stories like this, as well as hinting at Margy's boredom as a housewife
repeatedly, to champion the working woman. For her predominantly female audience,
this sentiment would have been quite appealing in 1948.
It is easy to see why Tomorrow Will Be Better became an instant
bestseller. Like many other bestsellers, the book incorporated the sentiments, interests,
and emotions of the contemporary public in its fictional drama. In this postwar period,
the prevailing undertones of optimism and disillusionment, patriotism and ethnic
separation, as well as feminism, found in Smith's novel would have been of great interest
and ardent importance to her readers. As if this was not enough, the book had another
extremely important selling point- its author. The incredible success of Betty Smith's
previous A Tree Grows in Brooklyn made her second novel a hot commodity
before it hit the shelves. Because of these two distinct categories, Tomorrow Will Be
Better was irreversibly destined for the bestseller list.
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Brower, Brooke. "Lewis, Sinclair: Main Street Assignment 2".
Choi, Hae-Jin. "Lewis, Sinclair: Babbitt. Assignment 1".
Dixon, Chris. "Clancy, Tom: Red Storm Rising Assignment 5".
Dodd, Katie. "Mitchell, Margaret: Gone with the Wind Assignment 2, 3, 5".
Hornig, Skiles. "Le Carre, John: The Looking Glass War Assignment 1".
Martin, Edward. "Le Carre, John: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold Assignment 2,
Nguyen, My-Van. "Porter, Eleanor H.: Pollyanna Grows Up Assignment 1,2".
Rogers, Gwen. "Buck, Pearl S.: The Good Earth Assignment 5".
Smiley, Megan. "Ripley, Alexandra: Scarlett Assignment 1".
Tankovich, Catherine. "Keillor, Garrison: Leaving Home: A Collection of Lake Wobegon
Stories Assigment 1".
Van Reet, Brian. "Crichton, Michael: The Andromeda Strain Assignment 5".
Weidman, Katherine. "Smith, Betty: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Assignment 1, 2, 5".
"Woman of the Year, 1942". http://www-scf.usc.edu/~kristena/#17. 4/26/00.
"1940s Bestsellers". http://www.engl.virginia.edu/courses/bestsellers/best40.html
last modified 9/01/99. 4/30/00.