A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a largely autobiographical work. Written by Betty Smith, it was first published in 1943 at the height of the second World War. Like Francie Nolan, Smith grew up in an impoverished Williamsburg in the early twentieth century. She and Francie even share the same birth date, although Smith was born five years before. Like Francie, Smith went to college without a high school diploma. She followed her husband and fellow Brooklynite to University of Michegan, where she took classes and wrote plays—one of Francie's ambitions in the novel. Smith was also a mother of two, and had to put off her own education to rear her children. Such a situation perhaps allowed for her sensitivity toward gender issues in the story. All in all, the novel is largely a case of "writing what one knows."
In fact, Smith had an interest in writing about Brooklyn apart from the book. She wrote commentary in the New York Times Magazine which included an essay "Why Brooklyn is that Way." She became Brooklyn's unofficial advocate, explaining that Brooklyn was like a small town that New Yorkers were trying to reject. Indeed, the strong sense of place in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn suggests that she knew the charms and lasting benefits that came with living in a small neighborhood community. One could even say that the title reveals the importance Smith attaches to place. After all, the novel is the story of Francie Nolan; it might have been titled after the heroine. It seems Smith would rather have her first priority be to represent time and place, and her second priority to create a character out of that setting.
Upon publication, the book was met with both praise and criticism. Smith was interrogated about her purpose for the book. Indeed, some accused it as overtly political; as social commentary, it was pro-union, compassionate toward the poor, and sexually libelous. Smith herself denied ever intending to write a book of "social significance." Instead, she had written out of her own experience, about people she both knew and liked. Still, even while the author denied a political purpose, the book cannot be separated from social issues.
People of all classes in society were reading the book when it first came out. Since most of the novel takes place between 1900 and 1917, place it was even then a nostalgic trip back to an innocent time before the two World Wars.
Today, the book remains a classic, read widely among school children. Oprah Winfrey called it one of the ten books that has deeply affected her life. Perhaps its popularity is partially attributed to Smith's sympathetic portrayal of her characters. Within the book's pages, people cannot be moralized or reformed; they are what they are, sometimes even without explanation. As her first novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn gained more popularity than any of Smith's other books. Her novels include Tomorrow Will Be Better (1947), Maggie-Now (1958), and Joy in the Morning (1963). She also wrote many plays before her death in 1972.