Betty Smith, Coffee, and the Existence of Beauty.

I know you don’t want to hear this right now, but beauty does exist. I will not be accepting arguments at this time. 

I’ve been rereading Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” lately. It was my favorite book when I was in middle school, and it arguably still is, but I’ve never really been sure why. It’s well written, and it has got great characters, and it’s one of those rare books that’s about a child, but not for children, but not not for children—and yet I never understood why it meant so much more to me than any other book. 

This morning, I took a sip of coffee, and I understood. 

Briefly, for the far too large group of people who have not read the book: “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is notable for being the most depressing children’s (?) book of all time. The main character is Francie, an eleven year old girl starving in the tenements of Brooklyn during the turn of the century. Her father is a disillusioned idealist turned drunk, her mother is bitter and overworked, and her brother is, well, hungry. Their neighbors include a teenage boy dying of consumption, a marital rape victim, and a young woman who has been permanently disfigured by falling in a vat of scalding water. Major events in Francie’s story include World War I, an attempted rape, and her father’s early death. Generally, everybody in the book is hungry or sad or sick, or all three at once, and Betty Smith makes no attempt to hide the brutality of her story. Objectively, it’s a devastating book. 

And yet—for all that—you don’t feel bad when you finish reading it. The book bombards you with pain and suffering, but you will close it and feel happy, not because you’re some kind of sadist, but because of the coffee. 

Francie’s mother has got a habit of giving her children mugs of coffee with every meal. Unfortunately, the children don’t like to drink coffee. They like the warmth and the way it smells, but at the end of every meal it gets poured out in the sink. This bothers Francie’s aunts, who think that people so poor shouldn’t waste good coffee. Francie’s mother disagrees. She says that she gives the children the coffee to do what they like with, and that if they prefer to throw it away, that’s their right. Furthermore, she points out that, usually, only the rich get to throw things away. If her children can feel rich for the price of a weak cup of coffee, that’s a pretty good deal. 

The premise of the coffee philosophy is pretty sad, undeniably. The environment of poverty and starvation necessitates that a mother choose whether or not to begrudge her children food. There’s nothing cute about that. Yes, Francie’s mother has a fanciful way of thinking about poverty, and her ideas comfort her children, but those ideas cannot erase their painful reality. The book is clear on that. 

A lot of the appeal of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” comes from the fact that it’s not really a novel so much as a log. There’s no concerted point being made, it’s not really about anything, it’s just this loving, patient document of a young girl’s life. Her life is dark, but there are moments of wonderful lightness as well, and Smith records light and dark with the same amount of care. There was hunger. There was also coffee. The one doesn’t negate the other—it’s not one of those books that says “we were poor but we had love so everything was good”. It’s a book that says “we were poor, and that was bad” while also saying “there was beauty, and that was good.” Love cannot erase hate, beauty can’t erase pain, but they both exist (!). Beauty does not exist because of suffering, or in proportion to it, or as some kind of remedy, but it does exist! On its own perverted and disagreeable terms, beauty exists just as much as anything else does. 

A lot of people, especially younger people, go around saying that the world is ugly and terrible and hopeless. They’re sick of people who say that there’s a reason for everything and that anybody can succeed and everything is good, always. I get it! I understand. But only believing in the bad things about the world is just as misguided and childish as only believing in the good things. Yeah, life sucks! But it is beautiful too, and I’m not saying that to be sentimental, or religious, or anything. I have no agenda. Beauty exists—it simply can’t be helped!

In his video essay “Beauty in Ugly Times”, Oliver Thorn asks “how can an artist redeem all the horrible things that happen or have happened?” In the end, he decides that they can’t. But that was never really the point. Instead, he says , “Artists take a little piece of the ugly world, and they hold it up, and they find pleasure in it anyways.” That’s probably all that any of us can do, but hell, isn’t that something?