The Irish and German Immigration Experiences
Francie Nolan is of Irish and Austrian origin. Her parents were first-generation Americans, and as new immigrants they faced many problems in their effort to be successful. The Nolans were Irish, a group that was a huge force in immigration. Between 1820 and 1860, it is estimated that anywhere from a third to half of all new immigrants were Irish. Many were fleeing the potato famine that enveloped Ireland in the 1840s. Even in the years after 1860, when Irish immigration slowed, their numbers hovered at about 15 percent of new immigrants. By 1900, there were 10 million foreign-born people living in the United States; of those, 15.7 percent were Irish. Since most Irish immigrants were Catholic, a group that had been both religiously and economically oppressed in Ireland, their influx also changed the religious dynamics in the United States. Much of the anti-Irish fervor that greeted the new immigrants came from hostility to their Catholic religion. Like most new immigrants, the Irish filled a need for laborers. They helped build the infrastructure—canals, railways, streets, and sewers—of their new country.
The few Austrians who immigrated to the United States were usually grouped together with the German immigrants, since they came with similar backgrounds and with similar expectations. In many ways, German immigration paralleled Irish immigration, with similar numbers over peak years during the nineteenth century. Katie Nolan’s parents came to the United States during what would be the peak decade for Austrian andGerman immigration, the years between 1881 and 1890, when nearly 1.5 million Germans immigrated. Unlike the Irish, who immigrated for political, economic, and religious reasons, German immigrants were largely motivated by a desire for economic prosperity. Unlike the Irish, who were largely laborers,Germanimmigrants tended to be involved in skilled trades and they expected to be successful. This can be seen in Thomas Rommely’s insistence that his four daughters must sacrifice their lives to work and make him wealthy. He is unable to forgive his daughters for leaving him, either for the nunnery or to marry. Thomas embodies many of the symptoms common to new immigrants. These include failed dreams, nostalgia for a homeland that exists only in memory, and intergenerational conflict, as children grow up assimilated into the new culture and reject, in anger, frustration, embarrassment, and humiliation, the attempts by their parents to preserve a connection to them through common cultural practices and assumptions. The children of immigrants want independence, but they also want their own identity and the opportunity to make their own choices. They choose their own spouses, as Johnny Nolan and Katie Rommely did. As a result, Johnny Nolan’s mother refuses to speak to or acknowledge Johnny’s wife, even at his funeral. Other problems that the first generations of newimmigrantsmay face include increasing marital conflict, as spouses adapt differently to the new or imagined standards of the new culture and as spouses attempt to assert their identity by acts that are destructive to their relationship. This is seen in the marriage of Mary and Thomas Rommely. The relationships that Smith depicts in the Nolan and Rommely families, in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, provide a useful way to learn about the immigration experience during the first decades of the twentieth century.
Life in Williamsburg, Brooklyn
The setting for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is very important in understanding Francie’s life. The opening chapters of the novel are spent describing the neighborhood and the small businesses that surround the apartment in which Francie lives. During the 1830s, Irish and German immigrants settled in Williamsburg, which for much of the rest of the nineteenth century projected a genteel, almost resort-like atmosphere of comfortable living, and in fact, Williamsburg served as a getaway for people who worked in Manhattan. However, by 1912, when Francie’s story begins, Williamsburg was undergoing tremendous change. Brooklyn had become one of the five boroughs within the city of New York in 1898, a move that linked Brooklyn neighborhoods more closely to the greater city of New York. In 1903, the new Williamsburg Bridge opened the neighborhood to an influx of new immigrants and second-generation Americans, who crossed over from the slum tenements of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. As a result, Williamsburg became a densely populated neighborhood, with crowded tenement housing and crowded schools, in which several children were forced to share the same desks and books—something that Smith describes in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Between 1900 and 1920, the population of Williamsburg doubled. Many of the new residents in Williamsburg were Eastern European Jews. In the opening chapters of her novel, Smith mentions the uneasy relationship between the Catholic children in Francie’s neighborhood and the Jewish children. In addition to the Jewish immigrants, others from Italy and Poland poured into Williamsburg. By 1917, when Francie is sixteen years old, Williamsburg is the most densely packed neighborhood in New York City.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Betty Smith, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.