Ann Lane Petry`s `The Street`
Much of the existing criticism of Petry’s work centers on her most critically acclaimed and popular novel, The Street, which received generally good reviews by her contemporary commentators. Although a few denounced the novel because they felt it dwelled upon the sordid and tragic aspects of black life and did not show a more balanced community, most praised the novel’s strongly naturalistic portrait of Harlem. In 1946 Petry’s The Street was published. The book became the first novel by an African American woman to sell over 1 million copies (Temples for Tomorrow). Considered by many critics to be her finest work, the book relates the struggles of a young, attractive black woman, Lutie Johnson, to achieve the American dream but who is unable to do so because of the dual trappings of race and gender.
The setting and themes of Ann Petry’s novels are a natural outgrowth of her intimacy with the black inner-city life of New York and the white small-town life of New England. Born in 1911 in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, Ann Petry grew up in a predominantly white environment and, in the family tradition, graduated in 1934 with a degree in pharmacy from the University of Connecticut. The early chapters of The Street won her the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship in 1945. In 1948 she returned to Connecticut to raise her family and continue writing. Her publications include four children’s books, a collection of short stories, and three novels: The Street, Country Place, and The Narrows. The novels reveal her movement from a naturalistic vision of the big city to a demythologizing of black and white relations in small-town America.
The Street is a conventional novel of economic determinism in which the environment is the dominant force against which the characters, must struggle to survive. The novel opens symbolically in November 1944 with the wind, cold, dirt, and filth of 116th Street overpowering the hurried Harlem pedestrians, including the apartment-hunting protagonist, Lutie Johnson. It closes with Lutie’s leaving the city by train after killing the man who assaults her, the snow falling symbolically, “gently obscuring the grime and garbage and the ugliness” of the street. As the plot progresses episodically, we see that it was “streets like 116th Street or being colored, or a combination of both with all it implied” that drove the protagonist’s father to drink, her mother to an early grave, and the neighbors to various forms of desperation and death.
The Street, Petry’s most widely acclaimed work, is a powerful and complex work of art. The novel incorporates many of the themes Petry includes in her other works, such as the effects of racism on young African Americans. The Street details the struggles of the young protagonist, Lutie Johnson, an attractive and extremely ambitious black woman, and her quest to achieve the American Dream in face of overwhelming odds. Lutie finds the achievement of this dream, easily attained by her hero, Benjamin Franklin, elusive to her as a black woman caught in a world where both her race and her sex are devalued.
One of the major themes of the text that surfaces in The Street is community; community in the book denotes both geographical space and identification with those from similar backgrounds. Lutie’s Harlem community, however, proves not to be a space where she can feel completely safe, despite her dwelling among fellow African Americans. Petry depicts 116th Street in Harlem, where Lutie takes an apartment, almost as a character in itself; the street becomes a symbol for the oppression that blacks face from the outside white world. As Lutie is walking down the street at the beginning of the novel, a ‘‘cold November wind’’ is blowing down the street, obstructing her and the other walkers’ progress:
It did everything it could to discourage the people walking along the street. It found all the dirt and dust and grime on the sidewalk and lifted it up so that the dirt got into their noses, making it difficult to breathe; the dust got into their eyes and blinded them; and the grit stung their skins. It wrapped newspaper around their feet entangling them until the people cursed deep in their throats, stamped their feet, kicked at the paper…. The wind lifted Lutie Johnson’s hair away from the back of her neck so that she felt suddenly naked and bald, for her hair had been resting softly and warmly against her skin (2).
This initial description of the street becomes a metaphor for the strangulation and confinement suffered by the black inhabitants of Harlem, who are cut off from mainstream American society by whites who relegate them to this place. In addition to her metaphorical presentation of 116th Street, Petry depicts the street in realistic detail; it is a place where prostitutes, pimps, and other criminals live and where her young son, Bub, is in constant danger when left alone. Indeed, Petry’s depiction of the Harlem community where Lutie lives has caused critics to classify her as a naturalistic or realistic novelist in the vein of Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, and fellow African American writers Richard Wright and Chester Himes.
At the beginning of the text, Lutie conceives of this Harlem community as a refuge from her troubled relationships with her father and husband. She also sees it as an escape from her position as maid in the fractured, all-white world of the Chandlers, whose friends continually insinuate that the beautiful Lutie may attempt to seduce the drunken Mr. Chandler, despite her disgust at the idea. The whites’ conception of Lutie as seductress foreshadows her experiences in Harlem; even there Lutie is seen by the men she encounters (the white businessman Junto, Boots Smith, and the Super) as primarily a sexual being because she is a beautiful black woman. Thus, Lutie soon discovers that, from white America, there is no escape for blacks and for black women; Harlem is not even free of white influence. The whites even control the influx of basic commodities to the community, with those who live in Harlem being relegated to ‘‘the leavings, sweepings, the impossible, unsalable merchandise, the dregs and dross that were especially reserved to Harlem’’ (158). Hilary Holladay notes, ‘‘for every glimpse of cohesiveness, Petry includes a reminder of the community’s unhappy subordination to the surrounding white society…. While Lutie and her fellow Harlem residents may feel larger and more relaxed in their own community, they cannot altogether stop being ‘small’ just because they are home’’ (Nelson 25). After she is forced to murder Boots when he attempts to rape her, Lutie loses her optimistic faith in the American Dream and her vision of herself as the modern-day equivalent to Benjamin Franklin because she now sees that this avenue has never been open to her as a black woman in America.
She was placed by many in the realistic camp along with Richard Wright; indeed, some critics see The Street as a rewriting of Wright’s Native Son, with Lutie as Petry’s female counterpart to Wright’s Bigger Thomas. However, Barbara Christian sees the novel as more than a mere revision of Wright’s text:
One of the major differences between Wright’s novel and Petry’s is her voluminous use of external detail. Wright’s novel is more about Bigger Thomas’s psychological state, his reaction to his condition, than the presentation of the external condition itself…. While Wright endows his material with psychological overtones, Petry employs the tone of the commonplace. She is particularly effective in selecting the many details and seemingly trivial struggles that poor women can seldom avoid (Bell 64).
Furthermore, the work drew praise for Petry’s use of dramatic irony in the text to underscore the discrepancy between the myth of the American Dream and the realities of life in the United States for African Americans and for women, in particular for how she shows the irony between Lutie’s conception of herself as a contemporary, black female equivalent to Benjamin Franklin and the racial and sexual exploitation of which she becomes a victim after moving to the street. Other critics have noted Petry’s influence upon later African American women writers. Hilary Holladay relates that one can see the recurrence of Petry’s preoccupation with community and communal relationships among African Americans in such works as Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (Beaulieu 33).
In addition to its focus on a female protagonist, The Street is significantly different from its male counterparts in that while Petry lashes out uncompromisingly at racism, classism, and sexism, she undercuts the conventions of the naturalistic novel by refusing to make Lutie a mere victim of her social environment. Nor does this step on the part of the author lessen the impact of the oppression of that environment. Lutie may well have had greater success in achieving her goals had she been less innocent of the politics of race, class, and gender. Her uncritical acceptance of white middle-class values and the capitalist tenets of the American dream make her an easy prey for the greed and sexism of the black and white men who surround her. In addition, Lutie serves herself poorly by separating from any support she might have had from the black community and those values that have insured black survival in America since the first slaves arrived on its shores. Preoccupied with her ambitions for herself and her son to escape the poverty and disillusionment of black ghetto life and wholly uncritical of the white models to which she is exposed, she has no friends or relatives with whom she seeks association, attends no church, and in her attitudes, denies the possibilities of communal sources of strength. Consequently, she was vulnerable to the greed, anger, and sexism of those who were capable of destroying her.
The young woman’s fight against the corrupting influences of this crowded little world, her effort to safeguard her son and to keep herself unsoiled, is the challenging theme Petry has chosen for her novel. She could scarcely have found a more important human problem in urban life. She has treated it with complete seriousness in a story that will bear a lot of thoughtful reading. Petry, using a theme that might have been merely sensational, builds a novel that has depth and dignity (Andrews 56). There is power and insight and reach of imagination in her writing. Most white readers will find themselves in a world that has been closed to them, a world with its own beauty and strength and honor and humor, as well as its pathos and frustration.
Andrews, Larry R. The Sensory Assault of the City in Ann Petry’s The Street. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995.
Beaulieu, Elizabeth Ann. Black Women Writers and the American Neo-Slave Narrative: Femininity Unfettered. Greenwood Press: Westport, CT, 1999.
Bell, Bernard W. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. University of Massachusetts Press: Amherst, MA, 1989.
Nelson, Emmanuel S. Contemporary African American Novelists: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Greenwood Press: Westport, CT, 1999.
Petry, Ann. The Street. Boston: Mariner-Houghton Mifflin, 1946.
Temples for Tomorrow. An Online Project in African American Literature. Available from: http://www.cofc.edu/temples/petry.html