For some groups of people the American Dream has always been a lie. And for some of them it’s a nightmare. In the 40s if you were a single mother, black, living in New York you were at the bottom of the bottom of the heap. In The Street Ann Petry describes the life of the urban poor, revealing the tensions that existed for them all and how their hopes and intentions were blasted.
New York, during the Second World War, a young single mother moves into a few rooms on 116th Street in Harlem. She has left her husband, who was unfaithful while she was away working and moved away also from her father and his girlfriend who showed little care for the boy. Lutie Johnson has brought her son, Bub, who is eight, to live here.
Lutie wants to make a better life for herself and the boy and has already studied and worked hard and saved to get this far. She believes that the street is no more than a staging post. She has to leave Bub alone so much he is taken under the wing by the vengeful Super of the block, Mr Jones. Everyone in the street is hustling to get something from everyone else. There’s Mrs Hedges, who keep a brothel and offers Lutie work. She is the white man Junta’s right hand woman and protects Lutie for his benefit.
It amused her to watch the brawling, teeming, lusty life that roared past her window. She knew so much about this particular block that she came to regard it as slightly different from any other place. When she referred to it as ‘the street,’ her lips seemed to linger over the words as though her mind paused at the sound to write capital letters and then enclosed the words in quotation marks – thus setting it off and separating it from any other street in the city, giving it an identity, unmistakable and apart.
Looking out of the window was good for business, too. There were always lonesome, sad-looking girls just up from the South, or little girls who were tired of going to high school, and who had seen too many movies and didn’t have the money to buy all the things they wanted. (231)
Then there’s Min who lives with the Super, but their relationship becomes vitriolic and violent. She seeks the help of a root doctor to keep him from throwing her out. Although in the end she leaves him. And the school teacher, a white woman who hates the children. And the girl Mary who work for Mrs Hedges and falls for a sailor.
Lutie reflects on the situation she finds herself in.
Streets like the one she lived on were no accident. They were the North’s lynch mobs, she thought bitterly; the method the big cities used to keep Negroes in their place. And she began thinking of Pop unable to get a job; of Jim slowly disintegrating because he, too, couldn’t get a job, and of the subsequent wreck of their marriage; of Bub left to his own devices after school. From the time she was born, she had been hemmed into an ever-narrowing space, until now she was very nearly walled in and the wall had been built up brick by brick by eager white hands. (297)
Lutie has maintained a faith in the American Dream up to this point. If she can just work hard enough, or sing for the band, or save enough money, she and Bub can get out of the street and into a better life. No good will come of Lutie’s efforts. She is a single woman who is black, so at the bottom of every heap and considered fair game by many. Everyone wants to take something from Lutie. But in the end she she commits a grievous crime, abandons Bub to juvenile detention and escapes from the street and the city. The world will close over her brief stay in this street. The reader has a strong sense that Lutie will find herself in a different but similar street again soon.
Underlying all the action is the difficulty for black men to find work, or work that is not demeaning. The Superintendent of the block is black, but he is half crazy with being inside all the time. Boots, who leads a band, and is a fixer for Junta, has worked as a Pullman Car porter, resenting being at the beck and call of every person, and being called ‘Boy!’
Although Lutie is the main character, we are given a good look at many of the people she meets, and to understand how they are also caught by the other people on the street. The street is any street. The tragedy written into the story from the outset is more than Lutie’s tragedy. Hustle, give in, fight back, there are opportunities to do all of these. But in the end the street is a dead end. For everyone.
I originally chose this novel for the Decades Project, for the 1940s. I was so impressed by A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn that The Street will not be included. The Street was the first novel of the black American female writer Ann Petry, published in America in 1946. It is highly recommended.
Other Blog Reviews
A Life in Books blog reviewed it in January. She regrets that the novel is still relevant today. You can find it here.
Heavenali says that the novel is compelling and devastating and praises Virago for reissuing it, here.
The Street by Ann Petry, first published in 1946 and by Virago in 1986 and reissued with a smart new cover in 2019. 403pp