Tag Archives: the American Dream

The Living is Easy by Dorothy West

The American Dream – anyone can make it if they work hard enough. Bart Judson is the son of freed slaves, who makes a good living in Boston selling fruit. His speciality is bananas. He married another southerner, Cleo, who is very pretty and very light skinned and very ambitious. Boston is a city that prides itself on its liberal attitudes to its Black population. 

Some of Cleo’s ambition is shared with Lutie Johnson, the protagonist of Ann Petry’s novel The Street published two years earlier than The Living is Easy in 1946. These two novels offer a complementary view of trying to make it in the US as a Black person in the first half of the 20th Century. Lutie belongs in the poor Black fiction of the time. Cleo has the advantage of money. However, in both novels the American Dream is shown to be a chimera, offered in good times to everybody. 

The Living is Easy

The novel begins in Boston at the turn of the century. Cleo is married to a rich black businessman, and they have both made their way from the South. In Boston, they pride themselves on treating their black brethren decently. However, race pervades everything. Passing, if you can, is normal, the lighter your skin the more acceptable your social status.

Cleo is ambitious for herself. In the opening chapters we see how she successfully rents a larger house in a higher status district. Dependent upon her husband for money, we see how she will manipulate the situation to skim off a little of the rent money every month. She conceives a desire to recreate the close family ties of her childhood and schemes to bring her three married sisters to Boston, leaving their husbands behind. 

While Cleo continues to lie and plot to gain every advantage from every situation the economic environment is changing. In Boston immigration is changing the city. More and more Black families are coming to the city, many of them poor, in contrast to their predecessors who were doctors, lawyers and business men. In addition a large number of Irish families are also changing the population.

The First World War begins to have an effect on trade, especially trade that relies on shipping as Bart Judson’s does. There is less money, the sisters have to go out to work, Cleo has to resort to inadequate repairs on the house. Bart ends up broke after the war and must go and seek his fortune in a new place.

Despite Boston’s pride in its attitudes to its successful Black residents, racism lies close to the surface. One of the most shocking moments in this novel is when Cleo agrees to rent the house and its owner Mr Van Ryper explains why he is leaving it.

“Best house on the block. Sorry to leave it, but I’m too old to temper my prejudices.”(45)

Cleo assumes a poor Black family has moved in next door and asks where in the South they come from. Mr Van Ryper clarifies matters.

Mr Van Ryper rose to his feet. His face purpled with anger. “Madam, my father was a leader of the Underground Movement. I was brought up in an Abolitionist household. Your accusation of color prejudice is grossly impertinent. I believe in man’s inalienable right to liberty.” (46)

He lectures her for a while and then, when she says it’s nice that he isn’t prejudiced, he contradicts her again.

“Madam, I am distinctly prejudiced against the Irish,” Mr Van Ryper said wearily, thinking that colored women, for all they had had to endure, were as addlepated as their fairer-skinned sisters. “The Irish present a threat to us entrenched Bostonians. They did not come here in chains or by special invitation.” (47)

So Mr Van Ryper is happy to be prejudiced against the Irish and all women. The difficult position of women is referred to again later when Bart is asked for funds for two of the sisters to return to the South to bury their father.

He saw with bitter clarity his situation and theirs. Cleo could not go to her dead father nor Serena to her doomed husband unless he gave them a few miserable dollars for train fare. The dependency of women had been the thing he cherished them for. Yet in this moment he was sharply aware of the brutal weapon dependency wielded.  (277)

Cleo has caused a great deal of damage and suffering with her scheming and manipulations. Her sisters’ marriages are destroyed, their husbands abandoned, and throughout her marriage she has seen her husband as an enemy to be thwarted. She’s a hard character to like, but women and especially Black women might respond as she did to the limited lives they could live. 

For some of this novel she was living an easy life, but change brought by economic forces, to the demography of Boston, to her husband’s business, meant that a life built on lies and deceit could not remain easy. I doubt whether a life built on good principles could have stood against the pressures she endured, and there are examples of people of integrity in this novel, not least Bart Judson who sees his business fail. The Living is Easy shows the reader that the American Dream has no more substance for Cleo and Bart Judson than it did for Lutie Johnson.

Dorothy West

Dorothy West was born in Boston in June 1907 and died in Martha’s Vineyard in August 1998. Her parents had been born in slavery. Dorothy West wrote and was published from an early age and was educated at Boston University and Columbia. She was part of the Harlem Renaissance, mixing with Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and other writers of the time. She visited Russia with Langston Hughes and edited a literary journal. She worked on a federal writers project during the war.

She began spending more time on Martha’s Vineyard and wrote both her novels there. She contributed stories to the local paper and issued collections of short stories. Her second novel The Wedding was not published until 1985. She was included in the Daughters of Africa collection in 1992. 

At a time when people were writing about poor Blacks, she provided a new perspective from more prosperous Black lives.

The Living is Easy by Dorothy West, first published in 1948. I used the edition from Virago Modern Classics from 1987. 362pp

Related posts:

The Street by Ann Petry (1946)

Their Eyes were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)

Margaret Busby and Daughters of Africa (1992)

Feminize Your Canon: Dorothy West by Emma Garman in The Paris Review, July 2018

Whatever happened to Dorothy West? by Diana Evans in the Guardian, August 2019

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Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews, Women of Colour

The Street by Ann Petry

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. 

The Street

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

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