Ann Petry's first novel, published in 1946 by Houghton Mifflin and winner of the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship, The Street follows the tradition of naturalism and protest fiction while rejecting the traditions of the tragic mullato and the southern belle. Critics often compare the novel to Richard Wright's Native Son (1942). At first publication, The Street received high acclaim, yet it went out of print for several decades. In 1985 Beacon Press reissued the novel as a part of the African American Women Writers series; and in 1991, forty-five years after the original, Houghton Mifflin reissued The Street, because its theme made the book seem pertinent enough to have been written today.
Petry's premise relies on environment being highly influential in determining one's life path. Harlem's 116th Street is the most foreboding character in the novel, and the book both begins and ends with its image, representing the evil in urban ghetto life. Portraying the interrelationships among racism, sexism, and economic oppression—revealed through the struggles of Lutie Johnson, a beautiful brown woman, struggling as a single mother—The Street reveals the dreary despair of a black woman in the urban city whose plight can only end in crime and/or tragedy.
At the beginning of the novel, Lutie and her son, Bub, move to 116th Street, intoxicated with the images of statesman Benjamin Franklin and the self-made individual. These American ideals replace her husband, father, and any sense of community; she isolates herself with this quest for wealth and a house with a white picket fence. This rosy-eyed outlook causes her to become the easy prey of many predators: The building superintendent sees her as the ultimate sexual conquest; Mrs. Hedges, the neighborhood madam, sees in her a great “business” opportunity; Boots Smith, smooth-talking band leader, wants Lutie as a means of easing his own struggles and pains; and Junto, white slumlord, wants Lutie as a personal concubine. The character of Junto is contrasted with her “role model,” Ben Franklin; she thinks the latter will lead her to success, and the former only leads her to self-destruction.
Most of the novel's tension comes from Lutie's hopes for a promising future clashing against reality. Because of a lack of options and her unwillingness to face the grim truth, Lutie trusts those she should not—especially Franklin—and rejects building coalitions where she should. She insists on going against the tide in an attempt to break out of despair, but external forces combine to overpower her desires. By the end of the novel, the rosy-eyed outlook faded, Lutie finally understands that the ideals she believed in have always rejected black women and in the process she has lost that which she most valued: her son and her dignity.
Adenike Marie Davidson
Related content in Oxford Index
Ann Petry (1908—1997)