It will be a long time before I forget the experience of reading Ann Petry’s The Street. A vivid analysis of race and class injustice in World War II-era New York City framed by the personal account of single mother Lutie Johnson, The Street is as heartbreaking today as it was in 1946, the year of its publication. Petry’s straightforward, omniscient style of writing is a perfect complement to the story, communicating its tragic message with unflinching clarity.
At the forefront of Petry’s novel is the street itself, both its physical presence and the metaphor it refers to. The opening pages of the novel personify the street as a violent, dangerous place, inspiring a sense of foreboding that permeates throughout the rest of the book. This dire prediction proves true as the metaphor of the street comes to represent the cycle of tragedy that results from one’s simply being born African-American and the impoverished socioeconomic status that follows.
Lutie Johnson and the cast of characters surrounding her on 116th street in Harlem each experience the hazardous effects of the cycle: young people marry to escape their broken childhood environments; the husbands are unable to find work, forcing the wives to become the breadwinners via degrading service jobs; the husbands, no longer to provide for their families seek validation elsewhere, usually by way of alcohol and/or extramarital affairs; the couples separate, leaving the wives to raise the children and therefore triggering another revolution of the cycle. The tragedy of The Street is found in Lutie’s failure to end the cycle for her beloved eight-year-old son Bub, despite her hard-fought attempt.
One of Petry’s greatest achievements in this novel is her success in portraying each character as an individual; there are no caricatures in The Street. Mrs. Hedges, the procuress of a brothel on the first floor of Lutie’s apartment building is someone who can easily be interpreted as a cold, desensitized madam. However, Petry adds depth to the character as she artfully integrates Mrs. Hedges’s personal struggle to achieve success after she escapes from a fire that permanently disfigures her body. Once privy to her personal story the reader unconsciously elevates her from stock character to sympathetic individual.
A similar humanization is achieved for Jones, the building’s ominous superintendent. Jones is regularly described by his apartment-dwellers as somewhat feral, leering at women on the street, lurking in the shadows and most comfortable in the building’s dark, dank cellar. Petry, however, assures her readers that Jones was not rendered this way without reason. Years of working as a night watchman in confining basements, the only job he could secure, have reduced him to this savage, subhuman state. While Jones’s actions never inspire sympathy, simply having an understanding of his background reveals the fact that Jones was never provided with a fair opportunity to become much of anything else.
Though it holds an underappreciated position in the literary canon, The Street will certainly be remembered best for its severe realism. The Street is not a novel easily read in large doses. The street Petry describes is so vividly brutal that the act of reading about it is often uncomfortable. However, the beauty of Petry’s writing and the realism of the world she creates is so striking that the book is difficult to put down.
Ann Petry’s magnum opus The Street took me by surprise. I began reading it with the understanding that it was a close relative of Richard Wright’s wonderful classic Native Son. The Street, however, is a classic in its own right and I look forward to sharing my discovery of it with others.