I’ve been doing a lot of comfort reading over the past few months. But Ann Petry’s The Street is not a comfort read. It is heart-breaking and brutally honest and offers no escape or ease. It is a book that needs to be read, because even though it was originally published in 1946, it is still very relevant. The fact that, aside from a few historical references, the story could be taking place now, 70 years later, speaks for itself. It is a shame, then, that I stumbled across this book only by accident, when I searched for classics written by women last year. This book deserves a wider audience today. It deserves to stand next to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
The Street tells the story of Lutie Johnson, a single black mother determined to make a good life for herself and her young son. Instead of staying with her alcoholic father and his ever-changing girlfriends, Lutie moves into a small apartment in Harlem. Every day, she takes the subway downtown to work, uneasily leaving her son to fend for himself when he comes home from school in the afternoon. It doesn’t help that the Super of the building, Jones, feels an unhealthy sexual attraction towards Lutie and that the other first-floor apartment is a brothel. The only person offering some protection to Lutie is Junto, the owner of the pub down the street, who is the only white person in the neighborhood and who has designs to either make Lutie his own or have her work in the brothel. Jones is highly resentful of this protection and plots to get Lutie’s son in trouble with the police as revenge. Despite the hope Lutie feels when she finally has her own apartment, the setup is so toxic that I feared for Lutie and her son right from the start.
Lutie is a good person, a hard worker with high hopes for herself and her son. But the odds are squarely against her. After food and rent, there’s hardly any money left over. If she is careful, she can save a few pennies here and there in the hope of someday having enough to move to a bigger apartment, one where her son has his own room. There is little chance of her getting a better job, and the advances from the Super are getting harder and harder to avoid. A hopeless situation becomes worse and worse as the novel progresses. But there was truly nothing that could have prepared me for the ending. THE ENDING! My already battered heart broke not only for the mother, but also for her son and everyone else on the street—all of whom have nothing and no one to protect them from a fate similar to Lutie’s. I think the last 5 pages of the book will stay with me forever.
While I thought that stylistically, the writing wasn’t always smooth, the subject matter and the passion behind the writing more than make up for that. More than once does Lutie get confronted with the fact that white men automatically think she wants to have sex with them and white women automatically assume that she is a loose woman without any morals. The color of Lutie’s skin is enough for her to be suspect. I appreciated that I got to feel the full force of Lutie’s disgust with this. And the story doesn’t stop there in its portrayal of how white people view and judge black people in general.
“What happened to him?” she asked in a hard voice. A woman with a bundle of newspapers under her arm answered her. She shifted the papers from one arm to the other. “White man in the baker shop killed him with a bread knife.” There was silence […] She went home remembering, not the threat of violence in that silent, waiting crowd, but instead the man’s ragged soleless shoes and the resigned look on the girl’s face. She had never been able to forget either of them. […] The next day’s papers said that a “burly Negro” had failed in his effort to hold up a bakery shop, for the proprietor had surprised him by resisting and stabbed him with a bread knife. She held the paper in her hand for a long time, trying to follow the reasoning by which that thin ragged boy had become in the eyes of a reporter a “burly Negro. And she decided that it all depended on where you sat how these things looked. If you looked at them from inside the framework of a fat weekly salary, and you thought of colored people as naturally criminal, then you didn’t really see what any Negro looked like. You couldn’t because the Negro was never an individual. He was a threat, or an animal, or a curse, or a blight, or a joke.”
But this book is not only about race relations; it is also about the relationship between men and women. Though Lutie is a single mother, she is still married to Jim, the father of her child because divorce is too expensive. When her husband could not find work when their son was born, Lutie worked as a maid in Connecticut to support her family—there was a mortgage to pay and a child to feed. Then her father tells her that her husband is cheating. When she confronts Jim, he frankly admits that he couldn’t handle, and in his opinion shouldn’t have to handle, staying home and taking care of their son. Once Lutie lives on her own, it doesn’t take her long to see her own fate replayed in most other people she observes.
“Most of the women had been marketing, for they carried bulging shopping bags. She noticed how heavily they walked on feet that obviously hurt despite the wide, cracked shoes they wore. They’ve been out all day working in the white folks’ kitchens, she thought, then they come home and cook and clean for their own families half the night. And again she remembered Mrs. Pizzini’s words, “Not good for the woman to work when she’s young. Not good for the man.” Obviously, she had been right, for here on this street the women trudged along overburdened, overworked, their own homes neglected while they looked after someone else’s while the men on the street swung along empty-handed, well-dressed, and carefree. Or they lounged against the sides of the buildings, their hands in their pockets while they stared at the women who walked past, probably deciding which woman they should select to replace the wife who was out working all day.”
There is so much more to say about this book. It is fascinating that the street, 116th street, is almost its own character in this book. It would be interesting to discuss whether there is anything Lutie could have done differently to avoid her fate, surrounded by so much hopelessness as she is.
“[M]y aim is to show how simply and easily the environment can change the course of a person’s life … I try to show why the Negro has a high crime rate, a high death rate, and little or no chance of keeping his [sic] family unit intact in large northern cities.
I think she succeeded, and I can only repeat that this is a book well worth reading.