Ann Petry's "The Street": A novel in the American naturalistic tradition
Ann Petry's "The Street" is a story about Lutie Johnson, an intelligent, strong, and beautiful black woman who does her best to raise an eight-year-old son as a single parent, advance in her job, and work her way out of the Harlem streets. Petry uses Lutie Johnson as a medium to explore the limitations of the American capitalist system; the role of race and gender in perpetuating violence, poverty and failure; and the societal restrictions that restrict and oppress the female gender, especially black women. To quote Shannon Cate:
Ann Petry challenges the ideology of American capitalism, asking how a poor, Black woman can possibly attain the social and economic fulfillment promised by a bourgeois value system. The text depicts the struggle of a Black heroine who uncritically accepts America's sacrificial work ethic, radical individualism and cult of womanhood in her pursuit of economic and personal success. By constraining plot and characters within the conventional capitalist paradigm, Petry's text exposes the limitations and inherent contradictions of the market-driven "American Dream." ([Im]positions, Issue # 1, December 1996)
The depiction of the struggles of the colored people living in Harlem, against the oppression of a capitalist society that still believed in a hierarchy based on class and race, in "The Street," classifies it as a novel in the tradition of African-American fiction as well as American naturalistic literature.
"The Street" has all the characteristics of African-American fiction from the 1940s to the present, since it explores issues such as race, gender, family, urban experience and education and Petry's presentation of Lutie Johnson as a person whose fate is pre-determined by her heredity and environment earns "The Street" a place in the genre of naturalistic literature as well. In her analysis of Ann Petry's writings, Hilary Holladay comments:
The Street showcases Petry's mastery of naturalism. Lutie's endless war with hostile forces begins with her braving a ferociously cold wind and culminates in her struggle with a would-be rapist. Set during World War II, The Street illustrates the myriad degradations faced by black men and children as well as black women (Ann Petry, Twayne 1996).
"The Street" so closely mirrors social reality that it strikes a chord of recognition in the reader, allowing virtually no escape from the acceptance of stark reality of the issues raised. Perhaps this is the reason why Diana Trilling in Library Journal called the novel "essential," and compared it to "An American Tragedy," and Alfred Butterfield of The New York Times called it "a gripping tale peopled with utterly believable United States citizens, and overflowing with the classic pity and terror of good imaginative writing." (Northeast magazine Nov. 8, 1992)
"The Street was a story, not propaganda," wrote Ray Rickman, "and it was a truer, more intelligent depiction of Harlem than most previous writers were able to accomplish." (American Visions, February 1990, p. 56)
Ann Petry's was able to imbibe punch and power in her highlighting of the social issues faced by the African-American people in Harlem because of her own first hand observation and experience of life in the heart of Harlem, first as a reporter and later in a special after-school program. James W. Ivy, then editor of Crisis, the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, would later write that as a newspaperwoman, Petry "acquired an intimate and disturbing knowledge of Harlem, and its ancient evil, housing; its tragic broken families; its high death rate." (Northeast magazine Nov. 8, 1992)
In fact, Ann Petry's familiarity with the living conditions in Harlem and its effects on its unfortunate tenants comes through loud and clear in the opening salvo of the novel itself, when Lutie goes searching for an apartment on 116th Street:
Respectable tenants in these houses where colored people were allowed to live included anyone who could pay the rent, so some of them would be drunk and loud-mouthed and quarrelsome; given to fits of depression when they would curse and cry violently, given to fits of equally violent elation. And, she thought, because the walls would be flimsy, why, the good people, the bad people, the children, the dogs, and the godawful smells would all be wrapped up together in one big package -- the package that was called respectable tenants. (3)
"The Street" uses the environment and living conditions on 116th Street, Harlem to skillfully explore and confront prejudices of race, sex and class that prevents the central character of Lutie Johnson from realizing the 'American dream' of financial stability and success. Petry's blatant protest against societal restrictions placed on women, especially black women, is underscored by a subtler portrayal of the omnipresent claustrophobia that physically confines Lutie.
The various cramped spaces she occupies such as her unsuitable apartment, crowded buses, massed sidewalks and the packed Junto define her social immobility. "It was any city where they set up a line and say black folks stay on this side and white folks on this side, so that the black folks were crammed on top of each other, jammed and packed and forced into the smallest possible space" (206).
In this connection, it is pertinent to note the observations of Yoshinobu Hakutani and Robert Butler: "…the predominantly hopeful images of the city contained in slave narratives contrast sharply with later naturalistic accounts of urban reality expressed in novels such as Ann Petry's The Street." (The City in African-American Literature, 1995)
Petry further explores the problems faced by women through showing how Lutie complicates her situation because, as a woman, she wants to be seen as a good mother, who protects her own child. It is Lutie's desire for a better future for her son that leads her to embark on a drive to achieve success:
She stepped inside the grocery store, thinking that her apartment would do for the time being, but the next step she should take would be to move into a better neighborhood. As she had been able to get this far without help from anyone, why, all she had to do was plan each step and she could get wherever she wanted to go. A wave of self-confidence swept over her and she thought, I'm young and strong, there isn't anything I can't do. (63)
Petry artfully demonstrates the futility of the 'American dream' for women like Lutie by her portrayal of Lutie's naivety in believing that like Benjamin Franklin, she too can come by success through hard work and honest living, and that she would be able to both provide for and 'mother' her son. Petry makes Lutie's naivety even more heartrending because she's not really 'a babe in the woods' either. She's shown as also instinctively recognizing the forces of racism that work at maintaining class superiority, as is evident when she rebukes Bub for shining shoes:
colored people have been shining shoes and washing clothes and scrubbing floors for years and years. White people seem to think that's the only kind of work they're fit to do. The hard work. The dirty work. The work that pays the least...I'm not going to let you begin at eight doing what white folks figure all eight-year-old colored boys ought to do. (70)
It is this paradox between Lutie's naivety and street sense that Shannon Cate analyses:
Lutie has a strong instinctive sense that white people want to keep her and Bub in a servant underclass. Unfortunately, from within the limited vocabulary of the American dream, Lutie cannot name the exact nature of her oppression. She doesn't understand that in the full circle of exploitation, racially segregated labor is a necessary function of the system that creates surplus prosperity for white elites. ([Im]positions, Issue # 1, December 1996)
In addition to issues of class hierarchy in jobs, Petry makes the reader vicariously live through the restraints placed on women by social stereotypes of the role of men as the chief wage earner and the role of women as 'ideal mothers.'
Petry uses the hard choices that Lutie Johnson must make to highlight how 'white supremacy' and racism makes it difficult for the black community to adhere to social norms. Neither Lutie's husband nor her father are able to find jobs to earn a decent living, forcing 'Pop' into selling bathtub gin: "Can't get no job," he says, "White folks got 'em all" (80).
Faced with the men in her life having no job prospects, Lutie is forced into the dual role of wage earner and mother, though time and again Petry makes it clear that her primary goal in life is to be an ideal mother. The need to bring in a decent income and provide for her son's future drives Lutie into trying one avenue after the other: taking care of foster children; leaving Bub in her husband's care to take up employment as a maid to the Chandlers; and finally seeking her fortune in New York.