The Street by Ann Petry

It’s 1944 in Harlem and Lutie Johnson is looking to move into a new apartment with her eight-year-old son, Bub. She’s only “separated” from her husband because they can’t afford a divorce; things went bad after the husband couldn’t find a job for years. Lutie earned employment as a live-in maid and nanny to a white family with a small boy. Being absent from home for so long pushed the husband to move in a new woman, much to Lutie’s surprised when she returned home for a weekend visit.

When Lutie looked at the apartment for rent to see if it would fit her needs, she noticed how small and dirty it was, how the whole building reeked of poverty. The Superintendent, often simply called “Super” in black neighborhoods, sets off red flags, and Lutie becomes alert to his every breath as she inspects each room of the apartment. While I thought, based on the synopsis, that The Street by Ann Petry would be a novel about poverty, race discrimination that prevents folks from getting jobs, and how white people would filter into Harlem after dark during this time period, I was surprised to learn my assumptions were wrong.

Largely, The Street is about sexual harassment and coercion. Lutie knows the Super is being creepy in his way, trying to get her to go up the stairs first, for example. Another building tenant, Mrs. Hedges, enjoys her role as the madam of a small brothel she runs out of her apartment with the consent of the owner of the building, Junto, a white man Mrs. Hedges has known since he was a nobody. When it’s obvious Lutie is desperate for money, Mrs. Hedges always makes it clear Lutie could earn some fast cash, especially with a white customer, and we’re again faced with the role of sex and money in the lives of people in poverty.

Even when she worked as a respectable maid and nanny, Lutie heard the white misses and her friends whisper that they had better keep their eyes on Lutie, because they knew what those kind of women (they mean black women) are like around white men. Every attempt Lutie makes for honest employment is thwarted by a man in power who has the notion that if he prevents her from earning an income, she’ll have to agree to be a prostitute, a kept woman, a quick bang, maybe even an agreeable fantasy wife.

Ann Petry has written an amazing story that demonstrates people are more perceptive than we let on. First, we spend a good chunk of time in third-person while following Lutie. After she looks at the apartment and has the bad feeling about the Super, we get a new chapter from his point of view, confirming what she thought about him. He’s absolutely a scoundrel. He remembers, “When he was younger, he didn’t have any trouble getting women — young, well-built women.” To stave off his loneliness, the Super had a homeless woman named Min move in with him, a woman who is older and not attractive. To “get” a woman like Lutie, he thinks has to get Min out of his apartment first. Then, we move to a chapter narrated by Min, who knows exactly what is going on in the Super’s head. I loved this, seeing the way people have a feeling or suspicion, one that I know is spot on. I’m a big believer in my ability to read people and understand their motives, and Petry writes characters with the same insight, which I enjoyed.

Each character maintains his or her personality throughout The Street, making it possible to understand them on a deeper level without being told what to think. Lutie’s background always seems to inform her present choices. While it would have been easy for a black teen to drop out of school in the 1930s, Lutie’s father convinces her to graduate. So,it makes sense that she continues studying course materials that will let her move up pay grades at work. Also, after her husband cheated on her, she’s suspicious of men in a way that isn’t hateful, but reasonable. When a fast-talker with money named Boots enters The Street, I wasn’t too worried about Lutie falling for him because it didn’t fit her personality. Instead, Lutie navigates carefully around him.

Because Lutie understands that generating money means she can be independent and make choices based on her wants, not a lack of options, she also notices the flaws with the street on which she rents the apartment. Other children are potential bad influences on Bub. Men sit around on stoops drinking beer, selling bootleg liquor out of their apartments, while women go to work and support husbands who can’t get employment. There is a racial element, but it is not shouted about; instead, readers must pick up how poverty in Harlem is the result of white families doing to black men what black men are doing to Lutie: removing options to make money, which reduces folks to an object that can be shaped into something more desirable: a hooker, a servant, a dead body in the gutter. When Lutie looks at the street, she sees the effects of racism and what it does to Harlemites:

She thought about the stores again. All of them — the butcher shops, the notion stores, the vegetable stands — all of them sold the leavings, the sweepings, the impossible unsalable merchandise, the dregs and dross that were reserved especially for Harlem. Yet the people went on living and reproducing in spite of the bad food.

Thanks to Roshni @ Napoleon Split for doing this buddy read with me. We had a great conversation — and it was our first video chat after years of communication on our blogs and by sending (paper!) letters. Both Roshni and I highly recommend The Street by Ann Petry. I’m also trying to convince her to get back into book blogging, but she’s busy with dozens of other amazing endeavors.

18 comments

  1. In the early part of the C20th writers, often communists, would write novels that illustrated how capital was used to keep workers poor and therefore desperate. That sort of writing seemed to go out of style with the general prosperity post WWII. Now we have returned to the gross inequalities of the C19th I guess it was inevitable that novels would once again include economic analysis. And of course racism and sexism have an economic side, it’s all to do with the exercise of power. Good on Petry for spelling it out.

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    • After reading a post on another blog, I realized I’ve read a lot of novels (and some nonfiction) set in Harlem. It’s this magic, complicated place that captured both the culture of African Americans and the economic hardship of an economy that cuts people out of jobs, housing, and schools due to race.

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  2. I love your review Melanie! And how you point out the parallel between what white men do to black men vs. what black men do to black women like Lutie and Min. It makes it even sadder to read, because Lutie’s character is so admirable and optimistic and Petry gives the reader hope that Lutie can make it out of this cycle. Thank you for introducing me to this book 🙂 Can’t wait to read the review on Coldest Winter!

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    • There are several books that examine the way black men treat black women. I haven’t read a ton about this except as it pertains to the Black Panthers and a few other articles from a textbook I used to teach, including an essay about the treatment of black women in the 1990s hip hop/rap scene.

      I’ve already got my Coldest Winter Ever review scheduled. I keep seeing the sequel all over the place, especially because it’s on the carousel of the library web page because it’s one of the top selling fiction books in the New York Times right now.

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  3. This sounds excellent. I appreciate when an author is consistent with their characters and they act the way that fits with their past behaviour.

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  4. I love the sound of this one-the characters all sound very nuanced, and like you, I enjoy making assumptions about certain characters and then getting inside their head to get their own perspective in the next chapter-it’s so satisfying!!!

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    • I know you recently read a classic, the Agatha Christie, and was wondering if you’ll do more soon. I know for me reading a classic helps remind me of where we’ve come from to get where we are in fiction.

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  5. This sounds like a fantastic read. I know we just talked about historical fiction set in the 1940s-60s being generally subpar, but I think we need to amend that to ‘historical fiction set in the 1940s-60s written by white folks is generally subpar.’ Because everything about this sounds insightful, engaging, and worthwhile. I’ve just added it to my TBR. Great review!

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    • Thanks, Emily. I think you would appreciate the writing and serious literary nature of this novel. It’s the only one I know of that Petry wrote. Apparently she had others, but this is the famous one.

      It seems like whatever is happening in Harlem is exempt from my big declarations about certain time periods. It always has its own thing going on.

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  6. While this book sounds incredible, I don’t think it would be my cup of tea. At least not in my current mental state. I’m always struggled to read about sex and power – it just gives me nightmares. Darn overactive imagination. But it sounds like Petry’s writing is exceptional. I know I’d love the way she switches character perspectives and continues the same storyline. It sounds beautifully and masterfully written. How have I never heard of this before?

    I’m planning on participating in the Classics Club once the Great Newbery Quest is completed (only 15 left!). I want to branch out in my Classic selection. Any suggestions how I can find “lesser known” classics to read? Or heck, just give me some recommendations!

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    • Wow, only 15 left?! You’re so close!! The classics club sounds really cool, but I’m mostly trying to plow my way through the books I own and then stick to library borrows as much as possible. Most of the books I would recommend are African and African American fiction because that’s what I taught for several years, so not much diversity in my suggestions. Plus, when you’re talking black history, a whole lot of it has violence, which I know would not be a good fit.

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  7. I read this last year and it feels impossible not to go on and on about what a magnificent book this is and Petry’s writing. Not sure if I ever posted this on the blog though

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    • I think I remember you posting something brief about really enjoying the book and the writing, though I don’t remember details. I haven’t read anything else Petry has done, and I feel like this is her one-hit wonder the way folks talk about it.

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