A Second Visit To The Street
Many years ago, I read Ann Petry's novel "The Street" (1946) with a book group. As often happens, people disagreed in their responses to the book. I was among those that, on balance, didn't like it. In the intervening years, as the book group and my reading continued, I had the feeling that I had been too harsh on "The Street" and should read it again by myself. I finally did so with a new book from the Library of America which includes "The Street" together with Petry's (1908 -- 1997) later novel "The Narrows" and three short essays. Upon its 1946 publication, "The Street" was a critical and financial success, selling well over one million copies. It was the first book by an African American woman to do so. It faded somewhat from the public eye, but the new LOA publication should bring the novel renewed attention.
Most of "The Street" is set in a Harlem tenement during WW II. The principal characters are Luthi Johnson. a young, attractive, and ambitious single mother and her eight-year old son Bub. Luthi has left both her husband and her aging father in search of independence and a better life. She had worked for two years for a wealthy white Connecticut family, an experience which reinforced her belief in the value of money and success. Luthi has struggled to better her condition by taking and passing civil service exams for entry-level positions. When she and Bub go on their own, she is forced to take rooms in an abysmal, fetid Harlem tenement. She struggles to save money and to educate Bub and give him a better life.
The novel is, in Petry's own evaluation, a work of social criticism. The criticism is directed at the appalling conditions in much of Harlem and at the white racism that allows such conditions to continue. The novel also intertwines a feminist criticism of sexism and probably of male sexuality.
Petry had lived in Harlem and her novel is at its best in its vivid descriptions of tenements, streets, clubs, and people. The many characters in the book include the building superintendent, a rakish band leader, and an elderly white man who owns the tenement and a series of clubs. These three men, and other men, have lustful, dishonorable designs on Luthi. Another character, Mrs. Hedges, is a madam who lives and runs her establishment from the tenement, sits out her window and gazes at the street, and seems to know everything that goes on.
The book is written in a passionate, angry style. It kept me involved during this second reading. Luthi struggles valiantly to protect herself and her son, to keep the men away, and to stay out of the clutches of Mrs. Hedges. The book offers a grim portrayal of Harlem, differing from some of the other portrayals during the earlier Harlem Renaissance by both African American and white writers.
In this second reading, I enjoyed the book much more than I did during the first reading. I appreciated its rawness and grit, qualities that should have impressed me more years ago. I came to like the book while not feeling guilty about some of my negative reaction years ago. The book has strong elements of melodrama with its story of Luthi against the world. The portrayal of the male characters, both in Harlem and elsewhere, with their exclusive focus on sex and on the sexual possession of Luthi also bothered me when I first read the book and continued to do so on this reading. It is a heavily feminist anti-male portrayal which has become all to common in literature of many settings.
I came to appreciate the book more, which is one of the virtues of reading and re-reading. I also achieved a degree of peace with my long-forgotten earlier reading of the book. I am grateful to the LOA for including this book in its outstanding series of American writing.