Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Ann Lane Petry was the first African American woman writer to record book sales of more than one million copies. She reworked her experiences as a reporter for two Harlem newspapers, The Amsterdam News and The People’s News, into her novel The Street. Organized into eighteen chapters and set in 1944, The Street introduces Lutie Mae Johnson, who has moved to 116th Street in Harlem following the dissolution of her marriage. Lutie was forced into an early marriage because of the security that it would provide, but the marriage failed primarily because of the inability of her husband, Jim, to find work. His continual unemployment caused Lutie to accept work as a live-in domestic for a wealthy white family in Connecticut. While working for the Chandlers, Lutie became imbued with white American cultural values, which emphasize the belief that success (seemingly equated with money) is possible if one works hard enough.

Lutie adopted this work ethic, choosing Benjamin Franklin as her hero. She accepted the American myth that Franklin had arrived in Philadelphia with only two loaves of bread and prospered. Although she learned from the Chandlers’ experiences that the mere possession of money does not bring happiness, she now uncritically pursues the American Dream.

Lutie has been exposed to the American Dream not only through her work for the “filthy rich” Chandlers but also through her education and her...

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The Street Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Street was the first work by an African American woman in which a woman faced the challenges of a hostile environment in the same manner as a man. As a result of the inequities inherent in the American social system, Lutie’s outward behavior resembles that of Bigger Thomas or of Bob Jones in Chester Himes’s If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945). She murders out of frustration that comes from her inability to achieve material success in accordance with the precepts of the American Dream.

The Street conforms to the naturalistic mode of writing that was prevalent in African American literature of the 1940’s. Naturalism stresses the power of external forces, the environment or the social system, to block human freedom. It may also emphasize the power of internal forces, irrational beliefs or the subconscious, to limit human rationality and responsibility. A standard characteristic of naturalism is that life for the protagonist is a downhill struggle ending in acceptance of the oppressive forces or in death. Lutie’s naturalistic flaw seems to be her inability to understand or intellectually accept that black life and the American Dream of material success are diametrically opposed.

As she was writing in the naturalistic mode at the same time as Richard Wright and Chester Himes, Petry’s novel was dismissed as an ineffectual imitation of her contemporaries, probably because of her focus on a woman. Although the...

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The Street Techniques / Literary Precedents

The Street is often described as a female version of Richard Wright's Native Son, and Lutie Johnson has been called a female...

(The entire section is 212 words.)

The Street Related Titles

Often seen as a single-work author or a children's writer, Petry published six short stories prior to The Street. "Marie of the Cabin...

(The entire section is 939 words.)

The Street Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Bell, Bernard W. “Ann Petry’s Demythologizing of American Culture and Afro-American Character.” In Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition, edited by Marjorie Pryse and Hortense Spillers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985. Bell attempts to free Petry’s work from stifling, traditional comparisons to the works of Richard Wright and Chester Himes, two of Petry’s notable contemporaries. He contends that these longstanding comparisons overshadow and misrepresent Petry’s talent and that, in contrast to Wright and Himes, Petry moves beyond a mere naturalist vision in order to probe pervasive cultural myths and the intricacies and complexities of character.

Christian, Barbara. Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980. Christian places Lutie Johnson, the protagonist, within the tradition of the “tragic mulatta,” the beautiful and ill-fated heroine commonplace early in the tradition of African American women’s fiction. Christian sees the novel as exposing the falseness of governing American myths in addition to exposing the inevitability of crime given the hostility of urban environments for African American communities.

Crescenzo, Michele. “Poor Lutie’s Almanac: Reading and Social Critique in Ann Petry’s The Street. ” In...

(The entire section is 453 words.)