(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Street relates the difficult education of Lutie Johnson, the protagonist; she has not yet learned to read the mythical signs and symbols of American culture with the disbelieving irony required by the conditions of her race and gender. At the opening of the novel, Lutie is intoxicated by such commonplace American images as Benjamin Franklin, self-made individuals, and white picket fences. By the conclusion of the novel, however, Lutie is filled with a new vision of herself, of the society around her, and of her place in that society—a society in which she had formerly fully invested her faith and her imagination. To this end, one of Lutie’s final thoughts in the narrative is the recollection of the words of a grammar school teacher who once proclaimed to her: “I don’t know why they have us bother to teach your people to write.” Lutie understands the rejected position in which she is placed by the views of the dominant society. In a similar vein, the final images of the novel are those of the garbage that lines and defines the Harlem streets, images with which the novel also began but which now recur with a stirring resonance. By the end of the narrative, Lutie begins to reconcile herself to the manner in which she is seen by those who control the signs, symbols, and opportunities of American culture.

The narrative begins with Lutie’s quest to find an apartment for herself and her son, Bub. Having inspected an apartment in the building superintended by Jones, Lutie puts aside her disappointment with the building; she is certain that she will eventually be able to better her lot. Once Lutie has settled into life in the building, her imagination releases her much of the time from the depression and oppression of her surroundings. She recalls the happy, early moments of her former marriage as well as her tenure working as a maid in suburban Connecticut, a tenure during which she was both enamored of and ambivalent concerning “model” suburban life. Lutie’s imaginings are interrupted by the bleakness of her surroundings, and much of the early tension of the novel revolves around this tension between her...

(The entire section is 876 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Street follows the foredoomed struggle of a young black woman to escape the street and to evade what the street threatens to do to her and to Bub, her young son. The street is 116th Street in Harlem. The time is the 1940’s; World War II is not yet over.

Lutie Johnson has not come to the street by choice. Lutie had taken work as a domestic with the Chandlers, a white family in Connecticut. The job required that she live apart from Jim, her unemployed husband. In her absence, Jim took up with another woman. Unable to turn to her alcoholic father for support, Lutie has had to do the best she can for herself and her son Bub. At the moment, this means a low-paying job and a walk-up apartment on the top floor of a dismal building.

Three other inhabitants of the building play an important role in Lutie’s story: Jones, Min, and Mrs. Hedges. Lutie senses at once the powerful lust of Jones, the superintendent. Her resistance generates in Jones a rage he takes out on Min, the most recent of a series of shapeless middle-aged women with whom he has lived. Min finally realizes that her only course is to leave him and to hope that some other man will take her. The repeatedly frustrated Jones is determined to get at Lutie somehow. He wins the trust of Bub, and when Jones’s obsession with Lutie turns to hatred, he makes Bub his instrument in a plot to destroy her.

Mrs. Hedges takes an immediate, even protective, interest in Lutie, but her interest is not innocent. Lutie represents interesting possibilities: A nice white man is interested in her.

The white man is Junto, who operates the Junto Bar and Grill and a number of other enterprises in Harlem. He and Mrs. Hedges have been associates for a long time, ever since they met while both were picking through garbage. Junto has come a long way since them. He is now the power behind Mrs. Hedges’s operations; he has powerful connections, and he knows what...

(The entire section is 797 words.)