Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)
Ann Petry’s The Street made a somewhat sensational appearance in 1946. This novel was the first by an African American woman to sell in excess of one million copies. Moreover, the book’s naturalist orientation, attention to urban reality, and understanding of the explosiveness of violence in urban environments reserved for African Americans led to Petry’s being regarded as a writer within the Richard Wright orbit. While one might certainly see similarities between the work of Petry and Wright, Petry’s work attains a psychological depth and closeness of portraiture never quite pursued or attained by Wright. Narrative drama is often much more psychological for Petry than it is for Wright.
Despite the avidness with which the novel was first received and acclaimed, Petry’s novel, unlike the work of Wright, remained out of print for several decades. With the increasingly high profile of black feminist criticism in academic circles in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, interest in Petry’s work was rekindled, and the novel was reissued in 1985 by Beacon Press. The Street is one of only three novels written by Petry, although she also wrote short fiction and children’s stories. The Street remains perhaps Petry’s most gripping and intense work, a work she hoped would be “a book that was like an explosion inside the head of the reader.”