Slow summer days and Petry’s “The Street” (1946)

Ahh. I really appreciate the fact that I am privileged enough to get to experience and enjoy a faculty summer at a large state university. After having worked year-round as a full-time staffer on campus for 20+ years, the fact that I officially get to have the ENTIRE summer off is, frankly, almost unbelievable. (Well, I am teaching summer school but I chose to do that.) 

So – what have I been doing with these long languid days? Have I been using them wisely to contribute to the world around me during these times of COVID and civil unrest? Ummmm. :-}

Right when the semester officially ended in mid-May, I finished up all my grades and then worked hard on the front garden flower beds (new shrubs, tidy-up etc.). After that burst of focus though, I picked up in the world of jigsaw puzzles (OMG – the time-suck but OH SO FUN!). I finished up a couple and bought a new one (which I am looking forward to completing) so that’s been interesting. 

Reading-wise, I’ve renewed my focus on Black writers and their work, starting with the 1946 fiction called “The Street” by Ann Petry, an amazing first novel by a Black female author and which was the also the first title to sell more than a million copies in print. 

Set mostly in WWII-era neighborhood in Harlem, the plot focuses on Lutie Johnson, a single Black mother who is confronted daily by the serious issues of racism, sexism and classism. It’s a political novel, in terms of dealing with society ills and making a point, rather along the same lines as Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath”, published in 1939. 

(And – if you haven’t ever got around to reading “Grapes…”, take thee to a book provider and read it. It’s. Oh. So. Good.) 

Ann Petry.

Back to “The Street”: Lutie is a really hard-working woman who is doing her best to give her young son, Bub, a better life and she really truly believes that if she just works hard enough and saves enough, she will be able to give Bub that gift for his future. However, it’s the mid-1940s in New York City so the reader just knows what is in store for this small family. 

Lutie also believes in Benjamin Franklin and his ideas of working hard and being frugal to get ahead, and Petry even names one of the other main characters Junto, after the name of Franklin’s true secret organization of the same name. It’s totally heartbreaking because you just know that, historically, no matter how hard Lutie Johnson works and scrimps and saves, her life (and that of young Bub) is not going to improve that much. She’s stuck in the poverty trap and despite her goals of moving out of this dark and ugly tenement building, the odds are way against her. 

This is a gritty novel in a gritty neighborhood in a gritty city, and it was hard for me to read how much hope Lutie had for improving her life and that of Bub. Almost everything in her life is against her and yet she gets up every day to keep working towards that goal of a better life. She works a crappily-paid job doing crappy work, she lives in a crappy cramped and dark apartment, her choices are few and far between, and yet she continues to believe that things will get better (if not for her, at least for little Bub). What’s even more difficult is that I know that things haven’t necessarily improved for families in poverty in the U.S. living lives that follow a similar pattern. 

Lutie gets involved with Junto, who runs a steadily-employed nightclub band, and by dangling her dreams of a better life in front of her, Junto ultimately leads Lutie to commit a serious crime from which there is no escape. 

(It’s interesting to think how awful this Junto character is in this read when you consider that Benjamin Franklin’s secret club of the same name (and also called the Leather Apron Club) was focused on mutual self-improvement. It consisted of twelve men, of course, all white, of course, and started in 1727 in Philadelphia.

In contrast, this novel’s Junto character here has absolutely no interest in anyone except himself (and Lutie, sexually-speaking). He’s such a selfish character that you can just see Petry’s opinion of him through her giving him this name. Clever of her to pick this name and use it in this manner.) 

It’s a heart-breaking story but it’s so exceptionally well-written that you bear the harshness of Lutie’s life alongside her, hoping against hope that her dreams might even slightly come true. 

It’s pretty interesting to search online to see what else was happening in the U.S. in 1946. WWII has been over since 1945 (so not that long ago and, of course, the lingering social effects were still in existence), there were civil rights riots in Chicago, there was the last recorded lynching in Georgia (crikey)*, atomic bombs were being developed, Truman was starting the first group that would turn into the CIA, and the Russians were viewed as significant threats to world peace. 

Realizing that, you can see how “The Street” fits into the cultural milieu of the times. This is a fascinating read on a hundred different levels, but even if you’re not interested in the backstory, this is one heckuva read. I loved it!

*And holy cow: Wikipedia reports that the state of Georgia didn’t officially acknowledge any of its lynchings and its role in them until 1999 when a state highway marker was placed at the site of the original attack. What took them so long??

4 thoughts on “Slow summer days and Petry’s “The Street” (1946)

  1. This is the second or third review I’ve read of this powerful book and it appears to be a great record of those particular times as well as having impact still today.

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