THE STREET by Ann Petry | Review first published Feb. 10, 1946


Ann Petry has chosen to tell a story about one aspect of Negro life in America, and she has created as vivid, as spiritually and emotionally effective a novel as that rich and important theme has yet produced. “The Street” is a work of close documentation and intimate perception. It is also a gripping tale peopled with utterly believable United States citizens, and overflowing with the classic pity and terror of good imaginative writing.

To Lutie Johnson, the attractive protagonist, her enemy is poverty. If the white man’s rules are largely responsible for that poverty (and she feels they are), then very well, she fears and distrusts white people. But her personal epic of struggle — to provide a safe, free, comfortable home for herself and her charming little son, Bub — manifests itself more often than not against those of her own race and neighborhood in Harlem, New York City.

Lutie has had to struggle against the atmosphere of her father’s home. He is an old man, whose crippled sense of dignity can express itself only in boozy orgies (but it was he who had forced Lutie to finish high school). She has also had to fight with her husband. Borne down by his own inability to find work, he has allowed Lutie to take a job as a housemaid in remote Connecticut; ultimately, he took in another woman to live with him on the money his wife sent home. Lutie and little Bub have left him now; she has taken a low-paid Civil Service job, and is trying to make ends meet in their tiny apartment on “the Street,” which is 116th, in Harlem’s heart. Above all, her struggle is now directed against this Street — the filth and litter, the torn papers, chicken bones, corset stays, tin cans that swirl on its sidewalks.

The people of the Street live with Trouble as with a member of the family. Trouble is disease, hunger, violence, the police. Trouble is the Street. Lutie Johnson wants to get out of it — she wants Bub out of it. She makes a valiant try — and she fails.

For the whole story, in its memorable simplicity and power, the reader is directed to the book itself. Few novels of the last several years have been so alive with the understanding of character as exemplified in Lutie herself; in the eight-year-old Bub; in the crazy super of the tenement house; in Min, the woman who lives with him; in Boots, the orchestra leader; and Junto, the one white man who enters the tragedy directly. It is a rare day when a novel based on a social issue exhibits the literary quality of “The Street.” — Alfred Butterfield

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