In 1946, Ann Petry had it all, well before we were wondering if this was even possible for a woman. Born in 1908 (or 1911 — biographers do not agree), Petry was trained as a pharmacist, worked as a reporter, married, and would soon be a mother. Hers was not an overnight success. She paid her dues, publishing short stories and essays, sometimes writing under a male pseudonym. Her star began to rise when she was awarded a $2,500 fellowship from Houghton Mifflin to write her first novel, “The Street,” which sold a staggering 1.5 million copies. And did I mention that she was a black woman?
So why do so few people read her work today? I really don’t know.
When I first encountered Petry, I was a student at Spelman College, a historically black women’s college in my hometown of Atlanta. My copy of the book sported a classroom-ready cover of muted grays and the title was announced in a blockish, sober font. One of my classmates brought a vintage edition she had found at her parents’ home. This cover spotlighted a woman with long hair, hourglass figure and dramatic makeup. The copy promised a tale of violence and vice. My book indicated that the story in my hands was “a powerful, uncompromising work of social criticism” or something snoozy like that. Could this possibly be the same book?
Absolutely. “The Street” is my favorite type of novel, literary with an astonishing plot. The heroine, Lutie Johnson, is a single mother who lives with her 8-year-old son in Harlem. Although her marriage fell apart due to financial hardship caused by racism (and also old-fashioned incompatibility), Lutie still believes in the American Dream. Despite her attempts to be a respectable woman, Lutie’s life intersects with the seedier side of Harlem. The building super becomes obsessed with her and puts her dear little boy in harm’s way. Her neighbor, a Madam with a heart of gold-plate, saves Lutie from rape, but tries to push her into a relationship with a white man with underworld ties. Add to this bubbling plot an abused wife who seeks the services of a local hoodoo practitioner, a crooked lawyer, a smoky nightclub and murder-by-candlestick and you’ve got the kind of novel that makes 400 pages seem like too few.
Even with the twisty breathless plot, Petry engages the issues of her day, which sadly are the issues of our day as well. At every turn, Lutie confronts that many-headed hydra of racism, sexism and classism. Because of its uncompromising view of injustice and its collateral effects, “The Street” has often been called a women’s version of Richard Wright’s “Native Son.” Both novels hinge upon murders motivated by heat-of-the-moment spontaneity and deep-seated resentment borne of relentless discrimination. However, it is unfair to Petry to think of her artistry as a pink-collared version of Wright. James Baldwin famously criticized Wright’s hero in “Native Son” by noting that “Wright imagined Bigger, but Bigger never could have imagined Wright.”