While Petry’s fiction typically involves African Americans struggling against the crippling impact of racism, her overarching theme involves a more broadly defined notion of prejudice that targets class and gender as well as race. That vision explains what might otherwise seem to be inconsistencies of direction in Petry’s career: her decision, for example, following the potent racial protest of The Street, to focus her next novel, Country Place (1947), on a white community’s postwar crises of adjustment, or her movement into the realm of children’s literature. Uniting these diverse efforts is Petry’s critique of oppressive social hierarchies and her admiration for those whose moral epiphanies lead them to more inclusive, life-affirming conceptions of human community.
Petry’s dissection of cultural hypocrisies exists alongside her willingness to allow her characters their own moments of narrative self-revelation through alternating interior monologues. The chorus of voices thus created avoids privileging any single character and infuses Petry’s fiction with compassion. Petry delineates time and again how the American society has proved cruelly adept at building walls that deny some of its citizens real participation in its prosperity.
Rather than celebrating the American ideal of self-making with which her native New England is so closely associated, Petry exposes the illusions it has fostered and depicts their graphic costs to those relegated to the periphery of American possibility. Racism invites Petry’s most scathing attacks, not only for the material hardship it forces upon people of color but also for the psychological and cultural distortions it produces. At her most biting, Petry lampoons the absurdist systems of human classification into which racist societies ultimately fall. Generally, her perspective is more tragic than comic, however, and includes the recognition that confronting racism necessitates confronting history itself.
That class distinctions pervade American culture becomes one of Petry’s most insistent indictments of the egalitarian myths of American opportunity. In quest of the material security, comfort, and status that propel middle-class striving, Americans, she suggests, acquiesce to a soul-numbing view of labor and retreat into a moral inflexibility that blindly sanctions aggressive self-interest. A novel such as Country Place shares with Petry’s other work an interest in how the American class structure produces venal, grasping have-nots at the bottom whose ambitions mimic the ruthless acquisitiveness of those at the top.
Petry’s most important characters are those who reject the fallacy of the self-made individual existing independent of the world or the continuing legacy of the past. Though that perspective assumes certain mechanistic dimensions in her work, she does not concede full authority to deterministic necessity; the dice may be loaded against her protagonists, but the game is not inexorably mandated to play itself out to any single predetermined end. Her characters sometimes prove capable of personal growth that moves them toward a common humanity. At its most compelling, such discovery may fuel real and far-reaching change in the social order itself. Petry’s narratives often grow from characters’ chance movements across rigid cultural boundaries; the resulting crises test the spiritual flexibility of many others besides her protagonists.
Overlooked by academic critics, Petry’s children’s books offer tantalizing clues to her larger agenda as a writer. Their emphasis upon personal fearlessness in rethinking assumptions and disengaging from systems invites comparison to figures from her adult fiction such as Abbie Crunch of The Narrows or Mrs. Gramby of Country Place, both of whom escape the prejudices that have constrained their humanity. Moreover, in applying their new insights, these characters take subtly revolutionary actions that defy the cultural boundaries that previously defined their lives. It takes a saint, perhaps, to challenge a predatory universe with an alternative vision of love, but having told children in Legends of the Saints (1970) that true sanctity is a function of bravery, Petry seems willing to evaluate her “serious” fictional characters on their receptivity to grace as an antidote to hate.
First published: 1946
Type of work: Novel
Inspired by the American Dream, a young black mother discovers the inhibiting power of racism, sexism, and poverty.
When The Street appeared in 1946, earning Alain Locke’s praise as “the artistic success” of the year, it was immediately identified with the literature of social protest that had become the primary vehicle for African American fiction of the period. Petry’s novel tells the story of a young African American mother in New York City whose ambitions have been fed by her early reading of Benjamin Franklin and her domestic service in the household of wealthy white suburbanites.
Lutie Johnson’s goals are the stuff of the American Dream itself and on the surface appear eminently worthy: Although recently abandoned by her husband, she eschews defeat and is convinced that she will obtain a white-collar job that will foster her personal dignity and provide a comfortable life, a good education, and promising social opportunities for her eight-year-old son, Bub. As Petry makes evident, however, Lutie fails to recognize the incongruity of applying the credo of upward mobility to her own circumstances, which reflect a social system organized to benefit the dominant white community and dismiss the claims of the marginal. Nor has Lutie registered the spiritual bankruptcy that accompanies the success she so covets.
Lutie pays dearly for her unexamined adherence to white bourgeois myths. While emphasizing the crippling impact of poverty, sexuality, and race upon individual striving, The Street is also a thoughtful examination of a complex character whose education and class aspiration lead to self-conscious choices and allegiances that demand as much scrutiny as the sociological obstacles she confronts.
Not that those obstacles are minimized. Lutie’s circumstances reveal the interplay between the economic disenfranchisement of black men, the exploitative employment options imposed on black women, the fragmentation of the black family, and the terrifying vulnerability of black youth. To offset his humiliation at being unable to support his family, Lutie’s husband Jim takes up with another woman. Forced by her restricted means to move in with her father and his string of mistresses, Lutie chafes at having to leave Bub each day among the vulgar underclass she so desperately seeks to escape. She painstakingly masters secretarial skills to secure a civil-service appointment with better pay, only to find that her access to better neighborhoods is still constrained by the exorbitant rents charged the poor.
Lutie reluctantly takes an apartment on morally dissolute 116th Street, the kind of area she describes as “the method the big cities used to keep Negroes in their place.” For all her concern about Bub, she cannot alter the fact that at the end of a school day soured by the bigotry of his white teacher, Bub must manage alone for hours until his mother returns home. Finally, Lutie discovers that as a black woman she is made most vulnerable by her sexuality, which arouses virulent male passions she can neither predict nor control.
Ironically, Lutie’s beauty baits the trap that crushes her dreams when it sparks the lust of...
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Modern American Dream Character Development
This video provides a short character sketch of Lutie Johnson. After watching the video and reading all or part of The Street, fill out the Character Sketch Guide in the Student Handout section for Lutie.
Then, have students create their own modern American dream stories. Consider the fictional and factual American dream accounts they have studied so far. Have a class discussion to recap their understanding of the American dream. Consider:
- Characteristics of people who work toward the American dream
- Paths toward achieving the American dream
- Obstacles people face when working toward the American dream
- Emotions people experience when working toward the American dream
- Does everyone who aspires to achieve the American dream achieve it? What happens when it does not work out?
Have students think about a new fictional American-dream-seeking character set in the current time. Then have them fill out the Character Sketch Guide and eventually write a monologue for this character. When writing, have students consider the setting, language, emotion, and audience. Perform the monologues.
Lutie’s life circumstances and challenges uncover many of the devastating effects of racism and sexism. Throughout the novel, she realizes the inequalities of these systems, but it isn’t until the end of the novel that she considers the negative influence of poverty. Have students write an essay where they choose which system – racism, sexism, or poverty – is most debilitating for Lutie. Instruct them to provide evidence and examples from the text to support their responses.
The American Dream: Destined or Doomed?
After finishing the book, hold a class discussion or debate in which you explore whether or not Lutie ever really had a chance to achieve her dream or whether she was doomed for failure from the start. Divide the class into two groups: one that believes the American dream was attainable for her and another that does not. Have students conduct research, compile evidence, and prepare opening and closing statements and rebuttals. Encourage students to think about the racial, class, and gender challenges that she faced. Have students organize their evidence and prepare their statements in the Destined or Doomed graphic organizer in Student Handout section below.