Nothing New Under the Sun

Ann Petry’s The Street and The Narrows

Emily Bernard


 

The Richest Damn Country in the World

Ann Petry never liked the way she looked. She hated having her picture taken, and she despised the attention that went along with celebrity. Yet the limelight found her immediately upon the 1946 publication of her novel The Street, the first novel written by an African American woman to sell over a million copies. She felt cornered by her success. Petry knew that the media glare was occasioned as much by her race and gender as by her talent. Suddenly she was a public curio, on display for the world to inspect. After the reporter Ed Sullivan mentioned the book in a 1945 newspaper column her phone rang nonstop. Instead of being flattered she felt menaced. “I didn’t feel like being pursued, and questioned, and all the rest of it–flashbulbs, cameras, oooh!” she confided in her journal. She was similarly miserable fifty years later during the publicity campaign for the 1992 edition of The Street. “I feel as though I were a helpless creature impaled on a dissecting table–for public viewing,” she despaired. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that in the fictional world of The Street, as well as in her 1953 novel The Narrows, someone is always watching, and the looking is never innocent.

No doubt Petry would writhe with discomfort today in the wake of the release of the Library of America volume of her work that includes The Street, The Narrows, and several selections of Petry’s nonfiction, as well as a chronology of her life by volume editor Farah Jasmine Griffin so thorough and well considered that it offers something closer to a biography of Petry than a simple listing of her life events. But Petry’s work, if not Petry’s person, merits a renaissance. The Street and The Narrows are big books, long in length, hefty in plot, and gigantic in scope. They narrate lives lived in specific times and places, and they dive deep into big issues, including the nature of freedom, community, family, and love. The stories they tell, like the questions they raise, are eternally poignant and eerily current. They dramatize what it means to be black, female, and American, and, above all, human.

There is no novel more satisfying to teach in the age of #MeToo than The Street. My students and I root for the novel’s main character, Lutie Johnson, as she moves through the world, battling carnivorous gazes of men and women, determined to make a living and maintain a household for herself and her son. But because she is poor, black, and female–and beautiful, to boot–Lutie is constantly in peril. From the very first page, she is fighting nature itself. The wind virtually undresses her and hurls dirt and garbage in front of her eyes as she hunts for an apartment on 116th Street in Harlem. (Petry worked as a journalist in Harlem when she was a young woman, and during those years, she came across a newspaper article that inspired the story at the heart of The Street.) Lutie can barely see the signs advertising apartments to let, something that truly adds insult to injury, since the apartments themselves are shabby, overpriced, dark, and crowded. But only one thing matters to Lutie: keeping her son safe and sheltered from the life they have left behind. As she pursues this goal, she tries to ignore the eyes that follow her and travel up and down her body, assessing its component parts.

On the day of her fateful search for housing, Lutie is still recovering from life on another street, the grand main street in Lyme, Connecticut. A few years earlier, she had left her job as a nanny and housekeeper for a wealthy white family, the Chandlers, because it required her to live in the Chandlers’ home and leave her son, Bub, and her husband behind in Jamaica, Queens. The job was supposed to be temporary, but Lutie wound up staying with the Chandlers for two years. She would have left much sooner if her husband had been able to find work, but racism had deprived him of every employment opportunity. “God damn white people,” he would come home cursing to Lutie. “Don’t they know if I knew how I’d change the color of my skin?” For black women, there is always domestic work. But once Lutie landed the job in Lyme, sexism and racism joined forces and made her life even more difficult than it already was. Mrs. Chandler was warned by her friends against having a “good-looking colored wench in her home.” Mrs. Chandler’s mother was even more direct: “That girl is unusually attractive and men are weak. Besides, she’s colored and you know how they are.” Lutie wondered why “they all had the idea that colored girls are whores.” In Lyme as in Harlem, others see in Lutie’s body a story over which she has no control.

Despite her circumstances, Lutie idealized the Chandlers, seeing them as mentors. Mrs. Chandler would give Lutie the glossy magazines and books she herself hadn’t read, and Lutie couldn’t believe her luck. “It was almost like getting a college education free of charge,” she reflected. She would listen to Mr. Chandler and his friends talk about “finding” money as if their professional lives amounted to elaborate treasure hunts. “Richest damn country in the world,” she overheard them say. “Anyone can do it.” She began to internalize their “belief that anybody could be rich if he wanted to and worked hard enough and figured it out carefully enough.” Somehow, she was unable to see that life at the Chandler home was bereft of joy and replete with treachery. When Mr. Chandler’s brother committed suicide on Christmas Day by shooting himself in the head, Lutie was moved only by the way the Chandlers used their money to transform his death into “an accident with a gun” for public record. To her, the suicide was not a tragedy but a triumph of wealth, more evidence of the Chandlers’ power and success. Throughout the book, Lutie is consistently a poor reader of signs.

Lutie’s obsession with the Chandlers pulled her farther away from her family in Jamaica. Her husband turned to another woman for help in soothing his bruised masculinity while Lutie started over again with Bub. She moved in with her father, another black man who has been brutalized by racism, and his dissolute girlfriend. It took her years, but Lutie worked days and studied at night until she passed a civil service exam that enabled her to leave her father’s home and seek shelter for herself and Bub. But on 116th Street a new set of battles await her, including a pathological super and a predatory neighbor, Mrs. Hedges, who is a madam and, like the Chandlers, sees in Lutie a potential prostitute.

“Hundreds of colored people! I wanted to shake hands with them, speak to them,” Langston Hughes recounted of his first trip to Harlem as a young man in the 1920s in his autobiography, The Big Sea. “Harlem! I stood there, dropped my bags, took a deep breath and felt happy again.” But like the rest of the country, Harlem was devastated by the Depression. The area that Hughes had called “the greatest Negro city in the world” had become, according to Ann Petry in “Harlem” (an essay included in the Library of America volume), “an anachronism–shameful and unjustifiable, set down in the heart of the biggest, richest city in the world.” By the time Lutie begins her life there, the thousand faces of storied Harlem have merged into “the face of the ghetto.”

Despite her grim surroundings, Lutie remains optimistic; she clings to the American dream of success as the inevitable, guaranteed reward for ingenuity and hard work. She compares herself to Ben Franklin. Carrying home bread from the market one day, she reflects on the story of Ben Franklin giving away his extra loaves of bread. She reminds herself that she is in present-day Harlem and not the Philadelphia of Franklin’s era, but “she couldn’t get rid of the feeling of self-confidence and she went on thinking that if Ben Franklin could live on a little bit of money and could prosper, then so could she.” Minutes later, she sees Bub shining shoes on the street and she slaps him across the face. “I’m working to look after you and you out here in the streets shining shoes just like the rest of the little niggers,” she tells him to explain her rage. But poor Bub was just trying to please his mother, whose unceasing financial worries have left him feeling guilty and helpless.

Lutie knows that Bub hasn’t done anything wrong, but she can’t summon the words to comfort and reassure him. She can’t tell him about her fear that he will wind up like his father or, at best, find himself consigned to a life of menial labor. She can’t tell him about the shame, frustration, and fear that well up inside her when she juxtaposes the images of her former ward, Henry Chandler, in the big warm library of his glamorous home against the kneeling figure of her son shining shoes in Harlem. Poverty has undermined her ability to speak freely with her son; it has compromised her capacity for joy; it has robbed her of the language of love.

The word love appears only a handful of times in the four hundred–plus-page novel. It is never said kindly, and is not once uttered by Lutie, though it is spoken insincerely by Boots, a man who tries to rape her. Yet The Street is about love. Love is inscribed in everything Lutie does, all the sacrifices she makes in order to ensure that her son has the kind of future promised by the mythology of equal opportunity as it shapes everyday life in the richest damn country in the world.

Not surprisingly, Lutie sometimes wearies of her relentless march forward. Once she splurges on a beer at a local bar, Junto’s Bar and Grill. The place is a neighborhood sanctuary, full of “the sound of laughter, the hum of talk.” Junto’s is a refuge for men and women like Lutie who “couldn’t bear to spend an evening alone in some small dark room.” In a stunning and singularly peaceful moment in the book, Lutie lets down her guard and starts to sing along with the jukebox. Patrons stop and stare. “Her voice had a thin thread of sadness running through it that made the song important, that made it tell a story that wasn’t in the words–a story of despair, of loneliness, of frustration.” Lutie’s soulful notes tell the story of their own lives. In this delicate moment she has found a community for the first time in the book.

If this were an American story, Lutie’s life would begin that night. The spotlight would shine and she would be discovered and glide easily toward fame and fortune on the magic carpet of her tragic but tender success story. But this is not an American story as much as it is a story about America, specifically about what it means to be a relatively ordinary African American woman in 1940s Harlem, a poor black city in the richest damn country in the world. At this particular moment in this novel about America, a white man is, in fact, watching–Junto himself. He hears in Lutie’s tender voice a way to turn a profit and enlists her would-be rapist, Boots, in a plot to exploit Lutie sexually. The ghost of Ben Franklin mocks: “Junto” is the name of a social club formed by Franklin in the 1700s.

Lutie never compromises with her self-respect–though at great cost. There are no victors in The Street, but there are losers, among them Bub. At the end of the book, Lutie wonders about everything that has happened on 116th Street. My students and I wonder, too. What went wrong? Was Lutie doomed from the start? She seems to think so at the end of the book, when she finally begins to reflect on the cycle of despair that has her ensnared. But as a student of mine once said, if we accept the inevitability of Lutie’s helplessness in the face of racism and sexism, then what are we really accepting? As a black woman myself, I certainly do not want to accept Lutie’s certain defeat.

“In The Street my aim is to show how simply and easily the environment can change the course of a person’s life,” Petry told The Crisis magazine in 1946. Racism and sexism play an enormous role in wrecking the life Lutie spends the novel trying to build. So does poverty. Above all, Lutie decides, “It was that god-damned street.” Whatever the cause of the disasters that befall Lutie Johnson, it is clear that she fails to see the warning signs until it is too late.

All Cats Are Gray in the Dark

The Street has been underestimated as a female counterpart to Richard Wright’s 1940 novel Native Son, another work about the deleterious effect of white supremacy and poverty on black consciousness. Like The Street, Native Son is a story about a place and time: the South Side of Chicago in the 1930s. Similar to The Street, Native Son captures the plain brutality of black urban life and the fatal hypocrisies of wealthy white people. But plenty of books do these things, and Petry resented the comparison of her book to Wright’s. “I have never been a ‘conscious (or unconscious) exponent’ of Richard Wright’s ‘realism,’” she once explained. “And to describe me as ‘a female Richard Wright’ is to label me as a copycat female incapable of creating a body of work on my own–it diminishes me as a writer, belittles me.”

Petry had no interest in imitating anyone, even herself. “I always want to do something different from what I have done before; I don’t want to repeat myself.” Her 1953 novel is, in many ways, a complete departure from The Street. It is a New England novel, set in the fictional town of Monmouth, Connecticut. Petry knew Connecticut well. Her father opened a pharmacy in Old Saybrook in 1902; he expected his daughter to follow in his footsteps. New England provided refuge for her when she needed it; she sought shelter there once the spotlight found her in Harlem. But Petry never saw herself as a New Englander. Her ancestors had lived in the region for generations, but she had endured too much violence as a girl for being “the wrong color, in the wrong place, at the wrong time” to enable her to view New England as her own.

There is a “Harlem” in Monmouth, and it contains another street with which Petry’s characters must contend. Dumble Street was “a street so famous, or infamous, that the people who lived in Monmouth rarely even referred to it, or the streets near it, by name; it had become an area, a section, known variously as The Narrows, Eye of the Needle, The Bottom, Little Harlem, Dark Town, Niggertown–because Negroes had replaced those other earlier immigrants, the Irish, the Italians, and the Poles.” The scope of The Narrows is even more ambitious than that of The Street. Petry indicates that the meaning of her story will have application far beyond Connecticut through her epigraph, a passage from Shakespeare’s Henry V, which includes a reference to “a river at Monmouth; it is called Wye at Monmouth.”

The Narrows is not a work of social realism or literary naturalism. Of The Street, Petry said: “I tried to write a story that moves swiftly so that it would hold the attention of people who might ordinarily shy away from a so-called problem novel.” But she had a different ambition for The Narrows. Sentences in the novel wind freely, and readers are given ample time to spend in the interior world of its richly drawn characters. The sentences, like the world they capture, are not crowded. Similarly, many characters in the novel have space and time for joy, humor, sex, love, and heartbreak. But this novel is not without a message. “It seems to me that all truly great art is propaganda, whether it be the Sistine Chapel, or La Gioconda, Madame Bovary, or War and Peace,” Petry writes in “The Novel as Social Criticism,” an essay that appears in the Library of America volume. “The moment the novelist begins to show how society affected the lives of his characters, how they were formed and shaped by the sprawling inchoate world in which they lived, he is writing a novel of social criticism whether he calls it that or not.” Whether it is defined as a work of social criticism or simply as a novel, The Narrows tells a gripping tale of a community in crisis.

If The Street begins with a mother who is unable to read the signs stretching out ahead of her, The Narrows begins with a mother who does her best not to see what is right in front of her. The element in her line of sight is not wind but water, namely the River Wye. She is trying not to look because the river reminds her of Link Williams, the child she adopted (now a young man), whose existence she once forgot about for three whole months.

Abbie Crunch was always an ambivalent mother. It was her husband who wanted Link from the beginning; she agreed to the adoption in order to please him. In The Narrows, as in The Street, marriage and motherhood seem incompatible. For Abbie’s maternal neglect is occasioned by her love for her husband, and the grief that overwhelmed her upon his sudden death. Link, who had worshipped her, even dreamed of marrying her, finds solace in a local bar, the Last Chance, in the company of two surrogate father figures, black men who nourish his body and mind.

Abbie is seventy years old when we meet her. She has been under surveillance all those years–self-surveillance. Her self-consciousness is a consequence of sex as much as race. “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves,” the novelist and critic John Berger writes in Ways of Seeing. Abbie is the embodiment of black “double-consciousness,” defined by W. E. B. Du Bois in 1902 as the “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” Abbie has composed an entire persona around refuting racial stereotypes. When he was a boy, she tried to instill the same self-consciousness in Link. “Abbie kept telling him all the things he could, and could not, do because of The Race. You had to be polite; you had to be punctual; you couldn’t wear bright-colored clothes, or loud-colored socks; and even certain food was forbidden.” Eight-year-old Link shrinks under the weight of all these rules. “The way she explained it made him feel as though he were carrying The Race around with him all the time.” It is only at the Last Chance that Link finds he can shrug off the racial shame that Abbie had taught him. Never much of a mother to Link, Abbie gives him permission to live at the Last Chance permanently.

The Narrows belongs to all its characters, but the pivotal action turns on a chance meeting between a grown-up Link and a wealthy young white woman he knows as Camilo. Petry has described the characters in her adult novels as “the walking wounded.” In The Street, characters such as the superintendent, Boots, and Mrs. Hedges carry the psychological and emotional scars of their lives on their skin. The Narrows also introduces readers to extraordinary-looking bodies. Mamie Powther, a relatively minor character, stops other characters in their tracks with her quivering bosom and “soft brown flesh.” A local photographer compares Link to a Greek god. Link has a profile like John Barrymore’s and Camilo has legs like Marlene Dietrich’s. Beneath their Hollywood facades, however, Link and Camilo are two deeply flawed human beings who literally collide one night.

Camilo is a damsel in distress when she runs into Link on a dock in the black section of town. She is being chased by Cat Jimmie, a disabled, broken war veteran, an “obscene remnant of a man” with “eyes straight out of a nightmare.” Cat Jimmie wheels around on a homemade cart, terrorizing women by trying to look up their skirts. He is an anomaly in otherwise placid, predictable Monmouth, but he embodies a wild, reckless rage that hints of the action to come. Cat Jimmie is a signature character in the Petry canon, a predator who violates women with his eyes.

Because of a thick fog that saturates the dock that night, Camilo can’t see Cat Jimmie properly. The sounds he makes are inhuman; she thinks she is being chased by an animal. After Link rescues her, Camilo can’t stop talking about the fog. It has had a remarkable effect, both blinding and enlightening her. The fog propelled her into the arms of a stranger–a black man. She explains to Link: “In the fog, when I couldn’t see, I clutched at you, because all I had to go on was the sound of your voice and the feel of your arm, the long smooth muscle in the forearm, a man’s arm, hardfleshed, a man’s hand, strong, warm, the skin smooth. Yet the hand and arm belonged to a colored man.”

The fog has impaired Link’s vision, as well. At first, he assumes that Camilo is a light-skinned black woman, a prostitute. He treats her roughly, telling her, “I’m not buying any tonight… . Beat it.” It is only when Link takes Camilo to a bar so she can calm her nerves with a drink that he starts to think she might be white. Still, he has doubts. “Was she or wasn’t she?” Camilo’s straight hair reminds him of Abbie’s. Regardless, Link finds her sexually desirable. “All cats are gray in the dark,” he shrugs. He falls in love quickly, but a love for a person you cannot see must be qualified at best.

“Regarding only what is below the Girdle,” wrote Ben Franklin in 1745 in “Advice to a Friend on Choosing a Mistress,” a piece that is sometimes known as “A Letter on Marriage,” “it is impossible of two Women to know an old from a young one. And as in the dark all Cats are grey.” In The Street, Lutie Johnson uses Ben Franklin as a model of thrift and diligence. For Link, Franklin is a model of sexual attitudes. Link is not a predator; he is not Cat Jimmie. But his gaze reduces and distorts Camilo: “He thought he had never seen one quite so beautifully put together–like a swimmer or a racehorse or an airplane, all the essential parts in the exact right place.”

Link desires and resents Camilo; the dynamic never shifts. He drives her car too fast, and she tells him to turn around and take her home. Because her tone strikes him as imperious he keeps driving. When she shows fear, Link imagines that it’s due to her fantasy that he is going to rape her. He stokes her fear. Link thinks he has Camilo pegged, but he doesn’t even ask her name. When he bothers to ask, she tells him that her name is Camilo Williams. This is a lie. Link will discover that Camilo is really Camilla Treathway, heiress to a fortune built on gun manufacturing. He will also eventually find out that she is married.

In the meantime, before the truth is revealed, the two of them cling to each other passionately. For the most part, their love affair proceeds effortlessly and idyllically in a hotel in Harlem. At home in the Narrows, however, nearly every encounter turns rancid with violence. She curses him. He slaps her. She tries to bite him. He fantasizes about slapping her to death. She calls him a black bastard. He calls her a white bitch. She says she can’t live without him. There is nowhere for this love-hate affair to go but south. Link, already damaged from his childhood abandonment by Abbie, leans into danger when it comes for him. Abbie ultimately understands her own role in the novel’s tragic outcome: “It was all of us, in one way or another, we all had a hand in it, we all reacted violently to those two people, to Link and that girl, because he was colored and she was white.”

In a tender moment between Camilo and Link, before rage and violence take them over, the couple pauses to watch Cesar the Writing Man, the neighborhood prophet and scribe, as he writes something on the sidewalk. Camilo reads it aloud: “Is there anything whereof it may be said, See, this is new? It hath been already of old time, which was before us. Ecclesiastes I:10.” When she asks Link what this means, he supposes that Cesar “may have been telling you or anyone else that no matter what your troubles or your worries or your pleasures or your delights may be, other people have experienced the same thing before and will again.”

American racism is an old and powerful story, and characters in The Street and The Narrows struggle to make lives within its grip. In both novels, racism is systemic injustice that endures in the material as well as the ideological scaffolding of American society. Petry writes about these injustices and the devastating impact of racial resentment on both black and white minds. But The Street and The Narrows are mainly about human beings, and the messes we sometimes make of our own lives, whether because of what we fail to see in front of us or what we actively refuse to acknowledge. In The Narrows, there is always a choice, and redemption is one revelation away. Even in the desperate, parasitical world of The Street, moments of life-saving kindness can be found.

The earth belongs to the wind and the water, but our lives belong to us. Racism and sexism are systemic, but people make up systems. The environment shapes the way we begin, but it doesn’t have to dictate who we become.

EMILY BERNARD is the Julian Lindsay Green and Gold Professor of English at the University of Vermont and the author of a new collection of essays, Black is the Body; Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine. She received her BA and Ph.D. in American studies from Yale.


image: Ann Petry, photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1948, from the Carl Van Vechten Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library