THE STREET by Ann Petry (Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club) June 2014

Please join Justine Larbalestier and myself today, and any day, in discussing women’s bestselling fiction from the 20th century, our ongoing 2014 project.

From the Houghton Mifflin 1991 edition:

THE STREET tells the poignant, often heartbreaking story of Lutie Johnson, a young black woman, and her spirited struggle to raise her son amid the violence, poverty, and racial dissonance of Harlem in the late 1940s. Originally published in 1946 and hailed by critics as a masterwork, The Street was Ann Petry’s first novel, a beloved bestseller with more than a million copies in print. Its haunting tale still resonates today.

As always, this post is strung together from our email exchanges.


JL: I’m finding The Street extraordinary. After really struggling to get into it—that opening—if I were the editor I totally would have cut it. But it’s so depressing and that’s slowed me getting through it. I fear how it ends. I want so much for things to work out for Lutie and her son, Bub but I really don’t think they’re going to.getting through it. I fear how it ends. I want so much for things to work out for her and her kid . . .

KE: I also found The Street extraordinary, with powerful writing and stark, effective characterization but OMG SO DEPRESSING. And yet that it is hard to read is the whole point. Oh, and I disagree with you about the opening. It drew me in as it set the stage.

JL: Usually I avoid depressing books. The Street is the most matter of fact writing about sexual harassment and sexual predation I’ve read from that period. I was really stunned by it. I see people tweeting similar things every day. But Petry was writing this in the 1940s. I wanted to hug her. Her book is such a refreshing change from the whiter-than-white books we’ve been reading to see race not just discussed but there on every single page.

It’s also the most explicitly angry of the novels we’ve read. Such rage. Such justified rage. What I love though is that the reader understands even the vilest characters, like the nightclub dude, Boots Smith, and the Supe and the madame, Mrs Hedges. The most terrifying, vile presence for me was the omnipresent white guy, Junto, who was so creepy so awful so powerful. I felt unclean every time he was mentioned. Yet, he was rarely in any scenes, rarely said anything yet he controlled everything. He was like the living embodiment of white supremacy.

KE: One of my preconceptions that has been blown apart by reading these novels has been that no one talked about sex in any way shape or form, and I wonder why I had that preconception: Perhaps because of tv and film’s more stringent code? I’m not sure. All the books have dealt with sexual misconduct, sexual taboos, sexual harassment, and sexual violence, and I agree with you that Petry really displays how ugly sexual predation is for the women who are preyed upon and doubly so for Lutie because she is a black woman. It’s relentless. Again, I’m amazed this was published in 1946. But that says much more about my preconceptions than anything else.

JL: Maybe I’ve read more from the period but I was not as surprised as you. However, I found it unbelieveably refreshing to see so many things: misogny, racism, sexism, up front and central on the page. No hinting, no pussy footing around, The Street made me realise what had been driving me crazy about the previous books we’ve read for this bookclub. Those white women are so blind to their own oppression and to the way they oppress others.

KE: Yes — it’s so stark and right there on the page. What is most striking to me is how it shows up the other three books we’ve so far read as . . . I don’t know . . . as glib. I love Valley of the Dolls, but somehow all the difficult issues get coated in a sheen of breathless entertainment. Petry never goes for that; she doesn’t see people’s misery and tragedy as entertainment. She makes the reader look at the devastation racism and sexism wreak in people’s lives. There’s nothing actually “entertaining” about it.

JL: Yes, The Street wasn’t entertaining. It made me realise how rarely I read books like this. I veer away from unrelenting, painful reads.

KE: Yes, me too. Then I felt ashamed for veering. In all honesty when I read about unrelenting and painful things I read non-fiction. Somehow in fiction — perhaps because the writer is really drawing you in emotionally using (perhaps) different techniques from non fiction — it gets so very raw, and Petry really really makes this raw. She does not let the reader look away or gloss over anything.

JL: You’re so right about non-fiction. This kind of bleakness, of genuine dystopia, is, for me, more what I read in non-fiction and mostly avoid in fiction. It’s not about happy/not happy ending. Pretty much none of the books we’ve read have had happy endings. But none of them have been so grim and unrelenting as this book. As you say, they’ve all been shiny and safe, by which I mean not too confronting.

Implicit in everything we’re saying is that our lives are not this bleak. Reading The Street sometimes I felt like a voyeur, like I shouldn’t be reading this book. It was not intended for me. Whereas all the other books we’ve been reading are squarely aimed at white middle-class women like myself.

I can’t imagine what it would have felt like for an African-American woman to be reading it when it came out in the late 40s. I’ve been poking around online trying to find out more about the reception at the time and not turning up much. But it must have been tremendous for it to have sold more than a million copies and for The Street to still be in print today.

I’m not going to lie, this book made me weep on several occasions, and the ending is absolutely devastating. It’s been days now since I finished and I still can’t bring myself to pick up another novel.

KE: Yes, to all this. I should also say that the fact I never read this novel or heard of it until this year says everything about how literature written by African-Americans has been placed into a separate category rather than being part of American Literature where it belongs because it IS fully part of the American experience that everyone should know.

As I was reading–and it is a difficult, emotionally harrowing read–I would sometimes reflect on conversations within SFF about “grimdark” and realism, and I can’t help but compare the glib violence of supposed grimdark realism with The Street, which is as real as it gets.

The way Petry peels away Lutie’s efforts to build a decent life for herself, the slow steady way the story erodes her hope, is devastating. I keep coming back to that scene where a man is lying dead on the sidewalk (and the detail Petry goes into just describing his shoes and what his shoes say about his life!) and the police bring a girl forward to identify him (the “burly Negro” episode where the journalist describes a starvingly thin man as a “burly Negro” in his story).

Lutie didn’t look at the man’s face. Instead she looked at the girl and she saw something–some emotion that she couldn’t name–flicker in the girl’s face. It was as thought for a fraction of a second something–hate or sorrow or surprise–had moved inside her and been reflected on her face. As quickly as it came, it was gone and it was replaced by a look of resignation, or complete acceptance. It was an expression that said the girl hoped for no more than this from life because other things that had happened to her had paved the way so that she had lost the ability to protest against anything–even death suddenly like this in the spring.

This is what good writing does: it encapsulate truth in a paragraph. This entire novel is the paving of that way for Lutie.

JL: Yes. That’s a perfect moment of oh so many in this book. Petry is a great writer. And a stark reminder to those of who are not African American that what happened to Trayvon Martin, had happened many, many times before: a slight black boy turned into a burly monster by the lies of the police and the media and the result is that a white man gets away with murder.

Having recently read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ brilliant essay on reparations it’s really not hard to see all of that playing out in Petry’s brilliant book.

KE: For me it was Isabel Wilkerson’s THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS, about the migration of African Americans from the South to the North across the 20th century, that really brought it home, and I agree that Petry unflinchingly describes the systemic injustice.

JL: Yes, and Wilkerson’s book was a huge influence on Coates. I couldn’t help thinking also about Slavery By Another Name. Basically about everything I’ve ever read about systemic racism in the USA after the abolition of slavery.

KE: Yes, Slavery By Another Name is another important example, and I would recommend everyone read these books.

KE: Petry spends time in many different heads, not just Lutie. We see Bub, the Super, Min, and so on, and even with an awful man like the Supe I feel she genuinely does him justice so you can see the humanity in him even as you hate him. His thought processes make sense, and they feel real. She reaches out so that the reader can see more fully “the street” that Lutie has to walk down.

JL: Yes, as I said above, she lets us into all of them so we can’t just dismiss them as evil. Because everything that happens to Lutie is not merely about meeting the wrong people, making wrong decisions, it’s about systemic racism, misogyny and sexism and the way the not only destroy her but also everyone around her.

KE: Can we discuss Lutie herself? So heartbreaking, this story. All she wants is to make a decent, independent life. She is a decent, smart, hard-working person. She does everything right but it is denied to her; it doesn’t matter, there’s nothing she could have done to make it work. Her sense of self and her desire to live with dignity are continually assaulted, and yet she works so hard to maintain them.

This is also a classic explication of intersectionality. She gets all the prejudice against being black, all the prejudice against being a woman, and then it is rolled together because she is a black woman and I really felt there was no harbor for her, no place where she could find protection or immunity, as it were.

JL: Lutie also gets the whole shit storm of being a gorgeous black woman, which makes her problems in some ways even worse because she does not have Min’s refuge of invisibility. It marks her as someone Junto wants to turn into a high-earning prostitute who will make him a lot of money but only after he’s had her himself.

After the other bestselling novels we’ve read The Street is like having a bucket of ice cold water thrown in your face. I’d like to make everyone read it. Especially those who believe that racism ended in the USA after 1865.

KE: Or after The Civil Rights Movement. Indeed.

Thank you for joining us, and PLEASE continue the discussion in the comments below.

July’s book: Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt.

May Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club: Peyton Place

I’m just copying this post from Justine’s blog because I am the laziest of lazy things today:

The Bestselling Women’s Fiction Bookclub continues apace. This month we’ll be reading Petyon Place by Grace Metalious (1956). That’s right it’ll be a big ole dose of saucy New England.

When: Monday 26 May at 10pm on the east coast of the USA, Tuesday 27 May at noon on the east coast of Australia.

The discussion will take place ON JUSTINE’S blog, where you will be able to check in at any time, and we’ll also be chatting on Twitterwith the hashtag #BWFBC

THOSE TIMES AGAIN: Tues noon Eastern Standard Oz Time/ Monday 10 pm ET (USA)/ 7 pm PT (USA)/ 4 pm Hawaii Time. 26 May in Australia, 27 May in the USA.

We’re looking forward to hearing what you think of Peyton Place.

Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club: The Best of Everything (Rona Jaffe)

The Best of Everything, by Rona Jaffe, published in 1958 and set in the early 50s in New York City. The story centers around the lives of five young women who meet when they are all working in the publishing industry and what happens to them then.

KATE: Well. I did not enjoy The Best of Everything. Some parts worked for me, but others I ended up skimming, including a great deal of the relationship stuff because it bored me. I was most interested in the details of working in NYC in the 50s as a young woman, and in the ways the life depicted in the novel might be similar to and different from how it is today. Had there been more about that I would have gotten into the book more.

JUSTINE: I loved all the bits about the working life and would also love there to have been far more of them. But the glimpses we get are awesome and feel so very real. (Down to the casual offers of books to visitors. I remember my own amazement when I first visited publishers’ offices that they would give me so many books.) I really enjoyed Caroline Bender getting one over on Miss Farrow at Publisher’s Weekly by sending in the announcement of her promotion to Reader that Miss Farrow had deliberately left out so that it winds up being printed on its own and not being lost in the longer list of Fabian promotions. Booyah, Caroline, booyah! I loved that back then there was a job title, Reader, in publishing. (In Australia there’s a job title, Reader, at some universities but I’m not sure how many are left. It’s definitely on it’s way out. When I was little I really wanted to be a Reader. I figured you just sat around all day reading, which sounded perfect.)

On this reread I was even more taken by just how vivid the portrayal of workplace harassment is. Her bosses are absolutely vile. That scene where Barbara Lemont is letched upon by Mr Shalimar ending with him drunkenly crawling under the table to check out her legs. Aargh.

KATE: That is one of the standout scenes. Mr. Shalimar is consistently awful but in a way I found believable. I have to wonder if it is based on a real incident.

JUSTINE: Given that the whole book is closely based on Rona Jaffe’s own experiences working in publishing in NYC you’ve got to think it is. I loved that we get to see the fallout of Shalimar public sexual assault. From Barbara’s stoic endurance, knowing there’s not a whole lot she can do about it, through to the repercussions for Shalimar. Because he got so drunk and so blatantly and embarassingly assaulted her at the office Christmas party in full view of everyone he loses face and some of his authority. They laugh at him. After the Christmas party every woman he’s groped starts telling her story and Shalimar is now viewed as the pathetic loser office letch. His superior is clearly anxious that he might have to fire Shalimar.

But, of course, he isn’t fired. Given that his boss, Mr Bossart, picks out his girlfriends from his staff that was never going to happen.

KATE: I have been thinking about why I loved Valley of the Dolls while TBoE left me cold. Part of it is the train wreck quality of VotD; you cannot look away as everything inexorably falls apart. But ultimately I found VotD more emotional and gripping and vivid. Once too often in TBoE the characterization and/or narrative felt too glib, too easy, too sentimental, too pat, and even too moralizing.

JUSTINE: Valley of the Dolls is way over the top. Way, way, way over the top. It’s a technicolour novel. And I love it. But I love, too, the relative calm of TBoE. The relationship stuff in TBoE does not bore me. I cared about all the characters. Especially Caroline. And I found the way they are all steamrolled by the culture that says they must find a man, they must get married, they must not be ambitious or too into their work painful rather than boring. None of them escape. And the only “happy” endings proferred are quitting your job and getting married, or running away with a movie star to Vegas. Um. No, thanks. It was triply saddening realising that not that much has changed almost ten years later when VotD is published. Though at least TBoE offers slight hope that their lives might improve. VotD is even bleaker.

KATE: The men almost without exception are awful, dull, creepy, and/or self absorbed. Possibly Sidney Carter (is that his name? the one who marries Barbara Lemont) came across as a decent fellow but even there it seemed almost too easy for them. Mostly I found the main woman characters boring and frustrating with the exception of Caroline. They are living in NYC yet they did so little except revolve their lives around men.

JUSTINE: All the men are vile. Yes, Sidney Carter is the least vile but even so. I’m not a fan. The whole system is set up so that everything men find interesting about women when they get together is stripped away from them after they marry—especially their work—so they then lose interest in their wives and go out and have affairs with women who are mostly looking to get married. It’s a pretty stupid system dooming almost any chance of happiness.

One of the things I like so much about TBoE is the way the omniscient narrator allows us to see the absolute gulf between the men and the women. When Caroline decides not to be Eddie’s mistress we, finally, get to see his side of things and it’s clear within a few paragraphs that he has no idea who Caroline is. She’s just someone he’s made up. And he, of course, bears no relationship to the man Caroline has fallen in love with. And it is in Eddie’s weak, conservative little mind that the novel ends. Chillingly depressing.

KATE: Yes, indeed. I agree that the gulf between the men and women is well drawn, to the degree that I found it increasingly difficult to read. Perhaps in a sense it is a more depressing book than VotD in that women are really not allowed autonomy or ambition. As self destructive and narcissistic as Neely is in VotD, she does obtain success (even though we, as the readers, knows it will all come crashing down again sooner rather than later), and it is understood by everyone that she would want to be a star and that she has the qualities of a star.

JUSTINE: Though it’s interesting that even in the world of show business there’s the frequent implication that there’s something wrong with Neely and other big women stars because they’re not merely wives and mothers. It’s almost like they’re expected to fail at it because they’re stars. You cannot be both.

In TBoE the assumption is that for women marriage means no longer working. I very much enjoyed how much pleasure Caroline gets from her job, from editing:

“It has started out as a stopgap, but now it had become a way of life. It gave her a sense of value and belonging. Perhaps that, beside ability, was what made her so good at the job that could not now afford to lose her.”

It’s fascinating watching her struggle with knowing she’s not meant to enjoy work, not meant to be ambitious. That she’s supposed to put love first. But she’s seen what can happen when you do that: i.e. April and Gregg’s total self-abnegation in the face of their supposed love. Neither of them has the slightest clue about who the object of their affections actually is.

The disjunct between April’s thoughts about Dexter Key and the reality of him is, well, wow. Dexter reads like a psychopath with zero empathy and an all-encompassing obsession with his own pleasure and avoiding any possible inconvenience at all costs. Hmmm, now I can’t decide if he’s a psychopath or a narcissist. Can you be both?

KATE: I agree with your comments about Dexter’s portrayal (and Caroline’s ambition). I guess that one of the things that bothered me was that it felt almost too much like the other women’s stories were merely there to act as counters to Caroline’s–but in that sense, given that I think hers is the central story and has the most variety–it makes sense in a structural way.

JUSTINE: I love the way Jaffe describes New York City. Unlike Susann there were many elegiac descriptions of the city which rang true to this particular New Yorker. It’s eerie how her description of the midtown publishing area is pretty close to how it is now. TBoE had a much better sense of place than VotD

KATE: Yes, the descriptions of the city felt true to life, although I am not a New Yorker and have only visited a few times. They felt as if she had (as she did) really walk those streets in that fashion. In general the novel felt as if it described things she had herself witnessed and/or done in one way or another.

Having said that, it is an entirely white world. There aren’t even any Jews. I think one woman is mentioned as having “a colored maid.”

JUSTINE: It’s very very very white and very middle-class. Caroline’s mother is the one with a coloured maid. None of the other domestic staff’s race is mentioned. Caroline also imagines that her movie star will have a “sinister oriental houseboy.” That common signifier of debauchery in Hollywood movies. Ugh. In this regard TBoE reminded me of Mad Men, which reflects really poorly on Mad Men whose racial politics should be so much better given the more than fifty year gap between the two.

KATE: Given that it was set in 1952 I was surprised there were no references to World War II. It was as if the war had never happened, which jarred me.

JUSTINE: It’s mentioned: “Travel was a new experience for their generation those early years after the war” and “It was two years before the war broke out in Europe and were all very nervous and full of ideals and we used to talk each other to death.” As well as mention of characters who were in the army. The Korean War is also mentioned. I assumed that part of why Mike Rice is such a mess is because of his wartime experiences which he won’t discuss. There’s a brittle quality to many of the older male characters that I read as PTSD.

(I admit I bristle a little at this particular criticism because it’s often said of Jane Austen’s novels.)

KATE: Hmm. I’m not sure I meant that as a criticism; it was more of an observation. It seemed curious to me that it wasn’t more of a part of people’s lives but I only say that because the war was so omnipresent in my childhood even though it happened long before I was born. But I take your point about Austen.

JUSTINE: Once again, like VofD there is much mention of gay men. They are referred to mostly as “fairies” but the vilest of the young men, Dexter Key, also uses the slur “faggot”. Because he would. Unlike VofD there were no references to lesbians or the possibility that women can fall in love. If there was I sure missed it and this is my second read of TBoE and I did not skim. I’d stake my life on this novel being populated only by heterosexual women. Alas.

KATE: Yes, the inclusion of references to lesbians and women falling in love with each other was the most unexpected element of VotD on my re-read. TBoE takes a more conventional route with its five women and their ultimate outcomes.

I want to add that your descriptions of why you like the book are very convincing and well thought out. I think that tonally it just didn’t work for me. Also I simply never warmed to April, Mary Agnes, and Gregg; Mary Agnes’s tale (for me) was dull although I think entirely plausible and accurate, and the other two I found unbearable because as individuals they seemed to have no scrap of self awareness.

JUSTINE: Thank you. Yeah, if you don’t like the characters or feel much sympathy for them it would make TBoE a tough read.

I know the book always gets billed as about five girls but I definitely don’t see Mary Agnes as one of the main characters. The book is about Caroline, April, Gregg and Barbara. They’re whose point of views you get, they get many more pages than poor Mary Agnes. Mary Agnes barely gets a look in, we don’t see her courtship, we see her fiance only after they’re married and only in the one scene, her pov is far more filtered by the omniscient pov than the other four. We never really see any of her inner thoughts as we do for the other girls. She’s the token girl who does exactly what she’s supposed to do: leave work, get married, have a baby, be happy.

There’s almost, but not quite a sneer, in Caroline’s view of her. I think she’s deliberately portrayed as boring. I also think there’s a class dimension. Mary Agnes is the one clearly working class character. She’s from the Bronx. She’s also not as pretty as the other girls. Frankly, I’m not sure if the condescending portrayal of Mary Agnes is coming from Caroline or from Rona Jaffe.

April and Gregg’s self-immolations really are painful to read. As I say above they’re what happens when the myth of romantic love goes horribly wrong. Though I’m not sure if “horribly wrong” is accurate. All of these girls have been led to believe that love is everything. That marriage is everything. Their actions are actually the logical extension of that. Love really has rendered them blind not to mention delusional and self-destructive. It’s awful.

Barbara’s romance with Sidney Carter is the only successful one because they’re the only two who are actually communicating with one another and actually seeing each other. There’s no disjunct in each other’s views of each other. There’s a friendship there, not just desire. He’s still twenty years older than her and a bit creepy but in the context of this book it’s the only equal non-delusional relationship.

My rose-coloured view of the end of the novel is that Caroline has realised that it’s all hooey, that she was being delusional about Eddie and he’s really just another Dexter Key only with better social skills. Everything is about his convenience. How could he possibly think Caroline would be happy quitting her job to be his mistress and filling in her time waiting around for him by being some old dude’s secretary? Ewww!

So Caroline’s, like, whatever. I love my job. This Hollywood movie star is witty and fun. I can party with him at night and and edit genius writers during the day. Eventually I’ll have my own imprint. I might marry and have kids. I might marry and not have kids. I might even not marry and have a kid. It’s my choice. And then thirty years from now I’ll make a motza selling my tell-all autobiography.

Please join in the comments with your own observations!


For (late) May our next book will be PEYTON PLACE by Grace Metalious