Female Rage in Harlem: Ann Petry’s ‘The Street’

If you ask a fan of American noir about classic crime fiction set in Harlem, they’ll likely recommend Chester Himes’s novel A Rage in Harlem (1957), the first in his series featuring the gleefully bent, hellraising detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. You may also hear about Rudolph Fisher’s The Conjure-man Dies: A Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem (1932), in which a physician and a NYPD detective team up to solve the murder of an African immigrant and Harvard graduate turned fortune-teller. Both of these books are by Black authors who also wrote literary fiction, social realist novels like Himes’s searing If He Hollers Let Him Go and social satire like Fisher’s The Walls of Jericho.

I’ve mentioned in this blog my fondness for the American realist fiction of the early to mid-20th century, which went out of vogue after the Second World War, giving way to more caustic social commentary like Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. A certain subset of crime novels maintained the social realist tradition, applying a dark filter by using social conditions to stand in for the fateful imperative of the noir universe that leads inevitably to the protagonist’s downfall. Arguably, Ann Petry’s Harlem novel The Street, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1946, is one of these—a literary novel with elements of classic noir, as well as a forerunner to the domestic noir popular today. The American novelist Tayari Jones, writing in The Guardian, called Petry ‘a pioneer of the literary thriller’, along with Patricia Highsmith. Petry herself, as she wrote in a 1950 essay, considered her books social commentary, ‘derived from the best known murder story in literature’—the biblical Cain and Abel—and posing the same discomfiting question: ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’

Ann Petry (born Anna Houston Lane in 1908) was raised in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, where her father owned a local pharmacy and her mother worked as a beautician and later as a licensed podiatrist. Theirs was one of four Black families in a picturesque but racist small town. Petry trained as a pharmacist and worked in the family business, but was writing all the while, sending out stories and receiving ‘enough rejection slips to paper any fair-sized room’, as she said in a 1948 piece in a craft magazine. She moved to Harlem with her husband, George David Petry, in 1938, soon after publishing her first story. While working as a newspaper editor, she continued to churn out short fiction, until she was contacted by an editor asking if she was working on a novel. The result was The Street, which would sell over a million copies, the first book by a Black American novelist to do so.

In a 1949 article about Harlem, Petry wrote that many viewed it as a ‘lawless, violent community, inhabited by just two kinds of people—the poor and the criminal.’ But it also contained a wealthy professional class, as well as creative royalty: the writers, poets, artists, performers and musicians that put it on America’s—and the world’s—cultural map. Petry, who covered Harlem society in her newspaper column, and got to know its working poor through her activism, was well acquainted with the contradictions of her adopted neighborhood. If Harlem was a paradox, it was one created in the pressure cooker of racism and economic exploitation: ‘an anachronism—shameful and unjustifiable, set down in the heart of the biggest, richest city in the world.’

The titular street of Petry’s novel is 116th Street, where the protagonist Lutie Johnson moves with her eight-year-old son, Bub, after leaving her unfaithful husband and quitting her job as a domestic worker for a white family. She doesn’t blame her ex for the unravelling of their marriage as much as she does the conditions of ‘the only job she could get,’ where she had to live with her employers and take care of their son, away from her own family for weeks at a time. Rather than stay with her hard-drinking father and his blowsy girlfriend, Lutie takes a tiny top floor rear apartment overlooking an airshaft in a walk-up building. Her neighbors include the building’s superintendent, a tall, gaunt man who terrorizes his dog and the woman who lives with him, and Mrs. Hedges, the occupant of the first floor front apartment, who keeps watch over the street with eyes ‘as still and as malignant as the eyes of a snake.’

Working in a steam laundry and studying for the civil service exam, Lutie finally lands a job as a file clerk. But despite her hard work and frugality, she can’t keep up with the bills, and her son notices the strain it causes. When he tries to help by shining shoes, she snaps and slaps him, upset that he is being conditioned for servitude, like the other boys on the street who ‘take it for granted they’ve got to sweep floors and mop stairs the rest of their lives.’ The exhausting rat race and grinding misery all around them wear her down, making her irritable and short with him. He is determined to find a way to help his mother and falls under the sway of the Super, who takes advantage of Bub’s innocence to employ him in a scheme that will lead to tragic consequences, causing Lutie’s worst fears to come true.

The racism and sexism of her world offer Lutie few choices: to return to a life of domestic servitude or to become a sexual commodity. That second threat is always present: in the hungry eyes of the lurking Super; in the appraising glance of Mrs. Hedges, who runs a brothel (protected by the local police precinct) from her apartment; in the predatory clutches of the white nightclub owner and racketeer who hears her sing and wants her for himself. Even as she thinks she is finally escaping the crucible of 116th Street, Lutie will learn that what looks like a way out is another trap. ‘If you live on this damn street, you’re supposed to want to earn a little extra money sleeping around nights.’ Lutie will refuse, and her act of resistance sets into motion a chain of events that will threaten everything she fought so hard to preserve.

Petry thought that the success of the best social realist novels lay in verisimilitude and in well-drawn characters who elicited empathy, leading the reader to think: ‘Yes, that is how it must have been.’ Lutie Johnson is ‘as real as one’s next-door-neighbor, predictable and yet unpredictable, lingering in the memory.’ And Petry’s depiction of Harlem in The Street poses a question that Americans are still asking themselves today: Am I my brother’s keeper? She writes: ‘In one way or another, the novelist who criticizes some undesirable phase of the status quo is saying that man is his brother’s keeper and that unless a social evil (war or racial prejudice or anti-Semitism or political corruption) is destroyed man cannot survive but will become what Cain feared he would become—a wanderer and a vagabond on the face of the earth.’

— post by Suzanne Solomon

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Down These Mean Streets

‘But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.’

— Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder

One of our readers expressed an interest in my literary zip code of America’s mean streets, crime fiction, which led to me to spinning the wire racks—er, electronic shelves—of the American Library to see what caught my eye. I’m partial to that particularly atmospheric corner of the genre called noir or hardboiled fiction, which sprung from the pages of pulp magazines in the 1930s and found its way into novels (mainly of the luridly illustrated paperback sort), which were then adapted for the screen in that indelible style called film noir, with its shadowy street corners, cynical fast-talking private eyes and treacherous femmes fatales.

Chandler wrote of the style he helped to originate in the The Simple Art of Murder, pinpointing the departure of American crime fiction from the posh country homes of English detective stories, with their ‘hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare and tropical fish’. He credits his contemporary, Dashiell Hammett, the creator of the iconic private detective Sam Spade, with giving ‘murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse’. Chandler called this style ‘the American language’ and I don’t disagree. Having long been a fan of the American realist fiction of that era, I think that’s what first drew me to noir: it always seemed to be about something else, just below the surface. Not the murder, but the reasons for it. Not the crime, but the consequences of it. These social conditions and criminal motivations may change over time, but noir as a genre has proven flexible enough to keep up with them. For example, Chandler’s vivid descriptions of Depression-era Los Angeles (a character in and of itself) retain the prejudices of his time, particularly the assumption that only straight white men get to stride heroically down noir’s mean streets to battle corruption and where the women are either deadly knockouts or dishwater drabs. This assumption discounts the fact that even then, a number of influential books in the genre were penned by women, authors like Dorothy B. Hughes (In a Lonely Place), Vera Caspary (Laura), Margaret Millar (Beast in View) and Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train).

There are a few of Chandler’s books in the American Library, but you can’t go wrong with The Big Sleep, the first of the Philip Marlowe series, in which the wealthy but decrepit General Sternwood hires Marlowe to investigate blackmail over the alleged gambling debts of his youngest daughter, when it’s the older daughter who will prove to be Marlowe’s toughest adversary. Chandler plants the seeds early on when he has Sternwood observe that neither he nor his daughters ‘has any more moral sense than a cat.’ The Big Sleep is arguably one of the first and most rewarding detours on the long road trip of the American detective novel, the intersection where it kicks its way out of the pages of formulaic mystery and into the streets. As Vivian Sternwood says to Marlowe when they meet: ‘So you’re a private detective … I didn’t really know they existed, except in books.’

–post by Suzanne Solomon

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Reading America VII

They say reading takes you places, and our ‘Reading America’ project is designed to do just that. Each Friday, we put out a short video recommending a book set in a particular American state. In this way, we hope you can get a feel for the different cultures and geographies that make up the United States of America. Here are five more books from across the USA that we really think you should ‘check out’.

THE OVERSTORY
State: Oregon
Read the E-book here

In “The Overstory”, Richard Powers tries to take on a unique artistic challenge, framing the narrative of his story around the structure of a tree. In Portland, Oregon, the book examines Mimi Ma’s conversion from corporate worker to environmental activist. “The Overstory” was awarded the 2019 Pulitzer Prize and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES
State: Indiana
Read the E-book here

‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ by Karen Joy Fowler is a novel about Rosemary, a young girl who has just gone off to college. Throughout the book, Rosemary slowly tells the reader about her familly, and their unhappiness, and her life growing up in Indiana. The book was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2014.

TALES OF MYSTERY AND IMAGINATION
State: Pennsylvania
Read the E-book here

Edgar Alan Poe is almost certainly America’s most famous horror writer. In many of the stories in ‘Tales of Mystery and Imagination’ one can see the influence of Philadelphia, where Poe lived while writing some of his most famous yarns, including ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, which is included in this collection.

IMAGINE ME GONE
State: Maine
Read the E-book here

“Imagine Me Gone” by Adam Haslett, examines the life of a family impacted by depression. Though the topic is a serious one, the book deals with it with compasion, beautiful prose, and even a touch of levity.

ENEMY WOMEN
State: Missouri
Read the E-book here

Set in Missouri during the Civil War, Paulette Jiles’ “Enemy Women” takes a look at one woman who was captured and imprisoned, and her subsequent escape, and journey to try to rebuild a home and family for herself.

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Amanda Gorman, 2021 U.S. Inaugural Poet

The inauguration of Joe Biden, the 46th President of the United States, on 20 January 2021, was historic in a few ways. One was its virtual nature, the physical absence of crowds, necessary because of the global pandemic. Another was the swearing in of America’s first female Vice President, Kamala Harris, who is also the first woman of color to be elected to the position. It was notable for another reason, too: Amanda Gorman, the sixth inaugural poet, brought down the house with an electric reading of her poem The Hill We Climb. Selected for the spot by First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, she follows in the footsteps of poets like Maya Angelou, Richard Blanco and Robert Frost. At 22, Gorman is the youngest person to receive the honor.

Gorman begins her poem by asking how, as a nation, we can overcome adversity, alluding to the challenges the country has experienced over the past few years: the bitter political divisions, the grievous losses caused by the pandemic, and the renewed struggle for civil rights and equality for all Americans. She answers her question by invoking a just pride in the country’s past, but reminds us how that past inevitably shapes the promise of our future:

If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made.

That is the promised glade, the hill we climb, if only we dare.

It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit.

It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.

You can hear Gorman’s inaugural reading of The Hill We Climb here.*

Gorman, who, as is customary, composed the work for the inauguration (in poetry speak, this is known as an ‘occasional poem’), had a little over a month in which to write it. She sought inspiration in the work of her predecessors, as well as in speeches by Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Winston Churchill. The young poet was not a novice, however. She served as the first National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017, when she read her work at the Library of Congress at the inaugural ceremony for U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith.

Gorman grew up in Los Angeles, where her mother is a middle school teacher, with her twin sister, Gabrielle. She was an avid reader and fell in love with poetry at a young age. As she said in a 2018 TED talk to students in New York City: ‘Poetry is interesting because not everyone is going to become a great poet, but anyone can be, and anyone can enjoy poetry, and it’s this openness, this accessibility of poetry that makes it the language of people.’ Gorman graduated cum laude from Harvard University in 2020, and along the way has received a number of awards and honors, including the Poets & Writers Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award. She was also a 2020 Writer-in-Residence at our ‘sister’ American Library in Paris. 

Gorman’s poem is emblematic of spoken word poetry, with its rousing repetition and incantatory passages. Spoken word, as scholar Kathleen M. Alley has written, has its origins in ‘oral traditions and performance’ and is ‘characterized by rhyme, repetition, word play and improvisation’. Which brings me to another notable fact: like President Biden, Gorman has a speech impediment, which she overcame in part by writing poetry and reading her work aloud. ‘I don’t look at my disability as a weakness,’ Gorman told the Los Angeles Times. ‘It’s made me the performer that I am and the storyteller that I strive to be.’ 

This young American poet inspires for any number of reasons: her talent, her drive, her sense of style, her bravura performance, her confidence. But any writer’s measure of success ultimately lies in the work, in the words she crafts, and by that measure, Gorman succeeds brilliantly. ‘A poem should arise to ecstasy, somewhere between speech and song,’ wrote poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a long-time champion of spoken word, who died in San Francisco this week. Amanda Gorman’s poem soars over that bar, moving this writer to tears and hope for a future in which Americans ‘will rebuild, reconcile, and recover’:

For there is always light,

if only we’re brave enough to see it.

If only we’re brave enough to be it.

Gorman’s poetry collection, The Hill We Climb, will be published by Penguin Random House in September, along with her children’s book, Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem.

*I was advised by a Researcher and Reference Services librarian at the Library of Congress that the poem is protected by copyright, so the text is not reproduced here in full. 

 — post by Suzanne Solomon

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