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