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the street (100 top novels — 3)

Ann Petry’s 1946 novel, The Street, is a protest novel—muckraking at its best, with race and racial equity at its heart. Petry uses the “street” as environment, breeding ground, cage, and one of the most important characters of the book. The particular street she uses is an unnamed block of 116th Street in Harlem. It is chaotic, bustling, and loud, full of life and thievery and cruelty, just like almost any block in any large urban area in the U.S.

This particular block’s location also means it is a street filled with people of color; almost every character, even incidental ones, are African-American. But, one of the great things about this book is the way skin color is not mentioned. The skin color of new characters is not noted unless it is something other than what we call “black”—something I didn’t even notice until I observed that the picture in my mind of one character was of a white man; 20 pages later, I realized he must be black. Because Petry didn’t call my attention to the character’s skin color, I was able to acknowledge and critique another layer of my internal assumptions about race.

The novel’s main human protagonist is Lutie Johnson. She is troubled, in-trouble, and struggling to keep herself and her eight-year-old son away from harm, trying to live with respect and dignity. She works very hard, scrimping and saving for the chance to move to a better place. The systematic oppression she faces from whites, black men, black women, and the very institutions that are supposed to protect and assist shuts the door on every opportunity to lift herself out of working poverty—unless she’s willing to sell her beauty and body.

What truly sets this book apart from other protest fiction is that Petry explores some of the interiority of Lutie’s oppressors. We get a sense of the motivations of the madam that frequently offers Lutie a chance to spend time with a “nice white gentleman,” if she needs a little extra cash. The madam is a powerful and intelligent woman; but her attempt to resist her own exploitation by exploiting women with less opportunity than her is turned upside down by the fact that she must share part of her profits with a white man. Petry also tries to explain the decision-making process of Boots Smith, a musician and a hard, dangerous man given to using and abusing women. For Boots, even driving is a symbolic act: he and other black men had to “roar past . . . had for a brief moment to feel equal, feel superior; had to take reckless chances going round curves, passing on hills, so that they would be better able to face a world that took pains to make them feel they didn’t belong, that they were inferior.” A little light is even cast on Junto, the seemingly all-powerful, conniving white owning-class figure in the book. He is revealed as a pathetic man, without real feelings or passions, feeding on the lives of his customers, black and white alike. Though Junto’s overt behavior is not racist, which is one of the reasons Boots can tolerate being his employee, Junto is quietly exploiting everyone all the time.

Near the end of the The Street, Petry uses an oppressive silence to represent the racism faced by Lutie and the rest of the people in her street. The racist power in the society around her leads her to do things she never normally would have and with a logic that feels inevitable; she really has little choice in the matter. Lutie is caught in a web of silent (and not-so-silent) racism. I still hear that silence when race is brought up in “polite” white company. More importantly, the people of color I talk to tell me they still hear it all the time, every day of their lives.

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100 top novels

New addition: The Street (#78)

1 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
2 Beloved – Toni Morrison
3 To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf
4 Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
5 Molloy – Samuel Beckett
6 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
7 Underworld – Don DeLillo
8 Middle Passage – Charles Johnson
9 White Noise – Don DeLillo
10 Middlemarch – George Eliot

11 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
12 Suttree – Cormac McCarthy
13 Housekeeping – Marilyn Robinson
14 Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
15 The Brother’s Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
16 The Plague – Albert Camus
17 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
18 Darkness at Noon – Arthur Koestler
19 The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver
20 The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

21 Native Son – Richard Wright
22 All Quiet on the Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque
23 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
24 On the Road – Jack Kerouac
25 The Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison
26 Ceremony – Leslie Marmon Silko
27 Wolf – Jim Harrison
28 Narcissus and Goldmund – Herman Hesse
29 The Master and Marguerita – Michael Bulgakov
30 Blindness – Jose Saramago

31 A House for Mr. Biswas – V. S. Naipaul
32 Written on the Body – Jeanette Winterson
33 The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi)- Herman Hesse
34 The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
35 Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy
36 The Bone People – Keri Hulme
37 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
38 The Tin Drum – Gunter Grass
39 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
40 One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – Alexander Solzhenitzen

41 Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon
42 Motherless Brooklyn – Jonathan Lethem
43 The Fortress of Solitude – Jonathan Lethem
44 Mao II – Don DeLillo
45 Catcher in the Rye – J. D. Salinger
46 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
47 The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
48 Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
49 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
50 As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner

51 The Red Badge of Courage – Stephen Crane
52 A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
53 Neuromancer – William Gibson
54 For Whom the Bell Tolls – Earnest Hemingway
55 Generation X – Douglass Copeland
56 Brave New World – Aldus Huxley
57 The Chosen – Chaim Potok
58 Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres
59 Fall on Your Knees – Ann-Marie MacDonald
60 The Dog of the South – Charles Portis

61 All the Pretty Horses – Cormac McCarthy
62 Dr. Zhivago – Boris Pasternak
63 The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon
64 Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
65 Gorky Park – Martin Cruz Smith
66 White Teeth – Zadie Smith
67 The Stone Canal – Ken MacLeod
68 Schizmatrix – Bruce Sterling
69 The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. LeGuin
70 The Loved One – Evelyn Waugh

71 The Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka
72 The Fall – Albert Camus
73 Vineland – Thomas Pynchon
74 Straight Man – Richard Russo
75 A Small Death in Lisbon – Robert Wilson
76 Disgrace – J. M. Coetzee
77 Kindred – Octavia Butler
78 The Street – Ann Petry
79 The Feast of Love – Charles Baxter
80 Fear of Flying – Erica Jong

81 Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
82 The Old Man and the Sea – Earnest Hemingway
83 The Star Fraction – Ken MacLeod
84 He, She, and It – Marge Piercy
85 The Dispossessed – Ursula K. LeGuin
86 The Shipping News – E. Annie Proulx
87 The Parable of the Sower – Octavia Butler

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1 Comment

  1. […] 26th, 2007 The Street — by Ann Petry Ann Petry’s 1946 novel, The Street, is a protest novel—muckraking at its best, with race and […]

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