Ann Petry’s novel “The Road” from the 1940s tells a frighteningly topical chapter from the history of racist America. It is high time to rediscover it.
The Street”, “The Street”, published in 1946 in the American original, deserves to be recognized as a modern classic in this country as well. Ann Petry’s novel has already been published on German in 1988, in Ullstein’s series “The Woman in Literature”. Fortunately, the days when Ann Petry ended up in the drawer with the inscription “African-American writer”, which meant double marginalization despite the million-dollar edition of the original, is fortunately over. At the latest with the Nobel Prize for Toni Morrison in 1993, everyone noticed the nonsense of such drawers.
So why, when this novel is rediscovered, still talk about skin color? And about gender? That is inevitable in this case. Because they are the subject of the novel in such a powerful way that, after reading it, no one can claim to know what racism is and what sexism feels like.
“The Road” begins in Harlem in 1944, with a November wind that drives us into history so powerfully that there is no stopping. The suction, mixed with foreboding, accuracy, relentlessness and constantly erupting panic, is rousing and, incidentally, trains islands of thought of high analytical accuracy. They come without any theory that they would still be able to cope with the “Mee Too” debate of our day.
The writer Ann Petry, who was born in Connecticut in 1908 and initially worked as a pharmacist like her parents, tells auctorian story. However, she does not talk to her characters in between. They analyze their situation themselves, especially Lutie Johnson, the female main character. She is doing everything she can to enable her eight-year-old son to socially advance. But no matter how much power she spends, how much energy she invests, the vortex of conditions only pulls her down even deeper.
116th Street on Upper Westside is the novel’s second heroine – an anthem
116th Street on the Upper Westside of Manhattan stands for this situation. Harlem became a ghetto after the Great Depression. Whoever lands here knows that it is difficult for him to get away. Lutie Johnson lived in Queens with her husband. When he became unemployed, she took a job as a housekeeper for a white family in Connecticut and sent him money every month. Until he started an affair to boost his self-esteem and she grabbed her son and undressed. Her shabby apartment on the top floor of a run-down house at 116th Street has no merits. But that means that she can still afford the rent. Otherwise, everything speaks against this place. And that makes us feel Ann Petry from the very first minute. She is a master of suspense. When Lutie climbs the stairs to the apartment for the first time, the caretaker behind her, whose desire she feels like the breath of a hellhound in her neck, then one would like to immediately persuade her to repent. The tension permeates Ann Petry throughout the novel. The street itself is the second heroine of the novel. She is almost as subject as the main character and an almost even greater opponent than all the shady characters who want to exploit Lutie for her purposes. When she returns from her downtown office job, she’s happy to get rid of the disparaging looks of whites, but her body is also an object of desire in Harlem. The caretaker asks her and one day she moves to the basement, a puff mother hopes for her services.
When she starts singing out of the way one night in a bar, she is lured by a career as a singer. Finally the money worries are going to be going, that would be their dream. And finally have time for the son, who fears alone in the apartment and spends the whole afternoon on the street, which is once said to be his “mother and father”. But here, too, two men have other interests, the black band leader Boots Smith and Junto, one of the few whites who owns not only the bar, but half the quarter.
Ann Petry lets every single character get justice – again and again another comes into focus and we learn the background of her life story. This musician Junto has worked as a sleeper for Pullman. He never wants to experience the feeling of being carelessly sent back and forth as a “nobody” to whom one can give instructions. And he also does not want to go into the “war of the whites”. He has paid to bypass his convocation. The heavyweight Miss Hedges, in turn, who perched at the window all day and not only the young women she earned but the whole street in view, was the only survivor of a fire years ago.
The dichotomy of black and white has penetrated soul life as a simple order
The dichotomy of black and white as a racist instrument determines everyday life and the society that Ann Petry shows. But it has also penetrated into the soul life of the protagonists, as a simple system of order that associates every pain, every anger, every outburst of anger with the color of the skin. Lutie Johnson experiences double discrimination as a black American and as a woman, and her anger grows boundless. As she sits with other women in the waiting room of the correctional facility where her son was taken, she realizes what it might be that unites her: poverty. Bubb, as Uda Strätling calls the son in her successful translation, who bears the original name Bub, is the only character who finds herself in complete distress without guilt. It is the fulcrum of the novel, the lever with which Lutie Johnson finally manages to get out of the way. Ann Petry tightens the noose around her main character. The fact that the claustrophobia produced by this novel can still be increased is as astonishing as its relentless handling of issues that have remained as topical as that of racism: the life-threatening violence against women and the obscene increase in rents in the world’s metropolises, which destroys any room for manoeuvre for low and normal incomes.
Ann Petry, who also worked as a journalist, died at the age of 88 in Connecticut, where she was born. In the course of her life she has written three novels, short stories and children’s books. Her work has often been compared to that of the African-American writer Richard Wright, stylistically it reads like a mixture of Dickens and Daphne du Maurier, seasoned with a pinch of Thomas Wolfe. Her novel “The Street” tells a chapter from the story of racist America, which the demonstrators in the cities of the USA are demanding these days, among other things.
Ann Petry: The street. Translated from The English by Uda Strätling. Nagel & Kimche, Munich 2020. 383 pages, 24 Euro.