Academic journal article MELUS

Beyond Protest: The Street as Humanitarian Narrative

Academic journal article MELUS

Beyond Protest: The Street as Humanitarian Narrative

Article excerpt

It is easy for us to lose ourselves in details in endeavoring to grasp and comprehend the real condition of a mass of human beings. We often forget that each unit in the mass is a throbbing human soul.

--W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (94)

Although discussion of Ann Perry's The Street (1946) has moved beyond its initial circumscription within a narrow definition of naturalistic protest fiction--often by reference to Richard Wright's Native Son, a comparison that has not generally worked in Perry's favor--interpreters continue to concentrate on issues associated with that literary mode. Central terms for interpreting The Street remain determinism, environment, and protest. Critics have concluded that "Petry evicts hope entirely" from The Street and that the novel expresses "unqualified despair" as well as "horror" at the stagnation of life (Wurst 2; Yarborough 46; Barrett 106). (1) Such conclusions mesh with the standard definition: we expect a deterministic protest novel not only to present a negative picture but also to function as a negative act. Simply put, protest always speaks out against something.

The novel's bleak ending provides ample rationale for such a reading. After Lutie Johnson murders Boots Smith, she flees Harlem for Chicago, leaving behind her son Bub whom she has tried throughout the novel to protect. Bub's recent implication in mail fraud will assuredly land him in reform school, signaling the absolute failure of his mother's efforts. As if this denouement were not bleak enough, the novel concludes with Lutie doubting her humanity, wondering what good could ever come from teaching a person such as herself to read. Insofar as reading is a central trope of personhood in African American literature from the slave narrative onward, Lutie's doubting her humanity sounds an especially dismal note. (2)

Most critics look to the environment to explain the pervasive sense of demoralization, In a much-cited interview published in The Crisis the same year as The Street, Petry describes her first novel as "show[ing] how simply and easily the environment can change the course of a person's fife" (Ivy 49). (3) While increasingly Petry's protest is understood as against not only the socioeconomic but also the ideological environment--especially the ideology of the American Dream as personified in the novel's allusions to Benjamin Franklin most commentators emphasize how the environment deforms individual subjectivity. (4) Noel Schraufnagel concludes that The Street "question[s] ... whether a Negro can maintain his humanity in a place like Harlem" (42). Barbara Christian likewise finds the novel focusing on "situation, setting, and environment." According to Christian, Lutie is less a "particular person, with a particular makeup" than a representative figure whose "plight ... can only lead to crime and tragedy" (12). Lindon Barrett similarly defines the novel as exploring "what it means to have a strict assault on one's identity be a routine feature of self-formation in U. S. culture" (95). Curiously, the environmental determinism thesis has not kept commentators from criticizing--at times even blaming--Lutie for the direction her life takes. For instance, in Marjorie Pryse's influential reading, Lutie's "wrong choices" become clear in contrast with those of other characters (123). As William Scott sums up the consensus, The Street "is typically interpreted as signaling Lutie's inadequacies as an African American female subject" (89).

I think we should resist the proposition of Lutie's--or any other character's--"inadequacies" as a human being, and indeed The Street cautions against such a reading. In the Crisis interview cited above, Petty remarks on another impetus for her novel: "I hope that I have created characters who are real, believable, alive.... I wanted to show [Negroes] as people with the same capacity for love and hate, for tears and laughter, and the same instincts for survival possessed by all men" (Ivy 49). …

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