"It could have been any street": Ann Petry, Stephen Crane, and the fate of naturalism.
A very tittle boy stood upon a heap of gravel for the honor of Rum Alley. He was throwing stones at howling urchins from Devil's Row who were circling madly about the heap and pelting at him. His infantile countenance was livid with fury. His small body was writhing in the delivery of great, crimson oaths. "Run, Jimmie, run! Dey'll get yehs," screamed a retreating Rum Alley child. "Naw," responded Jimmie with a valiant roar, "dese micks can't make me run." (1)
This is the reader's introduction to the streets of Crane's lower Manhattan and to the people who inhabit them, most notably Jimmie Johnson, Maggie's brother. We are not alone in witnessing the battle described: "From a window of an apartment house ... there leaned a curious woman." Fifty-three years later, in 1946, Ann Petry includes a strikingly similar scene in her first novel, The Street. This street is in Harlem, and this "desperate battle" is waged not with rocks but with garbage:
Kids were using bags of garbage from the cans tined up along the curb as ammunition. The bags had broken open, covering the sidewalk with litter, filling the air with a strong, rancid smell.
Here, as in Maggie, a woman watches from a window. Mrs. Hedges, who runs a house of prostitution from her apartment, "was leaning far out of her window." Whereas Crane's onlooker is silent, Mrs. Hedges speaks, "urging the contestants on." The name of the child to whom she calls out suggests that the echo of Crane's Maggie is more than coincidence:
"That's right, Jimmie.... Hit him on the head." And then as the bag went past its mark, "Aw, shucks, boy, what's the matter with your aim?" (2)
This is a deliberate invocation of Crane, I believe, indicating a multi-faceted, heretofore unnoticed dialogue between Ann Petry's The Street and Stephen Crane's Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. (3)
The Street holds the distinction of being the first novel by an African American woman to sell more than a million copies. The novel's success brought Ann Petry widespread praise and immediate fame. Translations appeared around the globe--in France, Brazil, Israel, and Japan, for example--soon after its publication; in 1953, Raj Ratna Pictures of Bombay requested Petry's permission to adapt The Street into "an Indian-Hindi picture," "with slight modifications to suit the conditions in India." (4) Today, critics often emphasize Petry's influence on later generations of black women writers, such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Gloria Naylor. Less frequently, Petry is studied in the context of black novelists, all men, who turned to naturalism in the 1940s, including Chester Himes, William Attaway, and Richard Wright. Less frequently still is this group of African American naturalists from the 1940s, with or without Petry, studied in the context of white naturalists--such as Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, and Stephen Crane--who preceded them. The possibility that Ann Petty engages Stephen Crane in her writing has not been entertained. (5) In her introduction to Soft Canons, a collection of essays blurring the lines between "masculine and feminine.... black and white, straight and gay, [and] Western and Eastern" traditions, Karen Kilcup acknowledges the necessity of "explor[ing] minoritized writing by itself," but she also suggests that "it may be more beneficial at this moment of cultural fragmentation in the United States to inquire into the conversations between, and even the meshings of, 'traditions.'" (6) One cannot help but notice a troubling irony in how our tendency to segregate literary traditions along fines of race and gender, while essential and productive in many ways, can keep us from noticing a black woman's dialogue with one of America's best-known white male writers in a novel that is, at heart, a blistering critique of the color fine.
Maggie is an important early representation of urban poverty and a logical influence for Petry's novel. But it is a troubled inheritance, much like Ben Franklin's myth of the self-made man, through which Lutie Johnson, Petry's protagonist, frames her struggle to save herself and her son Bub from the influence of the street on which they are forced to live. "[I]f Ben Franklin could live on a little bit of money and could prosper, then so could she," Lutie thinks to herself when buying hard rolls instead of fresh bread--calling to mind the famous story of Franklin buying three penny's worth of rolls after his arrival in Philadelphia (63-64). Both Bernard Bell and Marjorie Pryse have highlighted the larger white presence looming over Lutie's world, and the deeply ingrained American ideologies Perry exposes or "demythologizes," to use Bell's term/Through Lutie's invocations of Ben Franklin, "[t]he apparently invisible and naturalistic forces behind the street," Pryse observes, "become closely linked with the political attitudes of the white people who founded, then proceeded to run, the country." (8) The echoes of Maggie in The Street and Lutie's references to Franklin work in a similar manner. The mode of literary naturalism inherited from Crane can "naturalize" the plight of ethnic minorities and the poor, just as Franklin's myth of the self-made man can imply that those who fail to triumph over poverty in America have not tried hard enough. But Ann Perry does not reject naturalism. Rather, she adapts it and, in the process, returns it to its European roots, using Crane to critique, I believe, what happens to Emile Zola's theories of naturalism in the hands of American writers at the turn of the century. This is one meaning of "the fate of naturalism" in my title.
A second meaning refers to the concept of fate in naturalism, especially in relation to how naturalist writers use Charles Darwin's theory of determinism. On the surface, both Crane's and Petry's texts seem to follow the traditional critical assessment that "the naturalist found in scientific discovery only a confirmation of man's helplessness in the face of overwhelming and inscrutable forces." (9) In Crane, Maggie Johnson sinks into prostitution (becoming "a girl of the streets") and dies, the victim of either murder or suicide; in Perry, Lutie Johnson commits murder then flees the city, leaving her son in the custody of New York's Children's Shelter, from which he will be sent to reform school. Yet between the lines in the closing paragraphs of The Street are glimmers of hope, hints of alternative endings often overlooked in Petry's text and impossible to find in Crane's. In order to read these glimmers of hope at the end of The Street as Perry's rejection of Crane's naturalism, first it is necessary to look at other key differences between the two texts, essential to understanding their endings and the competing modes of naturalism they represent.
Lutie Johnson gazes at a sign advertising apartments for rent in the opening scene of The Street, deciphering what "respectable tenants" and "Reasonable" rents mean on this particular street. Perry's emphasis on reading takes on greater meaning when Lutie enters the building and "look[s] at the names on the mail boxes":
Henry Lincoln Johnson rived here, too, just as he did in all the other houses she'd looked at. Either he or his blood brother. The Johnsons and Jacksons were mighty prolific. Then she grinned, thinking who am I to talk, for I, too, belong to that great tribe, that mighty mighty tribe of Johnsons. (6-7)
Lutie's internal monologue recognizes connection, likeness, and common ancestry, reaching across texts, perhaps, to acknowledge the kinship between Lutie and Bub Johnson and Crane's Maggie and Jimmie Johnson. Perry's narrative strategies move readers toward such recognition.
Crane's narrative, on the other hand, enables readers to see only the difference between themselves and his tenement dwellers, moving readers progressively away from empathy. "Crane's aestheticism, especially with its irony, distinguishes himself (and his readers)," Howard Horwitz explains, "from the depravity he depicts, specifically from his subjects' determination by environment." (10) Maggie's descent into prostitution is set in motion, for example, when she notices Pete, her brother's protector in the opening scene. "Maggie thought he must be a very elegant and graceful bartender" (90). Worried that "Pete's aristocratic person ... might soil" by contact with her surroundings, "[s]he spent some of her week's pay in the purchase of flowered cretonne for a lambrequin. She made it with infinite care and hung it to the slightly-careening mantel, over the stove, in the kitchen" (91, 93). When he fails to notice her attempts to beautify her surroundings, Maggie is "convinced that Pete was superior to admiration for lambrequins" (93). Readers pity Maggie, perhaps, especially when her mother tears down the lambrequin in a "drunken fury" (93). Still, these passages read like a cruel joke at Maggie's expense. Readers share the narrator's smug sense of superior knowledge as Crane's language--"aristocratic person," "cretonne," "lambrequin"--satirizes Maggie's inflated sense of Pete's lot in life and her woefully naive plan to improve her own. We know better all along. (11)
The Street contains a revealing echo, perhaps, of this episode from Maggie. Before moving into the building she investigates in the novel's opening scene, Lutie tells Jones, the building's superintendent, that she wants all rooms painted white. Instead, he paints "[e]ach room ... a different color":
blue and rose color and green and yellow.... The colors made the rooms look even smaller, and she had said instantly, "What awful colors!" The look of utter disappointment on his face had made her feel obligated to find something that she could praise.... So she said quickly, "Oh, the windows have been washed." (68-69)
Like Maggie, Jones misreads his situation and environment, believing that he can impress Lutie Johnson with brightly painted walls. Here, as in Crane, readers know better. But by narrating Lutie's reaction twice, in parallel fashion and from both characters' points of view, Petry counteracts the top-down, hierarchical effect of Crane's narration. (12) When readers experience the same scene again, this time filtered through Jones's consciousness, it is not obligation but "surprise" that makes Lutie praise the windows: Jones remembers "Oh, the windows have been washed" as '"Why, the windows have been washed. That's wonderful.' And he had begun to feel better" (101, emphasis added). The effect here is not just to emphasize the gap between his perception and reality; rather, his mind's translation of Lutie's words offers painful proof of Jones's desperate need for approval and his misguided desire to please his new tenant.
Jones's delusions make him dangerous; he will attempt to rape Lutie Johnson and will trick her son into committing the crimes that land him in protective custody. Yet Petty wants her readers to have sympathy for Jones as well as for his victims. Narration in the novel's first three chapters is aligned with Lutie's perspective. Perspective shifts abruptly, however, at the beginning of the fourth chapter, where it is aligned with Jones's point of view. Here we get the retelling of Lutie's reaction to the walls and windows. More important, this retelling is flamed by Jones's background as the chapter reveals how he came to be the way he is when Lutie meets him. Petty clearly wants readers to hate not the man but the conditions that created him when she emphasizes the "deadly loneliness ... born of years of living in basements and sleeping on mattresses in boiler rooms" (85)--making him "cellar crazy," as Mrs. Hedges puts it.
Petry's most effective use of shifting narrative perspectives comes when Jones attacks Lutie. First Lutie is described returning to the street one night after discovering, she believes, the key to escaping it:
[S]he and Bub were leaving streets like this. And the thought that she had been able to accomplish this alone, without help from anyone, made her open the street door of the apartment house with a vigorous push. It made her stand inside the door for a moment, not seeing the dimly lit hallway, but instead seeing herself and Bub living together in a big roomy place and Bub growing up fine and strong. The air from the street set her skirt to billowing around her long legs and, as she stood there smiling, her face and body glowing with triumph, she looked almost as though she were dancing. (230)
The chapter ends with this beautiful, hope-filled image of Lutie. A few pages later, the same moment is retold from Jones's perspective--a perspective distorted by a life spent on the very streets Lutie is struggling to escape--just before he attempts to drag Lutie into the cellar:
Outside in the hall he opened the cellar door and then paused with his hand on the knob when the street door opened. He turned to see which of the tenants was coming in so late and he saw Lutie standing in the doorway, her long skirt blowing around her. She seemed to fill the whole hall with light. There was a faint smile playing around her mouth and he thought she was smiling at the sight of him and bending and swaying toward him. (234)
In the same way Perry's narrator provides the background stories of characters who at first seem peripheral, Lutie imagines the lives of strangers she encounters on the street. As it develops over the course of the novel, Lutie's consciousness becomes a transformative model not just for readers but also for the naturalistic writer. The Street, in other words, is a naturalistic novel about the naturalistic novel. The ethic embodied in Petry's many shifts back in time to retell the same events from other points of view while exploring the conditions and experiences that have shaped these points of view is the same ethic that compels Lutie to wonder about the lives of Mrs. Hedges's "girls" (188), for instance, and to imagine the "steps by which" a young stabbing victim "landed on a stretcher in the hospital" (202-4). (13) The most poignant example comes when Lutie notices the sole-less shoes on a dead man's feet:
She had stared at the shoes, trying to figure out what it must have been like to walk barefooted on the city's concrete sidewalks. She wondered if he ever went downtown, and if he did, what did he think about when he passed store windows filled with sleek furs and fabulous food and clothing made of materials so fine you could tell by looking at them they would feel like sea foam under your hand? How did he feel when the great long cars snorted past him as he waited for the fights to change or when he looked into a taxi and saw a delicate, soft, beautiful woman lifting her face toward an opulently dressed man? The woman's hair would gleam and shine.... And the concrete would have been rough under this man's feet. (196)
The man whose life Lutie struggles to imagine was killed trying to steal bread.
As she walks down another sidewalk later in the novel, Lutie watches "the tough young boys with their caps on backward who swaggered by" and listens to "the scraps of obscene talk... [that came from] ... the poolroom." These "were things that she saw with the eyes of an adult and reacted to from an adult's point of view," she realizes. "It was impossible to know how this street looked to eight-year-old Bub" (415, emphasis added). But on the very next page, this is what Lutie thinks when she encounters the children pelting each other with garbage, "even as she frowned at the rubbish under her feet": "Perhaps Bub had taken part in this kind of warfare ... possibly a battle would have appealed to some unsatisfied spirit of adventure in him, so that he would have joined these kids, overlooking the stink of the garbage in his joy in the conflict just as they were doing" (416). In this breakthrough moment--more than 400 pages into the novel--Lutie is finally able to see the street through her son's eyes. Although similar in content, the battle with which Crane opens his novella is seen from a radically different perspective, so that it becomes a primordial struggle between demonic little barbarians "fighting in the modes of four thousand years ago" (79).
Lutie's ability to put herself imaginatively in the shoes of others--always with the underlying recognition that she, too, might share a similar fate--points to another contrast between Maggie and The Street. Crane's characters are marked by their inability to go outside the self. When Jimmie learns that Maggie has "gone the deh devil," as their mother Mary puts it, "It occurred to him to vaguely wonder ... if some of the women of his acquaintance had brothers." But the potential insight vanishes as soon as it comes, lasting only "for an instant": "Suddenly, however, he began to swear" at Maggie and Pete (104). Maggie, too, is incapable of putting herself in the shoes of others. Leaving a music hall, for instance, she "perceived two women seated at a table with some men. They were painted and their cheeks had lost their roundness." Petry's Lutie would likely imagine the path that led them here, just as she does with the young prostitutes working for Mrs. Hedges. "As [Maggie] passed them," however, she, "with a shrinking movement, drew back her skirts" (111).
The hypocrisy of Crane's characters inhibits the reader's sympathy for them. (14) Worse, Crane's foreshadowing--Maggie will become the women she shuns--carries with it a perverse sense of poetic justice, that she gets what she deserves. Nowhere is this quality of Crane's narration more troubling than in the final paragraphs. Mary Johnson, perpetually drunk and sharing her children's knack for self-delusion, declares that she has no idea how a girl "[w]id a home like dis an' a mudder like me" might end up on the streets. The tears flow when she learns of Maggie's death. She tells a neighbor how as an infant Maggie "weared worsted boots an' her two feets was no bigger dan yer t'umb" before she "stagger[s] into the other room" to find "a pair of faded baby shoes." "Jimmie, boy, go git yer sister! Go git yer sister an' we'll put deh boots on her feets!" The novella ends with Mary Johnson's waiting declaration: "Oh, yes, I'll fergive her! I'll fergive her!" (129). (15)
The ending of Crane's novella leaves readers thinking not so much about the environment of poverty and exploitation in which Crane's naturalism places the Johnsons as about what this particular mother--not society--has failed to provide her children. (16) The effect is magnified when we contrast the baby boots with previous images of shoes and boots in Crane's text. Mary's husband kicks the head of one of Jimmie's young rivals with his "heavy boot"; Mary "wav[es] feet with their dishevelled shoes near the heads of her children"; "'come ahn an' I'll stamp yer damn brains under me feet,'" she screams at neighbors; and Maggie admires Pete's "patent-leather shoes," which "looked like murder-fitted weapons" (79, 82, 101, 90). Not once do readers see even the faintest glimpse of the loving, nurturing environment suggested by the worsted baby boots Mary Johnson clutches pathetically when she learns of her daughter's death. As Keith Ganal observes, "Maggie's tragedy, as critics have often noted, is not that she experiences a moral fall into sin, but that she is ostracized for her immorality. Apparently for selfish reasons of her own, Maggie's drunken and abusive mother denounces her in front of the tenement crowd, and she henceforth becomes untouchable in the community." (17)
In sharp contrast to Crane's text, Petry's centers on one mother's struggle to protect her son from the street. Furthermore, in the scene describing Lutie's effort to see the street through Bub's eyes, we hear a chorus of mothers' "commands shrilling from the windows all up and down the street, 'You Tommie, Jimmie, Billie, can't you see it's snowin'? Come in out the street'" (415). In yet another intriguing connection between the two texts, Tommie is the name of Maggie and Jimmie Johnson's brother, a toddler who dies early in Crane's novella.
Given the preponderance of shoe imagery in Maggie, the name of Lutie's victim--Boots Smith--makes it tempting to read her explosive, murderous rage near the end of The Street as Ann Perry's most provocative invocation of Stephen Crane. In Lutie's mind as she strikes Boots again and again with an iron candlestick, he becomes "everything she had fought against, everything that had served to frustrate her"; "he represented all these things and she was destroying them" (429-30). In light of Perry's running engagement of Maggie in The Street, the name Boots might suggest that she, like Lutie, is "venting her rage." Might Perry be lashing out at the ending of Crane's novella, with its cruelly misdirected rage and its contempt for the Johnson family as Maggie's mother clutches her daughter's baby boots? Might she be lashing out at Crane's implication that the cause of the poverty and misery we see in Maggie rests with its victims? At a nation that tells the poor simply to pull themselves up with their own bootstraps? At a society that breeds people incapable of putting themselves in the shoes of others? At literature that fails to challenge this mindset by not moving readers toward empathy instead? (18) At a writer who could challenge social norms by bringing the lives of the urban poor into literature but also suggest in private correspondence that "The root of Bowery life is a sort of cowardice. Perhaps I mean a lack of ambition or to willingly be knocked flat and accept the licking"? (19)
Emile Zola defined naturalism as an "experimental literature," the goal of which is to test the influences of heredity and environment. The verdict might fall on either side or somewhere in between. As Zola prescribes in Le Roman Experimental, published in 1880, "the experimenter should have no preconceived idea about nature." (20) The trouble with Maggie and many other examples of American literary naturalism is that emphasis falls on heredity, attributing behavior to "race" and "blood." A possible implication of Crane's writing, it has been suggested, is that his "lower-class characters remain in poverty because they are genetically disposed to do so." (21) W. E. B. Du Bois eloquently critiques such thinking in his 1909 biography of John Brown. (22) Noting the coincidence that "the year in which John Brown suffered martyrdom was the year that first published the Origin of Species," Du Bois laments how by the final decades of the nineteenth century Brown's heroic effort to spark an insurrection of armed slaves had been distorted as the work of a madman and "the splendid work of Darwin ... widely interpreted as meaning that there is essential and inevitable inequality among men and races of men, which no philanthropy can or ought to eliminate; that civilization is a struggle for existence whereby the weaker nations and individuals will gradually succumb, and the strong will inherit the earth." (23)
Petry's focus on environment rejects the Social Darwinist belief that heredity and biology are destiny. Yet Petry does not reject Darwinism, it is important to recognize, any more than she rejects naturalism. In a sense, after all, theories of equality are just that--theories, ideals, or "feelings" (to use Zola's language), and therefore the stuff of romance rather than of realism and naturalism. With the advent of Darwin, however, "the doctrine of human equality passes through the fire of scientific inquiry," in Du Bois's words, "not obliterated but transfigured": "Freedom of development and equality of opportunity is the [true] demand of Darwinism and this calls for the abolition of hard and fast lines between races, just as it call[s] for the breaking down of barriers between classes." (24) Ann Petry uses naturalism to issue such calls in The Street. In this sense, too, her naturalism is much closer to the spirit of Emile Zola's naturalist manifesto than is Crane's. "We shall enter into an age," Zola wrote, "where all-powerful man will have mastered nature and will use its laws to make the greatest possible sum of justice and liberty reign on this earth." (25) June Howard's assessment of Maggie places Crane's work in direct opposition to Zola's, leading her to label him not a "determinist" but a "fatalist." "He is not concerned," she writes, "with tracing the sources of individual and social pathology with the implicit or explicit hope of eventually bringing them under control: Crane is ... utterly uninterested in causality." (26)
Perry rejects the Social Darwinist's fatalism through Mrs. Hedges's background story, the most intriguing and powerful suggestion that biology is not destiny found in The Street. Trapped in a tenement fire several years ago, she somehow squeezed her massive black body--so large and so black that whites saw her as a "monstrosity"--through a tiny basement window: "It was a narrow aperture not really big enough for the bulk of her body. She felt her flesh tear and actually give way as she struggled to get out, forcing and squeezing her body through the small space" (244). Here Petry offers a gruesomely realistic version of the American Dream, where some individuals do survive and some do succeed, but only at a great cost and only when they challenge the very foundations of a society in which a person's window of opportunity is determined by his or her body and social class:
There was nothing but smoke and red flame all around her, and she wondered why she kept on fighting to escape. She could smell her hair burning, smell her flesh burning, and still she struggled, determined that she would force her body through the narrow window, that she would make the very stones of the foundation give until the window opening would in turn give way. (244)
The implications of Mrs. Hedges's escape become even more suggestive when we notice the similarities between her story and Crane's novella "The Monster," which he published five years after Maggie. "The Monster" centers on a black servant who literally loses his face when he is trapped in a house fire in the act of rescuing his white employer's young son; the servant must in turn be rescued by his employer, on whom he becomes dependent for his survival. One of Ann Perry's earliest notebooks, from the late 1930s or early 1940s, contains an intriguing hint that the parallels between Crane's novella and Mrs. Hedges's story in The Street might be more than coincidence. (27) One of two potential titles for future work she jotted down on one page of this slim notebook--"Never Die"--is an allusion, perhaps, to the racist doggerel with which white boys once taunted Crane's servant: "Nigger nigger never die, / Black face and shiny eye." (28)
The strongest implication that the parallels between Perry's work and Crane's are more than coincidence comes when Min, an initially "shapeless" and silent woman who lives with the superintendent Jones, decides that she can no longer tolerate his oppressive and violent behavior. As she plots her escape, Min worries that "Mis' Crane," her employer, "would probably be mad because she hadn't come to work today. She got mad easy" (365). Yet Min sticks to her plan and flees: "A body's got the right to live" (368), she declares, a rejection not only of Jones's and Miss Crane's control over her but also of the idea that one's fate is determined by the physical body. Petry's inspired jab at Maggie's author in this passage is balanced, however, by what might be an acknowledgment of her debt to him. One of the few possessions Min takes with her is a table most likely given to her by Miss Crane: "That's the kind of big ugly furniture white women love to give to their maids," Lutie thinks when she sees it (24). We can read this table as symbolic of Perry's literary inheritance from Crane: as Carol E. Henderson points out, the table, which "contains a secret drawer that allows her to hide her money from her abusive partners," enables Min to find her voice as she "achieves independence." (29) Henderson's reading is overly optimistic, however; as Marjorie Pryse points out, Petry hints that Min will escape this particular street only to end up on a similar one and in a similarly dependent relationship. (30) For the novel to remain true to the demands of naturalism, no one, not Min nor Lutie nor Bub, can escape the clutches of the street.
When drafting The Narrows, her third and final novel, published in 1953 and centered on another street (this one in a small Connecticut town), Petry jotted down the following thoughts in a notebook: "Fate as character, good or evil--so it would be environment--Dumble Street is fate, too--for all these people." (31) Petry articulated a similar argument in her 1950 essay "The Novel as Social Criticism," drawing this conclusion: "When society is given the role of fate, made the evil in the age-old battle between good and evil, the burden of responsibility is shifted away from the characters" and onto readers, onto society. (32) Six years later, critic Charles Child Walcutt would make a similar argument in American Literary Naturalism, A Divided Stream. "But can anything but despair emerge from such a spectacle?" he asks of the naturalistic novel, using Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy as his example. "And by what right do we call a naturalistic novel tragic, when its premises strip the protagonist of will and ethical responsibility?" "The answer lies," he suggests, "in the fact that will is not really absent from the naturalistic novel":
It is, rather, transferred to the reader and to society at large.... What appears as an error of choice or a weakness of character in the plays of Aeschylus and Shakespeare is thus transferred to society in the naturalistic tragedy; society has destroyed the hero and thus has destroyed a part of its immortal serf--and pity and guilt result. It is guilt instead of terror, because the social forces which crush a hero are finally subject to man's will and do not have the fatal power and mystery of cosmic forces. (33)
Some readers might prefer "terror" over "guilt," especially when reading a novel like The Street, which remains extraordinarily relevant sixty years after it was first published. Still, next to the ending of Crane's Maggie, it comes as a relief to find that Lutie cannot "figure out by what twists and turns of fate" she ends up as she does. Lutie's mind, Perry writes, "balked at the task." And so must the reader's. For it is not "fate" at work, and readers cannot just throw up their hands and say that it is. "All she could think was," the passage continues, "It was that street. It was that god-damned street" (436). Petry directs our rage here--at the street--in the closing paragraphs of her novel.
But readers leave The Street with something more valuable than rage and more constructive than guilt. There is hope at the end of The Street. To explain, it is useful to return to Emile Zola's claims concerning naturalist novelists: "we are not fatalists, we are determinists, which is not the same thing." (34) "Fatalism presupposes the necessary manifestation of a phenomenon independent of its conditions, whereas determinism is the necessary condition of a phenomenon"; "as soon as we can act and do act on the determinism of phenomena, in modifying environment, for example, we are not fatalists." (35) "This then is the goal," he concludes: "to master life to direct it." (36) The hope at the end of Petry's novel lies in the recognition that environments can be modified, that society can work to change such streets and thus to alter the fates of those living on them. As Min flees, wherever she might be headed, she turns an empathetic glance back to Jones, her former abuser: "maybe if he'd had more sun on him," she thinks, "he would have been different" (370). (This is from a woman who has grown accustomed "to getting only brief and occasional glimpses of the sun when she made hurried purchases for Mis' Crane" .) Petry's naturalism teaches readers to imagine such alternatives. It does not allow us to condemn Lutie Johnson for failing to do what she "should have" or "could have" done. But it does enable us to turn our gazes back to the street that claims Lutie and her son, see it covered by a blanket of snow in the novel's final, detached paragraph, and believe that "it could have been any street" (436, emphasis added). (37) Crane, in contrast, does not allow for any such "could have been." As David Fitelson concludes, "Maggie, examined on its own terms, offers no suggestion of alternatives to the struggle for existence as the single appropriate metaphor for the life of human beings." (38)
Another passage in the devastating final scene of The Street enables readers to imagine an alternative fate for Lutie and Bub. Lutie traces circles on the glass while she stares out of the train's windows--the same circles, she recalls, that children make in grammar school when "gett[ing] used to the feel of a pen in their hands."
Once again she could hear the flat, exasperated voice of the teacher as she looked at the circles Lutie had produced. "Really," she said, "I don't know why they have us bother to teach your people to write." ... The woman's statement was correct, she thought. What possible good has it done to teach people like me to write? (435-36)
As tempting as it might be to read the novel in hand as the answer to Lutie's rhetorical question, to do so without qualification would be to miss the point of Petry's naturalist novel about the naturalist novel. Perry probably intended the phrase "people like me" to include herself as well as her protagonist. But following the logic of naturalism as it plays out in The Street, where emphasis falls repeatedly on the environmental forces that determine one's fate, Petry must also have intended Lutie's despairing conclusion while she flees the street as an acknowledgment of how profoundly unlike Lutie Johnson's her own life had been. Ann Lane Perry was born and raised in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, after all. "The Lanes were one of two black families in the small New England town," Sandra Carlton Alexander observes, where her father owned a drugstore. They "rived a rather comfortable and stable life." (39) Petry's aunt, uncle, and grandfather were pharmacists like her father, and her mother graduated from the New York School of Chiropody. Petry graduated from the Connecticut College of Pharmacy in 1931, and her sister graduated from Brown University. In a strict biographical sense, then, Lutie Johnson is not Ann Petry. (40) On a deeper, more provocative level, however, Lutie Johnson and Ann Petry are one and the same. The power of Petry's empathetic, humane naturalism comes from the fact that Ann Petry the licensed pharmacist and soon-to-be-best-selling novelist from Old Saybrook, Connecticut, recognized that even with all her drive and talent she "could have been" Lutie Johnson if she had been born in different circumstances. By the same token, Lutie Johnson, if given the chance, "could have been" Ann Perry. This recognition, most likely conditioned or determined by reading Stephen Crane and other naturalists, is the source of rage as well as of hope in the final paragraphs of The Street.
Petry was tight-lipped when it came to discussing her literary influences, but a Houghton Mifflin press release announcing the publication of The Streetnotes that Petry "spent nine months working on an experiment in education that was being conducted in one of the city's elementary schools and thus observed at firsthand the toll that segregated areas like Harlem exact in the twisting and warping of the lives of children." (41) And her words from a radio interview for the Pathways to Children's Literature program concerning this real-life inspiration for her first novel provide an ideal context for understanding the fate of naturalism--as well as the fate of Stephen Crane--in The Street. Describing her move to Harlem in 1938 at the age of thirty, Petry recalls:
I had been working there--[116th Street, the street in The Street]--in a school. There was an after school program and I was very much involved in it and of course I must point out to you that of all the shocks that I ever had I think that that area at that time was the biggest one because I had been brought up in a New England village where we even had a village green--a very beautiful village--and when I began to work in that area--in that school, which had been built I think in 1880.... And the youngsters who ... well they had keys around their necks they had no place to go after school because there wasn't anybody home. And, well, I wrote The Street because I was so furious and I was so upset ... and I still am and I expect I always will be until all children in areas everywhere, no matter what the colors of their skin, until the point where there is somebody home and where the house is a good place to be and where the streets are good places to be. (42)
I thank the Faculty Development Board of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh for the generous support of a summer research grant in order to complete this project. Kay Theisen proved an expert research assistant, the staffs of the Ann Petry Collection at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University provided invaluable advice and assistance, and the anonymous readers at Studies in American Fiction provided thoughtful feedback. I am especially indebted to Maria Morelli of the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center for her patient and generous attention. I thank Ngadi W. Kponou and John M. Monahan of the Beinecke for their prompt replies and expert guidance. For their encouragement and advice during the early stages of this project, I thank Lisa A. Long and Elizabeth Young.
(1) Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, and Other Selected Writings, ed. Phyllis Frus and Stanley Corkin (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), 77. Hereafter cited parenthetically.
(2) Ann Petty, The Street (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991), 416. Hereafter cited parenthetically.
(3) In "A Distaff Dream Deferred? Ann Petry and the Art of Subversion," African American Review 26, no. 3 (1992), Keith Clark briefly mentions the central character of Petry's novel in relation to Crane's text: "Ostensibly, Lutie's plight differs little from a character like Stephen Crane's Maggie" (503). Maggie serves simply as a widely recognized example of naturalist fiction, however, and Clark does not suggest a specific, intentional connection between the two texts. As far as I have been able to determine, no critic has suggested that Petty overtly and intentionally engages Crane's fiction in her own. Of Maggie, David Fitelson suggests in "Stephen Crane's Maggie and Darwinism," American Quarterly 16 (1964): "such influence as it may have had on works that came afterward is neither certain nor, in any case, very direct" (182).
(4) W. A. Merchant to Ann Petry, July 11, 1953. From the Ann Petty Collection in the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University.
(5) Petty must shoulder part of the responsibility, perhaps, for the hesitation of some critics to situate her work in the context of other naturalists. "'Really,' replied Mrs. Petty, smiling, 'I have read so many authors and so many books that I don't know'" was her typical response when asked about influences; this example is found in James W. Ivy, "Ann Petty Talks About First Novel," Crisis 53 (Jan. 1946), 49. The biographical sketch of Petty in Call and Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition, gen. ed. Patricia Liggins Hill (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998) argues that "[i]t is problematic to place her in the naturalist camp ... as there is no direct evidence indicating that she studied ... other naturalists" (1030-31).
(6) Karen L. Kilcup, "The Conversation of 'The Whole Family': Gender, Politics, and Aesthetics in Literary Tradition," Soft Canons: American Women Writers and Masculine Tradition, ed. Karen L. Kilcup (Iowa City: Univ. of Iowa Press, 1999), 3-5.
(7) In their contributions to Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition, ed. Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1985), Marjorie Pryse (in "'Pattern against the Sky': Deism and Motherhood in Ann Perry's The Street") and Bernard Bell (in "Ann Petry's Demythologizing of American Culture and Afro-American Character") correct Robert A. Bone's complaint in The Negro Novel in America (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1958) that "[t]he trouble with The Street is that it ... is an attempt to interpret slum life in terms of Negro experience, when a larger frame of reference is required" (180). On Petry's use of Franklin, also see Gayle Wurst, "Ben Franklin in Harlem: The Drama of Deferral in Ann Petry's The Street," Deferring a Dream: Literary Sub-Versions of the American Columbiad, ed. Gert Buelens and Ernst Rudin (Basel: Birkhauser, 1994), 1-23.
(8) Pryse, 122.
(9) Rod W. Horton and Herbert W. Edwards, Backgrounds of American Literary Thought, 2nd ed. (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1967), 247.
(10) Howard Horwitz, "Maggie and the Sociological Paradigm," American Literary History 10, no. 4 (1998), 619. In the end, however, Horwitz deconstructs Maggie in order to argue that Crane's text ultimately undermines or satirizes this sense of superiority: "Confronted by our superiority to the characters of Maggie, and confident of our transcendence of environment and its modes of representation, we inhabit the same narrative structure as the characters we pity and mock. Therefore, like Crane's characters, the moment that Crane's readers think they are different, they are the same." "Maggie is Crane's instrument," he concludes, "for lampooning an enduring model of social analysis in a story more about its audience than its subject, the audience's true other half" (625, 632).
(11) In "'Distant dinners' in Crane's Maggie: Representing 'the other half,'" Essays in Literature 21, no. 2 (1994), 235, Henry Golemba offers a different take on the lambrequin, highlighting it as "the characters' only effort at art." He claims that Maggie's "efforts to restore the lambrequin to its place" after her mother tears it down "create sympathy," and that "[h]er longing for art is also lonely in this harsh environment."
(12) See Phyllis Frus and Stanley Corkin, "Urban Life and Reform in the Late Nineteenth Century," The Red Badge of Courage, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, and Other Selected Writings by Stephen Crane (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000). Frus and Corkin observe that Crane's sketches "highlight the distinction between the writer and these objects who have no capacity to write themselves" (151).
(13) Notes Keith Clark: "Using multiple viewpoints as a structural device deviates from the naturalist's narrow eye, placing Petry closer to a tradition of African-American writers who view the black community in its totality, harboring several stories" (503).
(14) David Fitelson concludes: "Maggie's story is, of course, a very sad one, and it is perhaps shocking to think that Crane is out of sympathy with her ill-fortune. But clearly he is; or rather the matter of sympathy is irrelevant to his scheme for the novel" (193-94).
(15) "The life of Maggie's mother," David Fitelson writes, "is the perpetual struggle of a middle-class jungle denizen, an animal not to be ranked among the fittest, but capable of swallowing many others before being swallowed itself, and with a nerve-racking ability to stay just out of reach of the fitter beasts." He reads "[h]er ironically portrayed capacity for self-delusion, by which ... she sanctifies her villainy," as a Darwinistic "variation" that enables her survival (189).
(16) In "Stephen Crane's 'Maggie' and American Naturalism," Criticism 7 (1965), Donald Pizer argues that Crane's "irony involving Mrs. Johnson ... centers on the religious and moral climate which has persuaded her to adopt the moral poses of outraged Motherhood and despoiled Home." "Crane's ironic technique," Pizer believes, "suggests that his primary goal was not to show the effects of environment but to distinguish between moral appearance and reality, to attack the sanctimonious self-deception and sentimental emotional gratification of moral poses. He was less concerned with dramatizing a deterministic philosophy than in assailing those who apply a middle class morality to victims of amoral, uncontrollable forces in man and society" (174).
(17) Keith Ganal, "Stephen Crane's 'Maggie' and the Modern Soul," ELH 60, no. 3 (1993), 769.
(18) See John Meldon, "'The Street'--A Powerful Novel of Harlem Tragedy," review of The Street, by Ann Petry, Daily Worker, March 20, 1946. Meldon echoes the novel's shoe imagery: "the great value of the book" is in how "Ann Petry presents, with a cold and savage logic the underlying economic and social reasons for the good, bad and indifferent types who parade through The Street with an ominous tread." "I recommend The Street to white readers," Meldon continues, "for the experience of seeing ourselves as others see us. If you want to be stunned down to your shoe leather, The Street will give you the unvarnished version of what the average Harlem Negro thinks of their white oppressors and the white race generally. And a reading of this book will convince any honest person that there is a tremendous amount of work to be done before the shopworn, often lip-serviced slogan of 'black and white unity' becomes a reality" (11).
(19) Stephen Crane, Letters, ed. R. W. Stallman and Lillian Gilkes (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1960), 133.
(20) Emile Zola, "The Experimental Novel," Documents in Modern Literary Realism, ed. George J. Becker (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1963), 163. Zola viewed the naturalistic writer as an "experimenter," like a scientist, rather than as a mere "observer." Ann Petty, it is interesting to note, earned a degree in pharmacology in 1931; according Joseph Katz in his introduction to The Portable Stephen Crane (New York: Penguin, 1977), Crane "enroll[ed] in [the] scientific program at Syracuse University [in 1891], but complete[d] only one course" (xxv). Petry discussed her background as a registered pharmacist in a Pathways to Children's Literature radio interview: "It so happens that because I had a great love--well, particularly for chemistry--that I feel that that does make for accuracy in thinking and in speech and I think that you can't be regarded as educated unless you have worked in a lab of some kind during your school days ... this makes for precision in thinking."
(21) Frus and Corkin, 152.
(22) Ann Petry touches on John Brown in "A Book I Will Never Forget," The Book Find News (June 1946). In describing the lasting impression Henry David Thoreau's Walden and Other Writings made on her, Petty emphasizes his "Plea for John Brown": Thoreau "describes Brown as 'a man who did not wait till he was personally interfered with or thwarted in some harmless business before he gave his life to the cause of the oppressed.' That phrase has lingered with me for many a long year. It still seems to me as good a scale in which to weigh a man--politician, government official, statesman--as any I have ever come across: Will he wait until he is 'personally interfered with' before he gives his life to a cause?" (7).
(23) W. E. B. Du Bois, John Brown (1909; New York: Modern Library, 2001), 225.
(24) Do Bois, 228, 237.
(25) Zola, 177.
(26) June Howard, Form and History in American Literary Naturalism (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1985), 99.
(27) From the Ann Petry Collection in the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University.
(28) Stephen Crane, "The Monster" (1989), in The Portable Stephen Crane, ed. Joseph Katz (New York: Penguin, 1977), 471. Crane does not appear to have created this rhyme, and Petry could easily have encountered it elsewhere. Still, the coincidence is striking. Later in the same notebook, Petry writes out both lines of this rhyme, again under the title "Never Die"; on the same page is the title "The Servant in the House," under which she wrote: "viewpoint of Negro Servant."
(29) Carol E. Henderson, "The 'Walking Wounded': Rethinking Black Women's Identity in Ann Petry's The Street," Modern Fiction Studies 46, no. 4 (2000), 856.
(30) Pryse, 125-27.
(31) From the Ann Petry Collection in the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University. The same notebook contains Petry's notes on Richard Wright's Native Son: "Bigger Thomas--portrayed as animal created by white society ... thesis being that this criminal was produced by society--principally because of race." The title of The Narrows recalls the "narrow window" through which Mrs. Hedges miraculously forces her body in The Street.
(32) Ann Petry, "The Novel as Social Criticism," Call and Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition, gen. ed. Patricia Liggins Hill (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998), 1117. "No matter what these novels are called," Perry comments in the same essay, "the average reader seems to like them.... Perhaps there is a streak of masochism in all of us; or perhaps we all feel guilty because of the shortcomings of society and our sense of guilt is partially assuaged when we are accused, in the printed pages of a novel, of having done those things that we ought not to have done--and of having left undone those things we ought to have done" (1116).
(33) Charles Child Walcutt, American Literary Naturalism, A Divided Stream (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1956), 27. Building on Walcutt's work, June Howard concludes that "[t]he antinomy between fate and hope, between determinism and human will, is not only implicit in the program of naturalism but is repeatedly dramatized in the action of novels" (39).
(34) Zola, 179. This passage begins: "So I now come to the great reproach that may be heaped upon naturalist novelists in calling them fatalists. How many times people have tried to prove to us that from the moment we no longer accepted free will, from the moment we saw man as no more than an animal machine acting under the influence of heredity and environment, we were falling into a gross fatalism, we were reducing humanity to the level of a herd driven along by the stick of destiny!"
(35) Zola, 180.
(36) Zola, 176. As Crane's text suggests, most American naturalists ignored this reform-minded aspect of Zola's theories. As Rod W. Horton and Herbert W. Edwards explain, most American naturalists "found in scientific discovery only a confirmation of man's helplessness in the face of overwhelming and inscrutable forces." "To the destruction of the romantic concept of man's ultimate rise to perfection in a democratic world, science added her assurance that man was but an animal still in a relatively early stage of societal evolution. That men like Comte and Marx saw an eventually happy denouement (though for different reasons) in man's struggles made little impression upon the writers. The important consideration to them was the present, and man in the present was predatory, depressed, and bewildered. He had lost all of his theological and most of his metaphysical props and found himself, a creature of still unpredictable chemical action and reaction, adrift in a world governed by still undefined natural forces" (247-48).
(37) The Ann Petry holdings in the James Weldon Johnson collection at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University provide an illuminating glimpse into the evolution of this final, detached paragraph of The Street. A fourteen-page synopsis Perry submitted to the Houghton Mifflin Fellowship Contest in December of 1944 (along with five chapters of the novel) ends on the same note: "She [Lutie] buys a ticket for Chicago and as the train gets under way she tries to figure out what chain of circumstances had brought her to the point where she would have to go through life as a fugitive. Her conclusion is: 'It was that street. It was that god damn street.'" The original autograph manuscript of The Street ends with the line: "It was that god damned street." A subsequent typed version ends with the same line, but it is followed by a few handwritten sentences describing snow falling on the street; the full detached paragraph-including for the first time the idea that "it could have been any street"--is found in the next and final typed version of the manuscript.
(38) Fitelson, 194.
(39) Sandra Carlton Alexander, "Ann Petry," Dictionary of Literary Biography 76: 141.
(40) The contrast between Petry's background and the background of another African American writer drawn to naturalism, Richard Wright, is intriguing. Arnold Rampersad points out in his introduction to Wright's Native Son (New York: HarperPerennial, 1998): "For him, the road to Native Son had started with his first exposure to the major naturalists and realists. 'All my life had shaped me for the realism, the naturalism of the modern novel,' he declared in Black Boy, 'and I could not read enough of them'" (xii).
(41) "Ann Perry, author of 'The Street.' Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship Winner," News of New Books, Press Release, January 3, 1946. From the Ann Petry Collection in the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University.
(42) Ann Petry, interview with Marion Eske and Dick Eske, Pathways to Children's Literature, Pathways Educational Programs, Scarsdale, NY.
University of Wisconsin Oshkosh
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|Publication:||Studies in American Fiction|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2006|
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