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Most famous for her stories of hardship and resilience in Harlem, Ann Petry is among the most respected African American authors of the twentieth century. Her work continues to be praised for its ability to transcend racial boundaries, speaking to the universality of prejudice in the human experience.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Comfortable Childhood in Connecticut
Ann Lane (later Petry) was born in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, to Peter C. Lane and Bertha James Lane on October 12, 1908. She was the youngest of three children, the oldest child having died at age two. The Lanes lived a rather comfortable and stable life. The family, early on, had established a tradition in the sciences, with specific concentration in chemistry that was to extend for three generations. Her father, a native of New Germantown, New Jersey, was a pharmacist who had been apprenticed to a druggist and licensed in 1890. He owned a drugstore in old Saybrook. Her aunt and uncle were also druggists, owning a drugstore in the neighboring town of old Lyme, Connecticut. Equally accomplished, her mother, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, graduated from the New York School of Chiropody and was licensed to practice her profession in 1915. The Lanes were one of two black families in the small New England town, a fact that helped to shape Ann s perspective and provided her with raw materials for later stories and novels.
Career in Pharmacy
In 1925 Ann Lane, the only person of African American descent in her class, graduated from old Saybrook High School. She found that her classes at the Connecticut College of Pharmacy (now the University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy) had a similar racial composition. She graduated from this institution with a PhD degree in 1931. For the next seven years Ann worked as a pharmacist in the family-owned drugstore.
Embracing Change: Marriage and Move to Harlem
In 1938 Ann Lane made some crucial decisions. On February 22, 1938, she married George D. Petry in Old Saybrook, and jointly they decided to sever ties with her native town. She resolved to go to New York, learn to write, and become good at it. In New York the need to earn money and an inclination toward writing led her to newspaper work. A job as a newspaper reporter for the People’s Voice, a Harlem weekly, plunged her into the streets of Harlem. She spent some years in Harlem learning of its people and transmitting their yearnings, feelings, and fears to the printed page. Her experiences in the inner city educated her to the economic hardships of the poor, deepened her sensitivity to the plight of millions of less fortunate black Americans, and made her painfully aware of the degree to which bigotry can erode the personal lives of its victims.
Acquiring Skills for Creative Writing
Not content with the writing experience provided by her stint with the People’s Voice, Petry enrolled in creative writing courses at Columbia University in the evenings to learn about fictional technique, effective dialogue, and dramatic structure. A tireless, disciplined, and single-minded worker, Petry spent hours polishing her craft, writing and rewriting her stories. She deliberately set out to understand the anxieties and frustrations that stimulated abnormal behavior in the human species, reading voraciously in the fields of psychology and psychiatry. She taught in a Harlem experimental school, which gave her an opportunity to observe firsthand the degree to which ghetto existence affected the lives of black children. In those years Petry taught salesmanship, became a member of what is now the American Negro Theater, and became affiliated with Negro Women Incorporated, a political group, eventually becoming its executive secretary.
In the midst of a career and an active civic life, Petry was not prepared for the editorial rejections that came her way. In response, she made up her mind to focus exclusively on her writing and eventually her efforts paid off. In 1943 Crisis published her short story ”On Saturday the Siren Sounds at Noon,” which is set in the middle of New York’s Harlem. Told in flashbacks through the consciousness of a nameless black father whose memory is triggered by the weekly Saturday noon air raid siren, the story depicts his returning home one day to find that a tragic fire has claimed the lives of all his children. The story is representative of Petry’s early work in that it is based in part on true incidents, including a newspaper story she covered while working as a journalist.
Success as a Fiction Writer
In 1945 Petry produced one of her best-known short stories for Crisis magazine, ”Like a Winding Sheet.” Set in Harlem, it chronicles a day in the life of Johnson, a black factory worker. ”Like a Winding Sheet” drew Petry national acclaim, winning her a place in Martha Foley’s Best American Stories of 1946. Its publication kindled the interest of major book publishers. Within months after it appeared, she had written the first five chapters and a synopsis of her first novel, The Street (1946), which had won a Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship Award of $2,400 in 1945.
After ten months of writing in near seclusion, Petry’s first novel appeared in January of 1946 and drew favorable reviews. The Street tells the story of Lutie Johnson, an intelligent, industrious, and attractive young black woman who struggles to survive and maintain her dignity in a brutal environment.
Petry’s second novel, Country Place (1947), is a story about the inevitability of change and of the tragic disillusionment that those who refuse to adjust to it must suffer. The major characters are white, and many of the minor ones are of varying nationalities and ethnic origins. Like Petry’s first novel, Country Place, a selection of the British Book Club, enjoyed a warm reception from reviewers.
Country Place was followed by a series of separately published stories. Two of the stronger stories, ”The Necessary Knocking at the Door” (in ’47, 1947) and ”The Bones of Louella Brown” (in Opportunity, 1947), though radically different in tone, illustrate Petry’s technical proficiency at its best. One of Petry’s most popular stories is ”In Darkness and Confusion,” a novella based on the Harlem riots of August 1943.
Return to Old Saybrook
Petry returned to Old Say-brook in 1948. In 1949 for Holiday magazine she produced a long nostalgic essay titled ”Harlem,” which reviewed in pictorial and historical form the world’s most famous black community. That was followed by publication of her first children’s book, The Drugstore Cat (1949). A delightful story for youngsters six to ten years of age, this piece marks the author’s first departure from adult writing. Set in an environment Petry knew well, it focuses on Buzzie, the country cat who comes to live with the town druggist and emerges as a hero when he saves the store from robbers.
Defending the Novel as Social Criticism
Another product of this reflective period was Petry’s 1950 critical essay, ”The Novel as Social Criticism,” an eloquent defense of the problem or thesis novel. In her essay Petry eschews the idea that art ought to exist for its own sake and asserts that most of the world’s greatest novelists, from Charles Dickens to Leo Tolstoy to William Faulkner, have written social criticism, for each suggests ”how society affected the lives of his characters.”
In 1953 Petry’s novel The Narrows was published. It is set in the black section of a small Connecticut community. The plot centers around black Link Williams and his relationship with Camilo Treadway, daughter of the town’s most revered white family and heiress to an industrial fortune. Some critics admired its memorable characterization and stylistic experimentation.
Generally unhappy with the lack of black nonfiction for juveniles, Petry wrote Harriet Tubman, Conductor on the Underground Railroad (1955). Dedicated to Petry’s only child, Elisabeth Ann, Harriet Tubman is a moving and sensitive portrayal of the famous former slave and abolitionist who was personally responsible for delivering over three hundred slaves out of bondage in Dorchester County, Maryland. The book has a wealth of historical detail, and its informational value is increased by the clever manner with which Petry juxtaposes Tubman’s private history with the public history of the nation during the years before the Civil War.
Petry’s next two children’s books were Tituba of Salem Village (1964) and Legends of the Saints (1970). Tituba of Salem Village tells the story of a female slave from Barbados who finds herself branded a witch and caught up in the hysteria of the Salem witch trials of the late 1600s. Legends of the Saints, illustrated by Ann Rockwell, presents in simple language the miraculous lives of ten holy people of varying nationalities and time periods.
Later Short Stories Reveal a Shift in Thematic Focus
Petry produced some excellent short stories after 1953. ”Has Anybody Seen Miss Dora Dean,” published by New Yorker magazine in 1958, is a refreshing blend of humor, folklore, and suspense. One thinly disguised autobiographical story, ”The New Mirror,” which appeared in the New Yorker in 1965, and another, ”Miss Muriel,” the lengthy piece that became the title story of Miss Muriel and Other Stories (1971), show evidence of a new thematic thrust. ”The New Mirror” tells the story of a black family in an all-white town and their attempts to maintain privacy in an environment where color keeps them constantly on display. ”Miss Muriel,” told from the perspective of a young black girl, is a romantic story with racial overtones. It depicts the pursuit of an attractive aunt by two lovers of different ethnic origins. Both stories make a powerful comment about the barriers that prevent meaningful human relationships in modern society.
Petry remained in Old Saybrook to raise her daughter until her death on April 28, 1997.
Works in Literary Context
Petry’s dual personal history—living first in a middle-class community in Connecticut and then in Harlem—gave her an unusual literary vantage point from which she was able to isolate and dramatize essential aspects of the human condition that transcend geographical and racial boundaries. She credited the time she spent working as a journalist among the largest influences on her writing.
Many scholars consider Petry’s work strongly naturalistic. Its focus is on racism as an environmental force adversely affecting human lives so that its victims can neither understand nor control the devastating effects upon them and those they love. Like Theodore Dreiser, Jack London, Stephen Crane, and Frank Norris, she trained in journalism, and characteristic of her work from this period is a detailed documentary style. Her short stories and The Street parallel the work during the 1940s of Richard Wright, Chester Himes, William Attaway, and Willard Motley, African American naturalists.
While Petry’s work has declined in popularity, her place in the history of American letters is secure. She continues to be regarded by critics and scholars alike as a powerful writer whose work is highly relevant to the climate of modern society.
Works in Critical Context
When Petry initially submitted her work to publishers, she received many rejections. However, she refined her craft considerably throughout her adult life and eventually achieved success when ”On Saturday the Siren Sounds at Noon” was accepted for publication. Afterward, her works enjoyed increasing success and national acclaim, and her first novel was met with enthusiastic reviews. She achieved the height of her popularity during the 1940s and 1950s.
Reviews of The Street
When The Street first appeared, it won generally favorable reactions and drew commendable reviews. Writing in Phylon (March-June 1947), Alain Locke deemed it ”the artistic success of the year.” Alfred Butterfield, New York Times Book Review critic, noted that the novel was ”a work of close documentation and intimate perception.” Praising Petry for her artistry, he wrote, ”It deals with its Negro characters without condescension, without special pleading, without distortion of any kind.” Arna Bontemps, writing in the New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review, praised Petry for her ”unblushing” realism and noted that it was ”part of her achievement, however, that the carnal life of the slums never seems to be hauled in for its own sake.” The general consensus seemed to be that The Street was, in the words of Henry Tracy (Common Ground, Summer 1946), ”an outstanding novel from any angle.” Even those who had begun to sour on social criticism acknowledged that Petry had breathed new life into the naturalistic novel. Noting the absence of sociological and political propaganda, and commending Petry for control and restraint, David Dempsey of the Antioch Review (September 1946) wrote: ”Petry underscores her meaning with action rather than editorials and avoids the sentimentalization of character which one finds in such a ‘protest’ writer as Steinbeck.”
While changing directions in literary taste in later decades have undercut the popular acclaim that she enjoyed in the 1940s and 1950s, Petry’s works retain vitality for discriminating readers.
- Christian, Barbara. Black Women Novelists: The Development of Tradition 1892-1976. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980.
- Evin, Hazel Arnett. Ann Petry: A Bio-References::. New York: G. K. Hall, 1993.
- Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. ”In Her Own Write.” Forward. The Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
- Holladay, Hilary. Ann Petry. New York: Twayne, 1996.
- McKay, Nellie. ”Ann Petry’s The Street and The Narrows: A Study of the Influence of Class, Race, and Gender on Afro-American Women’s Lives.” Women and War, edited by Maria Diedrich and Dorothea Fischer-Hornung. New York: Berg, 1990.
- Washington, Mary Helen. Invented Lives: Narratives of Black Women, 1860-1960. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1987.
- Greene, Majorie. ”Ann Petry Planned to Write.” Opportunity 24 (April-June 1946): 78-79.
- Ivy, James W. ”Ann Petry Talks about First Novel.” Crisis 53 (January 1946): 48-49.
- McDowell, Margaret. ”The Narrows: A Fuller View of Ann Petry.” Black American Literature Forum. 14 (1980): 135-141.
- Shinn, Themla J. ”Women in the Novels of Ann Petry.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction. 16, no. 1 (1974): 110-120.
- Weir, Sybil. ”The Narrows, a Black New England Novel.” Studies in American Fiction 15 (Spring 1987): 81-93.
- O’Donnell, Heather. Ann Petry. Retrieved November 21, 2008, from http://voices.cla.umn.edu.
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