Petry, Ann Lane

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PETRY, Ann Lane

Born 12 October 1908, Old Saybrook, Connecticut; died 28 April 1997, Old Saybrook, Connecticut

Daughter of Peter Clark and Bertha James Lane; married George D. Petry, 1938; children: one daughter

Ann Petry was born into a poor black family of Old Saybrook, Connecticut, a predominantly white New England community. Her father was the local druggist. After receiving her Ph.G. in 1931 from the University of Connecticut, Petry returned home to work as a pharmacist in the family drugstores from 1931 to 1938. In 1938 she married Petry (they had one daughter) and moved to New York City, becoming an advertising salesperson and writer for the Amsterdam News (1938-41), and then reporter and woman's-page editor for the rival People's Voice of Harlem (1941-44). Petry was also a member of the American Negro Theater and wrote children's plays.

Petry studied creative writing at Columbia University from 1944 to 1946 and published her first short stories in The Crisis and Phylon. In addition to writing, Petry lectured at Berkeley, Miami University, and Suffolk University, and was a visiting professor of English at the University of Hawaii (1974-75).

After Petry had served her literary apprenticeship as a journalist, she began to publish short stories. "Like a Winding Sheet" was reprinted in Foley's Best American Short Stories of 1946, and another story led to a Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship, during which Petry completed her first novel, The Street (1946). The Street is a naturalistic novel usually associated with the Richard Wright school of protest fiction. The protagonist, Lutie Johnson, imbued with the American success ethic of Benjamin Franklin, is defeated in her attempts to improve her life by the detrimental influences of Harlem. Critics see the novel as gripping yet simplistic.

Country Place (1947) is an "assimilationist" novel set in the small town of Lennox, Connecticut. The major characters are white, and are enmeshed in a plot and setting reminiscent of a cross between Winesburg, Ohio and Peyton Place, as an apocalyptic autumn storm brings out the true natures of the townspeople. Country Place is considered Petry's most successful novel in scope and use of symbol and metaphor to parallel action and evoke character. The plot is unified and the prose clear and powerful.

The Narrows (1953) demonstrates a return to the theme of race. The plot revolves around the classic love conflict between heroic black man and rich white woman. Link Williams, the protagonist, is a fine portrayal of a young black man, an orphan and possessor of a college degree who has chosen to tend bar in the hub of the Narrows, the black section of Monmouth, Connecticut, rather than become a member of the black bourgeoisie. The Narrows is simultaneously sophisticated and melodramatic, as brilliantly conceived characters outshine a standard plot.

The rest of Petry's opus consists of four juvenile books and a collection of short stories, Miss Muriel, and Other Stories (1971). "In Darkness and Confusion" concerns a poor black couple's way of coping with their son's mistreatment in a segregated army by participating in looting and property damage during the Harlem riot of August 1943. The well-wrought title story is semiautobiographical, told from the perspective of a twelve-yearold black girl. Set in the drugstore of a New England town, the story treats the loss of innocence that comes with a growing awareness of maturity.

Petry's fiction is of a fine quality. Her stories succeed better than her novels, although the novels certainly belong in the mainstream of American naturalism and realism. Petry's work has not vet received thorough treatment by literary critics; she is typically portrayed as a lesser member of the naturalistic school centered around Wright. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, some critics argued this characterization misrepresents and trivializes Petry's contributions. Although she was deeply interested in the impact of the social and physical environment, Petry also had a great concern with the role of the imagination and an attunement to black women's lives that is not often found in the Wright school.

Two articles in Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition (1985, edited by Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers) provide a useful critical introduction to Petry's work. Bernard Bell argues that Petry's works expose the operation of myth—including myths about the American dream, rural and urban places, and black and white people. He addresses all three of Petry's adult novels, The Street, Country Place, and The Narrows, as he compares their treatment of time, space, and economic determinism. In the same volume, Marjorie Pryse focuses on The Street, which she argues draws heavily on the myth of Benjamin Franklin and the self-made man. The political backdrop of the novel, she suggests, reveals that the seemingly naturalistic and irresistible "laws" of urban life are actually human (specifically white human) constructions. The Street, she concludes, urges us to reconsider the links between motherhood and cultural roots.

More recently, Lindon Barrett devoted a chapter of his Blackness and Value (1999) to a close reading of The Street, which he argues is emblematic of black people's experiences of American cultural violence. The novel, he suggests, challenges the prevailing view that there is little in common between black urban and white suburban spaces. It reveals and probes the system of cultural signification that turns black people and black communities into "present absences."

Hazel Ervin's Ann Petry: A Bio-Bibliography (1993) is a useful doorway into critical literature about Petry. It contains almost 400 references to secondary sources (mostly in periodicals), interviews, short stories, book reviews both by and about Petry, and translations of Petry's works into languages other than English. It provides, however, almost none of the biographical material promised in its title. For biographical information, Hilary Holladay's Ann Petry (1996) is the best resource.

Other Works:

The Drugstore Cat (1949). Harriet Tubman (1955). Tituba of Salem Village (1964). Legends of the Saints (1970).


Bone, R. A., The Negro Novel in America (1958; rev. ed., 1965). O'Banner, B. M., "A Study of Black Heroines in Four Selected Novels (1929-1959) by Four Black American Women Novelists: Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, Paule Marshall, Ann Lane Petry" (thesis, 1985). Royster, B. H., The Ironic Vision of Four Black Women Novelists: A Study of the Novels of Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ann Petry (1980).

Reference works:

African-American Women: A Biographical Dictionary (1993). Black Women in America (1993). CA (vols. 5, 8R). CANR 4. CB (March 1946). CLC 1, 7, 18. DLB 76. Great Black Americans (1976). NBAW. SATA 5. TCCW (1978). WWAW (1974).

Other references:

African American Review (1992). CLAJ (1986). Callaloo (1994). Crisis 53 (1946). Criticism (Spring 1974). NEQ 47 (1974). NYHT (16 Aug. 1953). Opportunity 24 (1946). SBL (Fall 1975). Studies in Short Fiction (1994). Women's Studies (1995).



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