Petry, Ann 1909–1997
Ann Petry 1909–1997
Ann Petry became the first African American woman to write a best-selling novel. Her 1946 work The Street, a tragic story set on a block in Harlem, earned her comparisons to Native Son author Richard Wright. In their fiction, both writers demonstrated just how difficult it was for an African American to achieve a dignified, moderately prosperous existence, when racism and violence threatened them from all sides. Petry developed her sympathetic views of black urban life from her own experiences living and working in New York City as a newspaper reporter for prominent black news publications in the 1930s and 1940s. She later fled both the city and her literary fame, retreating back to the small New England town that had been home to several generations of her family.
Ann Lane Petry was born in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, in 1909. She belonged to one of only a handful of African American families in the posh seaside town, where her father had owned a drugstore since the turn of the century. Petry’s grandfather was a chemist, and an aunt and uncle were pharmacists like her father. Her mother was first a chiropodist, then began her own linen business. Petry thus grew up in a pleasant, middle-class atmosphere, and planned to enter the family business. A high school teacher, whom Petry later said did not particularly like her, read Petry’s assigned piece of fiction aloud to the class and informed her she possessed the talent to become a writer. But when Petry graduated in 1929, she enrolled in the University of Connecticut, and five years later received her doctorate in pharmacy. For the next few years, she worked as pharmacist at family-owned drugstores in Old Saybrook and Lyme, Connecticut, still harboring the dream of writing for a living. During her spare time she penned short stories.
Ann Lane married George Petry, a writer, in February of 1938, and with her new husband she moved to New York City. Here, far from the quaint towns of the Connecticut shore, she met with her first experiences of just how the majority of African Americans lived during the era. In 1939 she was hired at the Amsterdam News, an important African American newspaper, as an advertising salesperson and ad copywriter. Within a few
At a Glance…
Born October 12, 1909, in Old Saybrook, CT; died after a brief illness, April 28, 1997, in Old Say-brook, CT; daughter of Peter C. (a pharmacist and business owner) and Bertha (a barber, chiropodist and business owner; maiden name, James) Lane; married George David Petry, February 22, 1938; children: Elisabeth. Education: University of Connecticut, D.Phar., 1934.
Career: Pharmacist at family-owned drugstores in Old Saybrook and Lyme, CT, c. 1934-37; Amsterdam News, New York City, began as advertising salesperson and ad copywriter, c. 1939-40; People’s Voice, New York City, news reporter and editor of women’s section, c. 1941; taught at the Young Men’s Christian Association; member of American Negro Theatre; founded Negro Women Incorporated (a legislative watchdog group), 1941; first short story under own name published in TheCrisis, November, 1943; first novel, The Street, published by Houghton Mifflin, 1946.
Awards: Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship, 1945, for The Street.
years she had moved on to another Harlem-focused paper, the People’s Voice, where she was both a news reporter and editor of its women’s section. As a street reporter, she saw firsthand the poverty and terrible circumstances under which many African Americans were forced to live, including unsafe, overpriced housing, police who turned a blind eye to crime, sexual harassment, and chronic unemployment. She spent several years as a reporter before leaving to pursue other career options, including studying painting, founding a legislative watchdog group aimed at African American women, writing and acting in productions with the American Negro Theatre, and teaching business writing courses. She also continued to write fiction.
Petry also became involved in an experimental after-school program at P.S. 10, a Harlem elementary school on West 116th Street. It was designed to help latchkey children—children whose mothers worked and whose fathers were often absent, or who worked several jobs. Petry pointed out in her first novel, “White folks haven’t liked to give black men jobs that paid enough for them to support their families.” These children were forced to spend their after-school hours on their own. Much of what she saw during her involvement with the program—especially how such children became easy targets for either abuse and recruitment into criminal activity—became the basis for her first novel.
“I had lived my whole life without paying any attention,” Petry said of her affluent upbringing in a 1992 New York Times interview with Esther B. Fein. “It wasn’t my life. But once I became aware, I couldn’t see anything but.” The short stories she wrote were now inspired by newspaper clippings, and she met with success when “On Saturday, the Sirens at Noon,” appeared in the November 1943 issue of The Crisis. An editor at the publishing house Houghton Mifflin read it and contacted her, inquiring as to whether she was working on a novel. George Petry was serving in the Armed Forces at the time, so Petry took a job writing copy for a wig and hairpiece catalog to put together a nest egg, and a year later she gave Houghton Mifflin an outline and five chapters for The Street. In turn, they gave her a $2400 fellowship to complete it.
When it appeared in early 1946, The Street quickly became the first best-selling novel ever written by an African American woman. Set in Harlem on the very same stretch of West 116th Street as P.S. 10, it follow the tragic story of a single mother, Lutie Johnson, and her eight-year-old son Bub after Lutie’s husband leaves her. She is forced to work long hours, and worries constantly about Bub and the dangers he faces on the streets near their apartment. She harbors a dream of becoming a nightclub singer, earning enough money to escape poverty, and some day sending Bub to a prestigious college. Lutie also finds a role model in Benjamin Franklin, the eighteenth-century American inventor and statesman, who demonstrated how success can come through hard work and honest living. Lutie watches as her neighbor prospers in running a brothel out of her apartment. Bub, like most of his Harlem playmates, eventually wanders down the wrong path. “And they should have been playing in wide stretches of green park and instead they were in the street,” Petry wrote. “And the street reached out and sucked them up.”
The Street sold 1.5 million copies and was an overnight literary sensation. “The Street was a story, not propaganda, wrote Ray Rickman in American Visions decades later, “and it was a truer, more intelligent depiction of Harlem than most previous writers were able to accomplish.” After two decades of dreaming, Petry found her new celebrity status difficult. “I was a black woman at a point in time when being a writer was not usual,” Petry told Fein in New York Times interview, “and I was besieged. Everyone wanted a part of me.” To escape she fled back to Old Saybrook, purchasing a 200-year-old house in 1947.
That same year her second novel, A Country Place, appeared; its plot revolved around a husband who has returned from the war to learn that his wife has committed adultery. Though it also featured non-stereotypical, sympathetic African American protagonists and still tackled socio-economic prejudices, A Country Place achieved nowhere near the success of her debut novel. Arthur P. Davis, writing on Petry in his book From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers 1900 to 1960, placed it “in the tradition of small-town realistic fiction that goes back to [Sinclair Lewis’s] Main Street.… A Country Place deals with the class lines between aristocrats and nobodies, the antiforeign, anti-Roman Catholic prejudices, and the sexual looseness and the ugliness and viciousness found behind the innocent-appearing life in a small town.”
Petry’s third and last novel also shows the distance Petry had put between herself and urban life. Published in 1953, The Narrows featured an interracial relationship, a distinctly risky literary theme for the time. Its African American protagonist, Link Williams, possesses great gifts, including an Ivy League degree, but still faces prejudice. He becomes romantically involved with a white heiress, and he is later found dead. In an essay on Petry for a 1974 issue of Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Thelma J. Shinn wrote that Petry’s “first concern … is for acceptance and realization of individual possibilities—black and white, male and female. Her novels protest against the entire society which would contrive to make any individual less than human, or even less than he can be.”
Over the next few decades, Petry led a quiet life in Old Saybrook. She wrote children’s books, including Tituba of Salem Village, and Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad, and saw some of her short stories collected into anthologies such as Legends of the Saints, published in 1970. The Street was reissued in 1991, and its story still resonated with contemporary single mothers in Harlem: “That’s not fiction: That’s my life,” one such woman told Fein. Though by this time Petry was a relative unknown, her debut novel’s place in African American literature was assured. Essence writer and novelist Veronica Chambers declared that upon her first reading of The Street she was reduced to tears. “And yet I also felt a sense of joy,” Chambers wrote. “Petry’s writing could do that—encompass a world of characters and emotions with such realism that readers claimed them as their own.” The novelist Gloria Naylor, who used to visit her grandparents in Harlem only a few blocks away from West 116th Street, told the New York Times she never forgot the book’s first scene-setting sentences, and said that Petry “captured the forces that work against the black female.” Petry died in a convalescent home in Old Saybrook in April of 1997.
The Street, Houghton Mifflin, 1946, reprinted, 1991.
A Country Place, 1947.
The Narrows, 1953, Beacon, 1988.
Miss Muriel and Other Stories, 1971, Beacon, 1989.
Legends of the Saints (collected short stories), 1970.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 1, 1973, Volume 7, 1977, Volume 18, 1981.
Current Biography, edited by Anna Rothe, H.W. Wilson, 1946.
Davis, Arthur P., From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers 1900 to 1960,
African American Review, Fall 1992, pp. 495-504.
American Visions, February 1990, p. 56.
Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, 1974.
Essence, August 1997, p. 148.
New York Times, January 8, 1992; April 30, 1997, p. B9.
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