Petry, Ann (1908–1997)
Petry, Ann (1908–1997)
African-American writer. Name variations: Ann Lane Petry. Born Ann Lane on October 12, 1908, in Old Saybrook, Connecticut; died on April 28, 1997, in Old Saybrook; daughter of Peter C. Lane (a pharmacist) and Bertha (James) Lane (a chiropodist); University of Connecticut, Ph.G., 1931; attended Columbia University, 1943–44; married George D. Petry, in 1938; children: Elisabeth Ann "Liz" Petry.
The Street (1946, reprint ed., 1992); Country Place (1947); (juvenile) The Drugstore Cat (1949); The Narrows (1953); (juvenile) Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad (1955, published in U.K. as A Girl Called Moses: The Story of Harriet Tubman , 1960); (juvenile) Tituba of Salem Village (1964); (juvenile) The Common Ground (1964); (juvenile) Legends of the Saints (1970); Miss Muriel and Other Stories (1971).
Ann Petry's first novel, The Street, written about a single black woman and her eight-year-old son in Harlem, sold over 1.5 million copies after its publication in 1946, making her one of the few bestselling African-American women of the time. Almost 50 years later, Petry again came to public attention with the re-release of The Street, which proved so far from dated as to be still timely.
Petry was born in 1908 in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. Her father was a pharmacist, and they were one of only two African-American families in an otherwise white community. (This family background is reflected in Petry's 1958 short story Miss Muriel.) As a young woman, she earned a pharmacy degree and served as a pharmacist in her family's drugstore. Moving to New York City following her 1938 marriage, she worked in the advertising department of the Amsterdam News and as a reporter and woman's page editor for the People's Voice. In New York, she became familiar with the culture of Harlem and studied creative writing at Columbia University. One of Petry's interests, as would become evident in much of her writing, was the study of abnormal behavior. She read extensively in psychology and psychiatry to understand how people react to anxieties and frustrations.
Petry's adult fiction depicts the effects of bigotry and poverty on people's lives. Her first published story, "On Saturday the Siren Sounds at Noon," tells of a father's reaction to the deaths of his children. Set in Harlem, the narrative unfolds in flashbacks, brought on by the factory siren which rings just as it did before he discovered the children had perished in a fire. Blaming his neglectful wife for the children's deaths and consumed with grief, the protagonist eventually kills his wife and flings himself in front of a train. "Like a Winding Sheet," which after its initial publication in Crisis magazine was reprinted in Best American Stories of 1946, deals with how prejudice affects a black factory worker. At the beginning of the story, Johnson, the protagonist, is wrapped in a sheet, which Petry identifies with a burial covering. The racial slurs and the discrimination Johnson constantly endures during a single day are indeed like small deaths. At home that night, his frustration explodes in violence against his beloved wife.
The Street, whose deterministic theme echoes that of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, is the story of Lutie Johnson, an ambitious African-American woman whose life goes through many twists and turns and ultimately ends unhappily. Lutie spends some time in Connecticut working for a wealthy white family and observes their decadent lifestyle. Betrayed by her husband when she returns home to Long Island, she then leaves him and moves to Harlem with her son. Her humiliating and dangerous experiences in the inner city (which include her killing a man in self-defense) culminate in the defection of her son Bub into a life of crime: "The street will get them sooner or later, for it sucked the humanity out of people, slowly, inevitably." Demoralized, Lutie realizes Bub will probably be sent to reform school and abandons him, hoping to rebuild her life in Chicago. Most critics praised the novel's artistry and realism, and several noted that The Street succeeded without being propagandistic and without sentimentality.
Petry's adult novel Country Place (1947) is a story of change and disillusionment in a Connecticut town. Unlike The Street, this book portrayed mostly white characters and was not concerned with racial issues. In this narrative, a World War II veteran returns home to find that his wife has been unfaithful; another plotline concerns an aristocratic family's sordid secrets. The Narrows (1953), a novel of racial conflict, is also set in a Connecticut town, this time in a small black neighborhood. The story's protagonist, Link Williams, is an academically and athletically talented African-American who falls in love with a white woman from a prominent family, only later discovering that she is married.
When their affair becomes common knowledge, townspeople of both races condemn the relationship, and Link's life ends tragically when he is killed by members of his lover's family.
Petry defended her "problem" novels in her 1950 essay "The Novel as Social Criticism." Though she wrote her fiction well after the "naturalistic" period of Dreiser and Frank Norris had passed, and at a time when novels that "made a point" were somewhat unfashionable, she still believed that a novel written to make a social argument was superior to one written simply for its artistry. She asserted that the world's greatest novelists, like Dickens and Faulkner, all wrote social criticism to show "how society affects the lives of [their] characters."
Prompted by what she saw as a lack of worthwhile literature for African-American children, Petry also wrote books for young people, including Harriet Tubman : Conductor on the Underground Railroad (1955). This nonfiction work, dedicated to her daughter Elisabeth Ann Petry , told the story of the former slave who brought hundreds of people out of slavery in Maryland. Other well-received works for juveniles included The Drugstore Cat (1949), which again drew on her background in pharmacy, The Common Ground (1964), Legends of the Saints (1970), and Tituba of Salem Village (1964), the story of Tituba , a slave woman who was involved in the Salem witch trials in 1692. Petry recounted her own childhood fascination with books in a speech published in Horn Book Magazine, and noted that she wanted the characters in her own books to remind youngsters of the importance of African-Americans in history. "Look at them, listen to them," she said. "Watch Harriet Tubman in the 19th century…. Look at Tituba…. Remember for what a long, long time black people … have been a part of America … woven into its heart and into its soul."
Alexander, Sandra Carlton. "Ann Petry" in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 76: Afro-American Writers, 1940–1955. Edited by Trudier Harris. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1988.
Buck, Claire, ed. The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature. NY: Prentice-Hall, 1992.
Contemporary Authors New Revision Series. Vol. 46. Detroit, MI: Gale Research.
The Day [New London, CT]. April 30, 1997.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale, 1992.
Sally A. Myers , Ph.D., freelance writer and editor