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Born in 1908 in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, Ann Petry
liked to characterize herself as a gambler and survivor: the former, because
she was a black woman who decided to write for a living, and the latter,
because she published eight books.
younger daughter of middle-class, New England-born parents, Ann Lane grew up in
Old Saybrook and spent much of her time in her family’s drugstore. She joined
the family business after graduating from the Connecticut College of Pharmacy
in New Haven. But in 1938, after marrying George Petry, an aspiring writer from
New Iberia, Louisiana, she left behind her sheltered life in the seaside town
and moved to New York City. There she decided to concentrate on her writing, an
interest she had pursued on the side for years. As a reporter for a Harlem
weekly, she became familiar with the poverty and demoralization afflicting
inner-city blacks. She also learned about the city through her involvement in
an after-school program for Harlem children. It was during this period that she
got the idea for The Street (1946), the tale of Lutie Johnson’s desperate
struggle to earn a living in Harlem and protect her young son from corruption.
Petry’s first novel became a national bestseller, the first for an American
black woman. To date, it has sold more than a million and a half copies.
Street showcases Petry’s mastery of naturalism. Lutie’s endless war with
hostile forces begins with her braving a ferociously cold wind and culminates
in her struggle with a would-be rapist. Set during World War II, The Street
illustrates the myriad degradations faced by black men and children as well as
black women. In addition to telling Lutie’s story, the novel takes up the
perspectives of Bub, her lonely eight-year-old son; Jones, the depraved
building superintendent; Mrs. Hedges, a malevolent madam; and even Boots Smith,
the bitterly resentful band leader.
The Street’s success, the Petrys returned to the reclusive quiet of Old
Saybrook, where they settled permanently and had a daughter, Elisabeth Ann. In
1947 Petry published Country Place, a novel as unflinching in its portrayal of
a white New England town as The Street is in its portrayal of a Harlem ghetto.
Set in the years just after World War II and narrated by the white druggist
‘Doc’ Fraser, Country Place concerns marital infidelities and a litany of other
betrayals. Although it lacks The Street’s depth of characterization, Country
Place reveals Petry’s continuing fascination with troubled communities.
Petry’s third novel, The Narrows (1953), blacks and whites coexist uneasily in
the small city of Monmouth, Connecticut. The novel, which takes place in the
fifties, revolves around a doomed relationship between Link Williams, an
educated young black man, and Camilla Treadway, a wealthy young white woman.
What begins as their private love affair ends in murder and public polarization
of the races.
Muriel and Other Stories (1971) includes 13 stories, several of which are set
in Wheeling, New York, a fictional town similar to Old Saybrook. Like her
novels, Petry’s short fiction deals with devastating fissures in insular
communities. The tension in these stories often results from distrust among
people who cannot conquer their own or anyone else’s prejudices of race and gender.
books for younger readers include a historical biography, Harriet Tubman:
Conductor on the Underground Railroad (1955), and Tituba of Salem Village
(1964), the story, based on real events, of a slave woman convicted of
witchcraft. More didactic than her works for adults, these books are eloquent
studies in African American heritage and individual fortitude.
University of Massachusetts, Lowell
In the Heath Anthology
The Drugstore Cat
Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad
Tituba of Salem Village
Legends of the Saints
Miss Muriel and Other Stories
"Ann Petry," Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 6, 1988
There are no Cultural Objects for this author.
There are no pedagogical assignments or approaches for this author.
Information about Petry's life and links to a synopsis and critical writing on The Bones of Louella Brown.
Lindon Barrett, Blackness and Value: Seeing Double, 1999
Hazel Arnett Ervin, Ann Petry: A Bio-Bibliography, 1993
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Kwame Anthony Appiah, eds., Ann Petry: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, 1994
Hilary Holladay, Ann Petry, 1996
Dolan Hubbard, ed., Recovered Writers/Recovered Texts, 1997
Emmanuel S. Nelson, Contempoary African American Novelists: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, 1999
Valerie Smith, ed., African American Writers, 1991