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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Ann Petry

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.

The 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.

The 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.

After 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.

In 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.

Miss 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.

Petry’s 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.

Hilary Holladay
University of Massachusetts, Lowell

In the Heath Anthology
The Witness (1971)

Other Works
The Street (1946)
Country Place (1947)
The Drugstore Cat (1949)
The Narrows (1953)
Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad (1955)
Tituba of Salem Village (1964)
Legends of the Saints (1970)
Miss Muriel and Other Stories (1971)
"Ann Petry," Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 6, 1988 (1988)

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Scribbling Women
Information about Petry's life and links to a synopsis and critical writing on The Bones of Louella Brown.

Voices from the Gaps
Short biography, criticism, and links.

Secondary Sources

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