Last reviewed: June 2017
American novelist, short story writer, and author of children’s literature.
October 12, 1908
Old Saybrook, Connecticut
April 28, 1997
Old Saybrook, Connecticut
Ann Petry (PEE-tree) was born Ann Lane, the younger of two daughters of Peter and Bertha Lane in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. Her father and his sister, the first black pharmacists in the community, owned the drugstore that employed Lane when she graduated from Connecticut College of Pharmacy in 1931. In 1938 she married George Petry and moved to New York City, where she worked as a journalist in Harlem and enrolled at Columbia University. After many rejections she sold a short story to Crisis, where two further stories appeared in 1945. At about this time Houghton Mifflin Publishing Company took an interest in her work and subsequently awarded her the Houghton Mifflin Fellowship Award for her novel The Street.
The Street, following the example of Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), portrays a ghetto inhabitant who responds to a hopeless situation with an act of violence. In this case the protagonist is a Harlem woman, Lutie Johnson, who kills a bandleader who tries to seduce her. Lutie has attempted to escape from her impoverished existence by becoming a singer but discovers that she is regarded merely as property by those who exploit her. The killing is symbolic of the danger inherent in a racially segregated society, where violence is a form of self-assertion against a seemingly omnipotent enemy. Like other novels in the naturalistic tradition of the 1940’s, The Street is both a warning and a plea that the racist system must be changed.
In 1947 Petry broke away from the Wright tradition with the publication of Country Place. This work deals with the problems of a predominantly white cast of characters in a small New England town, much like Old Saybrook. Johnnie Roane returns from World War II and becomes disillusioned with the community’s provincial lifestyle and corruption. He escapes to New York, leaving the other outsiders—a black maid, a Portuguese gardener, and a Jewish lawyer—to face the prejudiced society on their own. In the novel Petry stresses the moral bankruptcy of postwar America. By concentrating primarily on white characters, Petry was at the forefront of a trend among African American writers that was, in part, a reaction against the Wright tradition of direct protest. Willard Motley’s Knock on Any Door (1947), Zora Neale Hurston’s Seraph on the Suwanee (1948), William Gardner Smith’s Anger at Innocence (1950), Chester Himes’s Cast the First Stone (1952), Wright’s Savage Holiday (1954), James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956), and many of the historical romances of Frank Yerby were among the novels that, like Country Place, featured mostly white characters. Although the movement was brief, it included some of the major writers of the era.
The first of Petry’s juvenile books, The Drugstore Cat, was written while she was still living in New York City. She then moved back to Old Saybrook. Her third adult novel, The Narrows, also set in a small New England town, concerns an interracial love affair between Link Williams and a white woman. During the relationship, Link learns to appreciate his black heritage and, at the same time, to be impatient with the lack of tolerance in the community. Despite its melodramatic conclusion, the novel is an artistic high point of Petry’s career. The work’s variety of viewpoints toward life and race broadens the perspective of the novel and transcends the genre of protest fiction.
At a point when she seemed at the height of her power, Petry abandoned the adult field and turned to children’s literature. She wrote Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad because she was dissatisfied with textbook interpretations of slavery. It was followed by Tituba of Salem Village, the story of a black woman involved in the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692, and Legends of the Saints, a biographical presentation of ten saints. Ann Petry’s last major literary production was Miss Muriel, and Other Stories, which includes some of her early stories from Crisis. “Miss Muriel,”“Mother Africa,” and “The New Mirror” are notable short stories.
Ann Petry’s place in the history of African American literature has often been compared to that of Zora Neale Hurston and such later writers as Paule Marshall and Alice Walker.