Ann Petry (October 12, 1908 – April 28, 1997) was the first African-American woman to produce a book (The Street) whose sales topped one million. Ultimately it would sell a million and a half copies. Born and raised in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, Ann Lane was the daughter of Peter Clark Lane, a pharmacist, and Bertha James Lane, a podiatrist.
Encounters with the pervasive racism that permeated American life in their time were relatively rare — though not entirely absent — in the sheltered life that the Lanes provided for Ann and her siblings.
Though a high school teacher encouraged her to write, Ann went to pharmacy college and received a degree. This was in the early 1930s, when a practical profession was a blessing during the Great Depression. She followed in her father’s footsteps to become a pharmacist in the family drugstore. She was always an avid reader who was particularly taken with Louisa May Alcott’s Jo March as a fictional heroine and role model for her writerly aspirations.
A move to Harlem
In 1938, she married George Petry, and the couple moved to Harlem. There she began a writing career in earnest, working as a journalist, columnist, and editor. She took writing courses at Columbia University and participated in Harlem’s American Negro Theatre in the 1940s.
It was then that Ann experienced urban life for the first time, and was struck by the hardships and poverty experienced by Black communities. To earn money, she sold ads for the Amsterdam News, and at the same time, started writing in earnest.
She wrote many short stories for magazines and journals and periodicals, but it was “On Saturday, the Sirens at Noon” — a story that was published in a 1943 issue of The Crisis that proved a major turning point. She received notification after the story appeared to enter the competition for the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship. She submitted the first few chapters of the book she’d been working on, The Street, and was awarded the fellowship, which came with a handsome cash award.
The Street was published in 1946, and became an overnight sensation. The New York Times called it “a skillfully written and forceful first novel.’’ Its significance was as a novel that explored black women’s experience through the intersection of race, gender, and class.
Despite its commercial and overall critical success, The Street was not without its detractors. Some African-American critics, including James W. Ivey of The Crisis, objected to Petry’s one-sided portrayal of Harlem as a “seething cesspool of sluts, pimps, juvenile delinquents …” and deemed it “worthless as a picture of Harlem though interesting as a revelation of Mrs. Petry.”
You might also like: 6 Interesting Facts About Ann Petry
Teaching and continuing to write
The sudden fame proved overwhelming, Petry and her husband left New York to return to Old Saybrook, purchasing a house, and raising their only daughter there. The town where she was grew up remained her home base for the rest of her days, even as she taught and lectured far and wide. The Street was quickly followed with Country Place in 1947.
After this, a few children’s books were produced: The Drugstore Cat (1949), Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad (1955) and Tituba of Salem Village (1963). She continued to write short stories and even went to Hollywood for a brief sojourn to work on a movie script. Petry published The Narrows in 1953, and finally, a short story collection, Miss Muriel and Other Stories, in 1971.
Though none of her subsequent works sold in the sheer volume of The Street, nor achieved its notoriety, Ann Petry remained a respected voice, received a number of honorary degrees, and was inducted into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame. Her work has lately begun to be revisited and studied. Petry died in Old Saybrook in 1997.
More about Ann Petry on this site
Major Works (fiction)
Other Works (for younger readers)
Biographies about Ann Petry
- The Radical Fiction of Ann Petry by Keith Clark (2013)
- At Home Inside: A Daughter’s Tribute to Ann Petry (2008)
- Ann Petry on Wikipedia
- Ann Petry: The Hutchins Center for African &
African American Research at Harvard
- Ann Petry on FemBio
- Ann Petry in the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame
- Ann Lane Petry page on Amazon
Articles, News, Etc.
- Ann Petry: Brief Life of a Celebrity-Averse Novelist, Harvard Magazine, Jan./Feb. 2014
- Letters Illuminate Life of African American Novelist Ann Petry
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