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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 Ann Lane and raised in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, she 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 fictional heroine Jo March as a 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 drawing and painting courses at Harlem Art Center. She also participated in Harlem’s American Negro Theatre, performing onstage as Tillie Petunia in Abram Hill’s play On Striver’s Row.
Ann was active in social issues as well. She ran an after school program at an elementary school in Harlem, and was an organizer for Negro Women Inc. These experiences opened Ann’s eyes to the challenges facing working class women, whose lives were far more vulnerable than what she had experienced in her genteel upbringing. Witnessing class, race, and economic struggles firsthand was what informed her fiction.
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.
See more about The Street (1946)
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.”
Ann Petry published seven other books, but none was as successful as The Street.
The Street Reissued in 1992
In 1992, The Street was re-released by its original publisher, Houghton Mifflin. Ann Petry fame rose once again, now age 84. She was profiled in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and other publications. The Street was recognized as an important contribution to African-American literature.
The Hartford Courant, a newspaper relatively close to Ann’s home of Old Saybrook, Connecticut home, quoted Margo Perkins, a teacher of African-American literature at Trinity College on the impact of The Street: “It is one of the first novels to talk about black women’s experience in terms of the intersection of race, class and gender, and it paralleled Richard Wright’s work, which very much focused on black men. It has been reclaimed in the last several years as a very important novel.”
Reviewing the 1992 edition of The Street, the L.A. Times review remarked, “Lutie Johnson is an incandescent spirit trapped in circumstances that constantly conspire to douse her potential. White women view her as a threat and men of every race appraise her as a possible conquest. Whenever she allows herself to be naive enough to forget the rules of the game–that is, that an impoverished black woman alone is considered prey — she is violently reminded of her situation.”
You might also like: 6 Interesting Facts About Ann Petry
Teaching and continuing to write
Sudden fame after The Street’s success proved overwhelming. Petry and her husband left New York City to return to Old Saybrook, purchased a house, and raised 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 in 1947 with Country Place, a story taking place in the familiar setting of a drugstore. The Narrows (1953) is a novel of an interracial romance.
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.
In an essay, Ann said of her work: “When I write for children, I write about survivors. When I write for adults, I write about the walking wounded.”
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
- Ann Petry Talks of Race Problems
- 6 Interesting Facts About Ann Petry
- Quotes from The Street by Ann Petry
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 in the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame
- Meet Lutie Johnson on PBS’s American Masters
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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