6 Fascinating Facts About Ann Petry, Author of The Street

Ann Petry

Ann Petry (1908 – 1997) is best known for being the first African-American woman to produce a book whose sales would top a million copies. The Street ultimately sold a million and a half copies. Here you’ll find more about this and other interesting facts about Ann Petry, a classic American author who deserves to be more widely read.

Her writing career began in earnest in 1938 when she moved from her native Connecticut to Harlem. There she worked as a journalist, columnist, and editor as well as participating in Harlem’s American Negro Theatre. She had three novels and several children’s books published.

 

She had a sheltered upbringing in a New England town

Before she was Ann Petry she was Ann Lane, and was raised in Old Saybrook, a middle class town in Connecticut. Her parents tried to shelter Ann and her sister from the systemic racism of black life in America. They largely succeeded, with the exception of a few unfortunate and indelible incidences.

Her father was a pharmacist who owned his own drugstore; her mother was a chiropodist and businesswoman. Ann’s mother and aunts were strong role models. Ann said of her mother and aunts that “it never occurred to them that there were things they couldn’t do because they were women.”

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She studied pharmacy and worked in the family business

In a high school English class, her teacher read an essay Ann had written aloud to the class and commented: “I honestly believe that you could be a writer if you wanted to.”

But her parents, practical and prudent, wanted her to study to be a pharmacist and follow in a well-established family path. 

Ann attended the Connecticut College of Pharmacy and received her degree in 1930, just as the Great Depression took hold. She worked as  a pharmacist in the her father’s drugstore for several years, but never forgot her ambition to become a writer. Always an avid reader, she was particularly taken with Louisa May Alcott’s fictional heroine, Jo March.

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Ann Petry

Learn more about Ann Petry
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Urban life opened her eyes to a different world

Ann didn’t experience urban life until she got married in 1938 at age 30. She and her husband George Petry moved to Harlem in New York City.

She plunged into writing —reporting for newspapers, short stories for journals. For the first time she observed the poverty, hardship, and segregation in Black communities.

Over the next few years, she immersed herself in social issues as well. Ann conducted sociological studies, volunteered with the NAACP, and worked with low-income schoolchildren in after-school programs.

But she also did things for her own edification: 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.

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The Street by Ann Petry

The Street by Ann Petry
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She broke barriers with The Street

Ann’s experiences as a resident of New York City inspired her to write The Street (1946), though it isn’t in any way  autobiographical. Her first novel remained her best known.

In addition to being a good story, it’s also a social commentary on black urban life in that era. A gritty story of a single mother raising a son in Harlem, it earned her much praise and a little notoriety.

The Street centers on Lutie Johnson, a young black single mother coping with racism, sexual harassment, violence, and class divisions in World War II-era New York City. 

As mentioned earlier, Petry became the first Black woman writer whose work sold more than a million copies (The Street ultimately sold 1.5 million). The book brought her much critical praise and national attention, and won the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship.

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Ann Petry also wrote children’s books

In 1947, Ann returned to the quieter life in Old Saybrook. In addition to producing two more novels (Country Place and The Narrows) she wrote children’s books: The Drugstore Cat (1949), Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad (1955) and Tituba of Salem Village (1963).

Her last book, a collection of short stories, Miss Muriel & Other Stories, returned to an adult readership and was published in 1971. 

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The Narrows by Ann Petry

Ann Petry page on Amazon*
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She returned to Old Saybrook when success proved overwhelming

The Street’s success made Ann famous, which she found overwhelming. She and her husband left New York City to return to Old Saybrook, Connecticut, where she was born and raised. There they bought a house, and raised their only daughter. The town remained her home base for the rest of her life, though she taught and lectured far and wide.

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