Petry, Ann (12 Oct. 1908 - 30 Apr. 1997), author and pharmacist, was...

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Petry, Ann (12 Oct. 1908 - 30 Apr. 1997), author and pharmacist, was born Ann Lane in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. The youngest daughter of Peter C. Lane, a pharmacist and proprietor of two drugstores, and Bertha James, a licensed podiatrist. Ann Lane grew up in a financially secure and intellectually stimulating family environment. After graduating from Old Saybrook High School, she studied at the Connecticut College of Pharmacy (now the University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy) and earned her Graduate in Pharmacy degree in 1931. For the next seven years Lane worked as a pharmacist in the family business. Her family’s long history of personal and professional success served as the foundation for her own professional accomplishments. She cherished the family’s stories of triumph over racism and credited them with having “a message that would help a young black child survive, help convince a young black child that black is truly beautiful” (Petry, 257). These family narratives and their message of empowerment enabled her to persevere in the sometimes-hostile racial environment of New England.

After Lane’s marriage on 22 February 1938 to George D. Petry, of New Iberia, Louisiana, she and her husband relocated to Harlem, New York City. Harlem provided her with the environment in which to expand her creative talents and source material for her future fiction. From 1938 to 1944 Petry explored a variety of creative outlets: performing as Tillie Petunia in Abram Hill’s play On Striver’s Row at the American Negro Theater, taking painting and drawing classes at the Harlem Art Center, and studying creative writing at Columbia University. She also served as an editor and reporter for People’s Voice from 1941 to 1944. Equally important for her creative work, however, was the time Petry spent organizing the women in her community for Negro Women Inc., a consumer advocacy group, and running an after-school program at a grade school in Harlem. These experiences gave Petry insight into the harsh realities facing working-class black Americans and offered her a distinct contrast to the financially comfortable world in which she was raised. Witnessing the struggles of impoverished black families in Harlem and observing the social codes of more affluent communities, such as Old Saybrook, enriched Petry’s fiction, which explores the ways in which social expectations, along with the forces of racism and sexism, can constrain individual lives.

Petry published her first short story shortly after moving to Harlem. “Marie of the Cabin Club” (1939) appeared in an issue of Afro-American, a Baltimore newspaper, under the pseudonym Arnold Petri. In 1943, under her own name, Petry published “On Saturday the Siren Sounds at Noon” in the Crisis. An important turning point in her career came when this publication caught the attention of an editor who suggested that she apply for the Houghton-Mifflin Literary Fellowship Award. She submitted the first chapters and an outline of what would become her most famous novel, The Street, and won the fellowship in 1945. Funded by a $2,400 stipend, Petry finished the novel in 1946.

The Street garnered immediate critical and popular acclaim. Twenty thousand copies sold in advance of its release, and the novel’s sales surpassed 1.5 million copies, making it the first novel by a black woman to sell over a million copies. The story of Lutie Johnson, an ambitious black woman trying to work toward financial security, The Street uses the bleak landscape of an impoverished Harlem street to personify the relentlessness of racism. In its use of some elements of urban realism, The Street evokes comparison to RICHARD WRIGHT’s Native Son, in which Bigger Thomas’s social position--poor, black, and uneducated--inevitably leads to violence and tragedy. But Petry’s novel offers what some critics consider a more nuanced examination of the way in which racism shapes black experience. Lutie Johnson not only contends with racism but also confronts sexism from white and black communities alike on an almost daily basis. Furthermore, unlike Bigger Thomas, she is a reasonably well-educated and ambitious woman, driven by the mythology of the American Dream and convinced that her hard work will ultimately be rewarded. Lutie’s tragic failure to achieve her goals indicts not only the racism of American society but also the deceptive mythologies that encourage people like Lutie to believe that they have an equal chance at success.

The Street’s enthusiastic reception made Petry a public figure. Seeking privacy, she and her husband returned in 1947 to Old Saybrook, where they lived for the rest of Petry’s life. In the same year, Petry published Country Place, a novel that also explores the role of environment and community on individuals, though it does not deal explicitly with black characters or experiences. In 1949 Petry gave birth to the couple’s only child, Elisabeth Ann Petry, and published the first of what would be several books for children and young adults, The Drugstore Cat.

While it is not as well known as The Street, The Narrows, published in 1953, further complicates the issues Petry raises in her first novel. Set in a fictional New England city, The Narrows explores the repercussions of a love affair between a black man and a white woman. The nearly inevitable downfall of Link Williams in The Narrows revisits Lutie Johnson’s situation in The Street. Both characters are ambitious and intelligent, yet constrained by the mechanisms of racism, which prevent them from ever really succeeding. The Narrows offers a pointed commentary on social behavior, not only interracial romance but also excessive class consciousness. Within this frame, Petry suggests that social codes and behavioral expectations are damaging to black and white communities alike.

Petry’s themes of community relationships and the complexity of black experience in the United States continued in her later publications, including the nonfiction children’s books Harriet Tubman, Conductor on the Underground Railroad (1955), Tituba of Salem Village (1964), and Legends of the Saints (1970). In 1971 Petry published Miss Muriel and Other Stories. A compilation of stories from the 1940s through 1971, the collection draws on Petry’s experiences in Harlem as well as in small-town America. In addition to writing, Petry undertook several visiting lectureships, earned a National Endowment of the Arts creative writing grant in 1978, and was awarded several honorary degrees, including an honorary D.Litt. from Suffolk University in 1983 and honorary degrees from the University of Connecticut in 1988 and Mount Holyoke College in 1989. Petry died in Old Saybrook on 30 April 1997.

As the first best-selling African American woman writer, Ann Petry holds a firm place in American literary history as both a groundbreaker and a literary predecessor to some of the twentieth century’s most significant black women novelists. The works of Gloria Naylor, ALICE WALKER, and TONI MORRISON continue to explore the complicated interplay of race, gender, and socioeconomic status that Petry illuminated so well in her fiction.

Further Reading

First editions of Petry’s work, correspondence, and critical reviews are housed in the Ann Petry Collection at the African American Research Center, Shaw University, Raleigh, North Carolina. Additional manuscript materials may be found at the Mugar Memorial Library at Boston University; the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut; the Woodruff Library at Atlanta University; and the Moorland-Springarn Research Center at Howard University, Washington, D.C.

Petry, Ann. “Ann Petry.” Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series (1988).
Ervin, Hazel Arnett. Ann Petry: A Bio-Bibliography (1993).
Holladay, Hilary. Ann Petry (1996).
Obituary: New York Times, 30 Apr. 1997.

Cynthia A. Callahan

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