ENGL6923: Working-Class Literature
A Brief Biography
Anna Houston Lane was born October 12, 1908. Petry spent much of her childhood in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, where her father operated a pharmacy. The Lanes were one of the very few black families in the area. Although they led a mostly middle class life, Petry's childhood held signiciantly less of the difficulty that beset many inner-city black people of that time. Hillary Holladay states in her biography that Ann, and her sister, Helen, were raised "in the classic New England tradition: a study in efficiency, thrift, and utility."
In 1931, Ann earned a degree from the Connecticut College of Pharmacy and began working as a licensed pharmacist. In 1938, Ann married George David Petry and moved to New York City where she turned her attentions to writing and the plight of her fellow black Harlemites. Petry claims that she always had it in her to become a writer. It was by her own admission, that she remained largely unsuccessful until she spent a year under the tutelage of Miss Mabel L. Robinson at Columbia. It was at this juncture that Petry made the move from the short story to the novel, and she attributes the increase in the quality of her writing to the knowledge that she gained through Miss Robinson's instruction.
Though the main body of the Harlem Renaissance was already completed by the time Petry arrived in New York, she contributed to the Marxist and Communist traditions that were prolific in the 30s and 40s. Petry worked for The People's Voice while she lived in Harlem and continued to write plays and fiction as well. She moved back to Connecticut after publishing The Street in 1946. Petry also wrote several children's books that were socially conscious.
Ann Petry began to release her work in 1946, between major movements in American literary history. Petry seemed to be left in a literary limbo, with Realism, The Proletarians and the Talented Tenth of the Harlem Renaissance informing her writing from her recent past, and the Black Arts Movement, Feminism and The Beat Writers yet to come. Petry's works were praised by the contemporary critics of the day initially. The critics wrote about Petry's work, usually focusing on those ideas which could be used as political statements. They also tended to ignore aspects of her work that ran contrary to the politics they were promoting. This critical practice was in keeping with W.E.B. Dubois's ideas that art was a political vehicle, and Petry's view that the narrative is inherently political but these limited critiques failed to consider the intentions of the author.
The Street, published in 1946, follows the life and memories of Lutie Johnson and her son, Bub, as she seeks stability and independence in a predominantly black, poor Harlem. Lutie is a strong, beautiful, African-American single mother, an unusual heroine for that time, and through her experiences, we learn about the challenges that arise from the class, race, and gender biases of the day. Petry doesn't treat these issues independently but rather highlights their intersection and shows the reader what challenges exist within that convergence.
The Street is arguably Petry's most critically discussed novel. It has been analyzed in a great number of critical lenses. Petry's popularity in the African American critical limelight waned sharply when Country Place (1947) was released. Petry's second novel seemed, to many critics, to be a great departure from her first novel, in that, the setting was a small New England community and nearly every character of importance was white. Country Place, did not fit the mold for "Negro Writing" that had been established by African American leftist critics and was derided as invalid.
Country Place did find a slightly better fit in a category of writing called "white life writing", a trope in which black writers focused on social commentary on racism highlighting the lives of white America as characters of those novels. (Dubek 55) Petry rejected that description. She saw her work simply as good fiction, which did not need to fit into a defined niche. Despite repeated attempts by her contemporary critics and the press to categorize Country Place as a departure from the social commentary Petry had established with The Street, she refused to discuss this novel as race-less. Evidence of multiple forms of bigotry is present at every turn within the novel. Country Place is not race-less; it is about "whiteness" and therefore about the system of racism.
Published in 1953, The Narrows, considered by some to be Petry's finest work, deals with the post-war return of a black soldier, Link Williams (who was only allowed to fight under a French flag). Petry depicted a soldier's difficulty in adjusting to normal life when they found that their women had also changed in their absence. In addition to the many psychological and racial themes, the novel also dealt with class and gender through an interracial extramarital affair between a white woman and a black man. The Narrows shows many characters, from both ends of the socio-economic spectrum, unhappily trapped in systems that they did not understand.
Critical Views of Petry's Work
The sheer volume of recent critical conversation surrounding Ann Petry's works makes it clear that the first black woman author to sell more than a million books has also written deeply valuable work: both as social commentary and as time-resilient literature. This is not surprising at all, given the depth of imagery and import in her debut novel The Street alone.
Petry's tendency to show how multiple social forces create difficulties for her characters lends itself to concurrent criticism, drawing on multiple theoretical approaches for analysis. We can view Lutie Johnson as a black woman who cannot remove her gender, alter her brown skin, or jump the class strata at will. Seeing the intersection of these pressures and how they together offer a gestalt of turmoil that each separate concern could not generate alone, why would we attempt to consider her varied aspects separately? Likewise Link Williams of The Narrows and even Lil of Country Place constantly cross class and race boundaries.
Petry's work has invited analysis from a wide range of critical perspectives, heavily weighted toward approaches based in social and political theories. The following list illustrates the diversity of the critical conversation on Petry's writing.
Mullen, Bill V. "Object lessons: Fetishization and Class Consciousness in Ann Petry's The Street," From Revising the Blueprint: Ann Petry and the Literary Left. By Bill V. Mullen, Edited by Alex Lubin (2007. Jackson, Mississippi: University of Mississippi Press) 35-48.
Feminist/ Post Colonialist
Shinn, Thelma J. "Women in the Novels of Ann Petry," Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, 16 no.1 (1974): 110-120.
Barry, Michael. "Same Train Be Back Tomorrower: Ann Petry's The Narrows and the Repetition of History," MELUS 24, no.1 (Spring 1999):141-59. (Michael Barry)
Dingledine, Don. "'It Could Have Been any Street': Ann Petry, Stephen Crane, and the Fate of Naturalism," Studies in American Fiction 34, no.1 (2006): 87-106.
Shockley, Evie. "Buried Alive: Gothic Homelessness, Black Women's Sexuality, and (Living) Death in Ann Petry's The Street," African American Review 40 (2006): 439-60.
Dubek, Laura. "White Family Values in Ann Petry's Country Place," MELUS 29, no.2 (2004): 55-76.
Eby, Clare Virginia. "Beyond Protest: The Street as Humanitarian Narrative," MELUS 33 (2008): 33-53.
Hicks, Heather. "'This Strange Communion': Surveillance and Spectatorship in Ann Petry's The Street," African American Review 29, no.1 (2003): 21-37.
Peterson, Rachel. "'Invisible Hands at Work': Domestic Service and Meritocracy in Ann Petry's Novels and Journalism." In Revising the Blueprint: Ann Petry and the Literary Left. By Rachel Peterson, Edited by Alex Lubin. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007.
For background on these critical approaches see this basic overview of Literary Critical Theory.
Selected works by Ann Petry
The Street (1946)
Country Place (1947)
The Narrows (1953)
Selections from Petry's Children's Literature
The Drugstore Cat (1949)
Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad (1955)
Tituba of Salem Village (1964)
Selected Essays and Other Works by Ann Petry
"The Novel as Social Criticism." In The Writer's Book, Ed. Helen Hull, 31-39. New York: Barnes & Noble INC, 1956.
"The Common Ground," in Horn Book Reflections, ed. Elinor Whitney Field Boston: Horne Book, Inc., 1969.
Legends of the Saints (New York, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1970)
Miss Muriel and Other Stories (1971)
Links to websites about Ann Petry and her works:
This site provides information about other aspects of Petry and her works as well as more links.
This is a link to very concise overview of Petry highlighting her contributions to African American literature.
This website is about the daughter of Ann Petry, Elisabeth, and also has a section on Ann as well.
Sarah K. Horsley's biography from Fembio
Holladay, Hilary. "Creative prejudice in Ann Petry's 'Miss Muriel.'" Studies in Short Fiction 1994.
Lubin, Alex. Revising the Blueprint: Ann Petry and the Literary Left. Jackson, Mississippi: University of Mississippi Press., 2007.
Petry E., Elisabeth. At Home Inside: A Daughter's Tribute to Ann Petry. Jackson: University press of Mississippi, 2009.
Petry, Ann H. "The Novel as Social Criticism." Hull, Hellen. The writer's Book. Barnes & Noble, INC.: New York, 1950. 31-39.