Ann Petry Essay - Petry, Ann

Petry, Ann


Ann Petry 1908–-1997

African-American novelist, short story writer, essayist, and children's author.

Although she grew up in New England, Ann Petry lived in Harlem for several of her adult years, absorbing its vitality and chronicling the problems of the African-American community. Sometimes compared with Richard Wright, she used racial themes in realistic, sociological novels with moral overtones. During the 1960s and 1970s Petry declined in popularity, but interest in her work was revived by critics during the 1980s and 1990s.

Biographical Information

Petry was born Anne Lane on 12 October 1908 in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, to a middle-class African-American family, one of the few in her geographical area. Like her father, she became a druggist, working in the family business until 1938, when she and her husband, George Petry, decided to settle in New York. After working for a time the People's Voice in Harlem and involving herself in cultural and civic activities, Petry decided to devote her attention to her own writing. By 1943 she was beginning to have success with her short stories, and in 1946 her first novel, The Street, set in Harlem, was published and won her acclaim. Two other novels, Country Place (1947) and The Narrows (1953), returned to small-town settings. Petry died in May 1997, at a time when her work had been rediscovered by critics and the public.

Major Works

Petry is noted for her understanding of the very different sensibilities of the inner city and the small town as they affect the life of African-Americans. Her first short stories, such as “A Winding Sheet” (1945), were based on real people and incidents she had observed in Harlem. Her award-winning first novel, The Street, has naturalistic overtones in its portrayal of a woman buffeted by Harlem's harsh environment. Country Place departs from racial themes, employing melodrama and intertwined plots in its story of the ways in which people in a New England town react to unwelcome change. Petry's novel, The Narrows, written after her return to Old Saybrook, explores the theme of race relations in a small town. In 1950 Petry also produced an important essay, “The Novel as Social Criticism,” which defended the so-called “problem novel” which she herself favored. Petry continued to write for magazines and produced several children's books, including The Drugstore Cat (1949), Tituba of Salem Village (1964), and Legends of the Saints (1970). Petry has been praised for her adept characterization and narrative flow, but, according to Sandra Carlton Alexander in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, “Geography … remains the single determining factor in her career.”

Critical Reception

Petry's work has been widely reviewed since her first novel was published in 1946. 1950s critics tended to be sociological and formalist, emphasizing Petry's analysis of a racist society and placing her in the naturalistic tradition of Richard Wright. Although critics in the 1960s and 1970s were slow to place Petry on the same literary level as Wright or Ralph Ellison, many during this period did recognize her as an important African-American writer who signalled an emerging black women writers' literary tradition. In the 1980s and 1990s, critical attention to Petry's work was revived in a variety of ways. Many critics insisted that her work should be valued far beyond the naturalism of the Wright school and did close readings of Petry with rhetorical, genre, or feminist critical approaches. Others claimed that Petry frequently overused melodrama and relied too much on environmental determinism. In the late 1990s black feminist critics emphasized Petry's contributions to the mythology of black womanhood, and deconstructive critics re-evaluated Petry's texts, with close attention to the symbolic values she assigned to African-American culture.

Principal Works

The Street (novel) 1946

Country Place (novel) 1947

The Drugstore Cat (juvenilia) 1949

The Narrows (novel) 1953

Harriet Tubman, Conductor on the Underground Railroad (juvenilia) 1955

Tituba of Salem Village (juvenilia) 1964

Legends of the Saints (juvenilia) 1970

Miss Muriel and Other Stories (short stories) 1971


David Madden (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: “The Witness,” in Studies of Black Literature, Vol. 6, Fall, 1975, pp. 24–26.

[In the following essay, Madden offers an overall critique of the short story “The Witness,” stressing Petry's insights into the plight of African-Americans living in primarily white small towns.]

One of the most prominent black women writers in America, Ann Petry, was born in 1911 in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. She worked as a registered pharmacist in the drugstores her family owned until she moved with her husband to New York City in 1938, where she became a witness. After working two years in the advertising department of the Harlem Amsterdam News, she edited the woman's page and wrote news stories for the Harlem People's Voice. Having witnessed every phase of life in Harlem, she decided to interpret the Negro experience to the world. An editor at Houghton Mifflin saw her first published story in The Crisis in 1943 and she was given a fellowship for her first novel, The Street, published in 1946, a naturalistic social protest novel that made her famous. In the New Republic, Bucklin Moon called it “as scathing an indictment of our society as has ever appeared. …” Her second novel, Country Place (1947), was a Winesburg, Ohio-Peyton Place expose of what really goes on behind the folksy facade of a typical small town in Connecticut. During the upsurge of black literary activity in the Sixties, the reputations of her contemporaries, Arna Bontemps, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison, remained strong and their works took on new relevance, but Petry's was seldom discussed.

“The Witness” may suggest why Petry, like Ellison, was not one of the vocal writers of that era.1 Her agent submitted it to The Kenyon Review when I was assistant editor in 1965. I wanted very much to publish it because I was impressed that she had done what few writers black or white were then doing—she had shown that the white middle-class way of life that poor blacks were peacefully and violently trying to gain legal access to or seize is so hollow some of its best children feel most fully alive in senseless violence. And she dared to show that a professional, middle-class black who has been assimilated can never totally put his blackness behind him, and she dared further to end the story with her humiliated black protagonist in ignominious flight from the children of the upper middle-class whites of a small New England town. Such stories were needed, I felt, to offer balanced perspective among the predominantly overt social protest fiction then being produced by serious writers, white and black. Like Ellison, Miss Petry seemed not to have lost sight of the fiction writer's unique role, as one who, unlike the revolutionary nonfiction writer, is obliged to depict all human experience intimately, to show, for instance, the common humanity of the racist and his victim. It is not specifically as a black writer, but simply as a writer of fiction that Petry indicts middle-class American society. Compare “The Witness,” the story of a member of an exploited minority who doesn't rebel, with “The Campesinos,” the story of a member who does rebel. Can you imagine Barrio telling his story sympathetically from the point of view of Roberto Morales? In 1965, I could imagine Petry telling Woodruff's story sympathetically from the point of view of Rambler, while still implying her own moral vision, much in the way Joyce Carol Oates gives us a sympathetic view of the mind of a girl like Nellie in “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again.”

The Kenyon Review passed up the story and it appeared six years later in Redbook, the magazine that published “Just Saying You Love Me Doesn't Make It So.” The headnote might be compared with the other two quoted in the first of the questions for “Brother” in Part VI of the text. “This is a simple story about a man, a group of boys and a girl. It is a story you will not soon forget.”

The story is not as simple as it seems. As told through the third person central intelligence of Charles Woodruff, it appears to be yet another story of racial cruelty; that is the way Woodruff views his ordeal until he realizes “that Rambler and his friends didn't give a damn that Woodruff was a Black man.” These “very bright boys” are out for kicks and it just so happens that they can use Woodruff's “presence in that tool shed to give an extra, exquisite fillip to their dreadful game.” The entire episode is a momentary distraction from the emptiness of their pampered, protected lives, just as Woodruff himself, fleeing a life too full at the moment of fear, feels exhilarated by speeding on the turnpike: “It was clearing his mind, heartening him, taking him out of himself.” Petry uses a stock racial situation as a way of setting off in sharp relief another problem: the violent potential of the bright upper middle class young (who were, by the way, in the forefront of the more purposeful campus and peace movement violence of the Sixties). This is a classic example of a writer's strategy: to depict one problem while seeming to depict another; writing apparently about racial conflict, she depicts a problem that transcends race. With Woodruff, the reader must be distracted from this central theme if it is to have the impact of a sudden realization; and with this point of view, we can experience Woodruff's own self-deception up to his realization that the accident of his race is not even an object of hatred but merely of a gratuitous lust for violence. The reader may see even more clearly than Woodruff can that the conflict of generations overwhelms the racial...

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Vernon E. Lattin (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: “Ann Petry and the American Dream,” in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 12, Spring, 1978, pp. 69–72.

[In the following essay, Lattin says that readers should re-evaluate Petry's works as important critiques of traditional American values.]

Ann Petry's fiction too often has been mutilated or dismissed by the use of critical labels, especially the Scylla and Charybdis of Bone's assimilationist and Negro nationalist nomenclature.1 Although a number of critics have pointed out that Bone unwisely makes literary judgments on the basis of these sociological terms,2 his approach continues to haunt Petry's writings. Bone, himself, speaks...

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Gladys J. Washington (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “A World Made Cunningly: A Closer Look at Ann Petry's Short Fiction,” in CLA Journal, Vol. 30, September, 1986, pp. 14–30.

[In the following essay, Washington analyzes the style, structure, and characterization in the stories in Miss Muriel and Other Stories and urges more critical attention to Petry's works.]

In the September 1979 issue of the CLA Journal, Rita Dandridge calls attention to the fact that the novels of black women have received much less critical attention than those of their male counterparts. She points out that the critics, being mostly male and frequently white, have generally dismissed the novels by black women with...

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Bernard W. Bell (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “The Triumph of Naturalism,” in The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition, Bernard W. Bell, University of Massachusetts Press, 1987, pp. 178–183.

[In the following excerpt from a chapter entitled “Richard Wright and the Triumph of Naturalism” in his full-length study of the history of the African-American novel, Bell claims that Petry moves beyond the naturalism of Wright and Chester Himes to debunk myths about African-Americans and American culture.]

The setting and themes of Ann Petry's novels are a natural outgrowth of her intimacy with the black inner-city life of New York and the white small-town life of New England. Born in 1911 in Old Saybrook,...

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Sybil Weir (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “The Narrows: A Black New England Novel,” in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 15, Spring, 1987, pp. 81–93

[In the following essay, Weir discusses Petry's novel The Narrows, its indebtedness to Hawthorne, Wright, and other sources, and its clear portrayal of aspects of African-American culture.]

When Ann Petry published The Narrows in 1953, the novel was reviewed in the leading newspapers and magazines. Since then, however, critics have neglected it, preferring to focus on Petry's achievement in The Street (1946) and in short fiction such as “In Darkness and Confusion.” This neglect of The Narrows is undeserved...

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Keith Clark (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “A Distaff Dream Deferred? Ann Petry and the Art of Subversion,” in African-American Review, Vol. 26, Fall, 1992, pp. 495–505.

[In the following essay, the author provides a post-structuralist reading of The Street, with emphasis on the ways in which Petry's protagonist casts the American Dream in the context of her own black female experience.]


The “American Dream” has been a prominent subject in American literature, especially during the first half of the twentieth century. Dreiser, Fitzgerald, Miller—all of these writers have depicted characters in search of the utopian dream, few of whom find it. Their...

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Ann O. Gebhard (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “The Emerging Self: Young-adult and Classic Novels of the Black Experience,” in English Journal, Vol. 82, September, 1993, p. 50.

[In the following excerpt from an essay on Petry, Nella Larsen, and Zora Neale Hurston, Gebhard recommends The Street to high school readers who want to understand the search for black cultural identity.]

Three classic African American novels—Ann Petry's The Street, Nella Larsen's Quicksand, and Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, all eminently suitable for teaching in high school—explore the theme of cultural identity. How do young African American protagonists define themselves in...

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Hilary Holladay (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Creative Prejudice in Ann Petry's Miss Muriel,” in Studies of Short Fiction, Vol. 31, Fall, 1994, pp. 667–73.

[In the following essay, Holladay suggests that the social prejudices seen in the suitors in “Miss Muriel” may actually act as creative forces in a world in which various forms of prejudice create people's social milieu.]

In Miss Muriel and Other Stories (1971), Ann Petry reveals her continuing fascination with the way people are shaped by the company they keep. Although these stories were originally published over a long period of time (from the 1940s to 1971) they cohere geographically and thematically.1 All of the...

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Gayle Wurst (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Ben Franklin in Harlem: The Drama of Deferral in Ann Petry's The Street,” in Deferring a Dream: Literary Sub-Versions of the American Columbiad, Gert Buelens, Ernst Rudin, 1994, pp. 1–23.

[In the following essay, Wurst shows that Lutie, the protagonist of The Street, is doomed to failure when she tries to model herself on Benjamin Franklin, a white male with very different cultural values and expectations.]


What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
Like a syrupy...

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Larry R. Andrews (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “The Sensory Assault of the City in Ann Petry's The Street,” in The City in African American Literature, edited and introduction, Yoshinobu Hakutani, and Robert Butler, 1995, pp. 196–211.

[In the following essay, the author notes that Petry's effective use of sensory detail in The Street, unusual in a naturalistic novel, can be favorably compared with that of other masters of the urban novel.]

Ann Petry's first novel, The Street (1946), reflects black disillusionment with the northern city after the 1920s. Lutie Johnson, its protagonist, sees her street, and by extension the city, as her monstrous antagonist. Like Petry's novella...

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Rosemarie Garland Thomson (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Ann Petry's Mrs. Hedges and the Evil, One-Eyed Girl: A Feminist Exploration of the Physically Disabled Female Subject,” in Women's Studies, Vol. 24, 1995, pp. 599–614.

[In the following essay, Thomson uses feminist theory to argue that the character of Mrs. Hedges in The Street repudiates most of the myths which relegate disabled women to passive roles.]

One evening recently, as I snuggled in next to my daughter while reading her our ritual bedtime story, I was struck by a depressingly familiar and predictable moment in the book she'd chosen. The story was a richly illustrated adaptation of a Grimm folk tale, featuring the standard array of good...

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Jennifer DeVere Brody (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “Effaced into Flesh: Black Women's Subjectivity,” in On Your Left: The New Historical Materialism in the 1990's, edited by Ann Kibbey, Thomas Foster, Carol Siegel, and Ellen Berry, New York University Press, 1996, pp. 184–205.

[In the following essay, Brody dwells on the image of the black female in “The Winding Sheet,” applying black feminist theory to concepts of race and gender.]

When do we start to see images of the black female body … made as acts of auto-expression, the discrete stage that must immediately precede or occur simultaneously with acts of auto-critique? When does the present begin?


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Hillary Holladay (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “Narrative space in Ann Petry's Country Place,” in Xavier Review, Vol. 16, 1996, pp. 21–35.

[In the following essay, Holladay deconstructs the narrative of Country Place, stressing the interdependence of the characters and the illusory nature of their reality.]

Although William Faulkner is the author frequently credited with fully rendering the life of an American community, the same may be said of the African-American fiction writer Ann Petry. Petry's detailed portraits of communities are central to The Street (1946), Country Place (1947), The Narrows (1952), and Miss Muriel and Other Stories (1971). Like...

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Trudier Harris (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Before the Stigma Race: Authority and Witchcraft in Ann Petry's Tituba of Salem Village,” in Recovered Writers/Recovered Texts, edited by Dolan Hubbard, University of Tennessee Press, 1997, pp. 105–115.

[In the following essay, Harris urges more critical attention to Tituba of Salem Village and explores the ways in which Tituba and other characters adopt and respond to authority.]

When we think of the history of African American women's texts, any number of suggestions come to mind about the subjects of their fictional worlds. We think of the slave narratives with their focus on freedom and what it meant to African American women. We think...

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Joyce Pettis (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Reading Ann Petry's The Narrows into Black Tradition,” in Recovering Writers/Recovering Texts, edited by Dolan Hubbard, University of Tennessee Press, 1997, pp. 116–127.

[In the following essay, a black feminist critic urges a re-evaluation of Petry's The Narrows, a novel the critic thinks has been underrated by male critics since the 1950s.]

First the conundrum: Why have critics almost unanimously agreed that Petry's The Narrows (1953) is her best work but largely ignored it and critically engaged The Street (1946)?1 One answer is that The Narrows neither fits comfortably in a genre identified with a...

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Lindon Barrett (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “(Further) Figures of Violence: The Street in the U.S. Landscape,” in Blackness And Value: Seeing Double, Lindon Barrett, Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp. 94–128.

[In this chapter from his full-length, deconstructive study of the concept of “value” as it applies to racial blackness, Barrett explores the symbolic value of Lutie's singing voice in The Street, as it responds to the values of the dominant white culture.]

The enduring paradox of the concomitantly valueless and valuable status of African Americans in the dominant cultural imagination of the United States is well presented in the opening pages of The Wages of...

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Michael Barry (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “Same Train be Back Tomorrer: AnnPetry's The Narrows and The Repetition of History,” in MELUS, Vol. 24, Spring, 1999, pp. 141–159.

[In the following essay, Barry notes that Petry has a cyclical view of history but at the same time a sense of optimism even in the face of racism, classism, and sexism.]


In interviews and writings from the 1970s and 1980s, Ann Petry frequently laments the decline in the current state of life in urban ghettos, remarking that it is worse than it was when she wrote The Street, a 1946 bestseller. “The sad truth about The Street is that now forty-one years later I could write that...

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Further Reading


Allen, Marlene D. Contemporary African American Novelists: A Bio-Blbliographical Critical Sourcebook. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1999, pp. 377-83.

Contains several pages on works by and about Petry.

Ervin, Hazel Arnett. Ann Petry: A Bio-Bibliography. New York: G.K. Hall and Co., 1993, 115 p.

An invaluable source for researchers; includes extensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources, as well as reprints of interviews with Petry and a chronology of her life.


Holladay, Hillary. Ann Petry. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996, 149...

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