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.
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.
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.”
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.