Ann Petry Petry, Ann (Vol. 1) - Essay

Petry, Ann (Vol. 1)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Petry, Ann 1911–

Mrs. Petry, a Black American, has written novels, short stories, and children's books. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

A performance that exhibits a high level of competence in fictional writing is Ann Petry's Country Place. The author's second novel differs from her first best selling, The Street. Country Place is her assertion of freedom as a creative artist with the whole of humanity in the American scene as her province. Petry's departure from racial themes and the specialized Negro problem adds to her maturity. As such the book does not develop a thesis with the ultimate indictment of the social order implicit, but it does present several themes….

The plot outline of Country Place is slender, but in Petry's hand there emerges a keen sense of timing and incidents of mounting intensity….

One of the distinctive features of Country Place is the competently written nature descriptions. The storm, amounting almost to a hurricane, illustrates some of the better writing in modern fiction.

Carl Milton Hughes, in his The Negro Novelist 1940–1950, Citadel Press, 1953, pp. 160-63 (in the paperbound edition, 1970).

Ann Petry's Country Place … is … one of the finest novels of the period. Country Place, moreover, is a manifestation not so much of assimilationism as of versatility. Mrs. Petry's early work, which includes both short stories and a novella, is strongly racial in emphasis. Her first novel, The Street…, attracted considerable attention both here and abroad as an eloquent successor to Native Son…. Of an environmentalist who chooses to focus on society we can demand more than a superficial social analysis. The trouble with The Street is that it tries to make racial discrimination responsible for slums. It is an attempt to interpret slum life in terms of Negro experience, when a larger frame of reference is required….

Country Place is a novel of another magnitude, large enough to justify a better acquaintance with its author…. It is from the theme of lost illusion that the narrative structure of the novel flows. Country Place develops a strong narrative drive, paced by a storm whose intensity is reminiscent of the New England hurricane of 1938. The action of the novel takes place in a single week (one cycle of weather), reaching a climax along with the storm. Through a kind of Lear motif the storm reduces each character to moral (or literal) nakedness. Faced with the death of their dreams, they are forced to re-evaluate the past, balancing achievement with desire. The storm thus becomes considerably more than a narrative device; it suggests first of all the widespread uprootedness caused by the war. Ultimately it emerges as a symbol of time and flux, relentless killers of the dream.

Mrs. Petry's style, like her narrative strategy, supports her main intent…. Concrete, poetic, her style persistently seeks an "objective correlative" to human emotion.

Robert A. Bone, in his The Negro Novel in America, Yale University Press, revised edition, 1965, pp. 180-84.

By contrast with … the majority of black novelists, Ann Petry seems old-fashioned, so surprisingly "slow" in her narrative rhythm that you wonder if the title story in Miss Muriel and Other Stories took place in another century. Mrs. Petry's timing is as different from most contemporary black writing as is her locale, which in the best of these leisurely paced stories is a small upstate New York town where a pharmacist and his family are the only Negroes….

[The] reversal of roles [in "Miss Muriel"] is typical of Mrs. Petry's quiet, always underplayed but deeply felt sense of situation. The other stories aren't as lovingly worked out as "Miss Muriel"—which is an artful period piece that brings back a now legendary age of innocence in white-black relationships. Several stories are just tragic situations that are meant to touch you by that quality alone….

[These stories demonstrate] Mrs. Petry's quietly firm interest in fiction as moral dilemma. Clearly, her sense of the Negro situation is still "tragic." Her stories are very far from contemporary black nationalist writing, and by no means necessarily more interesting. But they are certainly different.

Alfred Kazin, in Saturday Review, October 2, 1971, pp. 34-5.

Ann Petry was in the best tradition of [Richard] Wright, of sociological fiction, and of militant activism in her short stories of the forties. In "Like a Winding Sheet," Mrs. Petry works in a realistic tradition to show the deathlike pressures that hem in the black worker in America. The pressures result in violence, and Mrs. Petry did not flinch from the portrayal of violence. For, in her novel The Street…, Mrs. Petry set forth in telling fashion the violence of the urban streets and the effects that it produced on Americans forced to reside in the most depressed areas of the city.

Houston A. Baker, Jr., in his Black Literature in America, McGraw, 1971, p. 207.