Ann Petry Petry, Ann (Vol. 7) - Essay

Petry, Ann (Vol. 7)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Petry, Ann 1911–

Ann Petry is a Black American author of novels, short stories, and books for children. Racial themes form the backbone of her fiction. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Ann Petry … may prove in the end to be one of the most useful and important of all [Black novelists]….

Mrs. Petry has—this first must be granted—an uncomfortable tendency to contrive sordid plots (as opposed to merely writing of sordid events). She seems to require a "shocking" chain of scandalous doings, secret affairs, family skeletons revealed, brutal crimes, whispered evil, adulterous intrigue on which to cast her creative imagination, in the manner of the great Victorians or the tawdry moderns. So wise is her writing, though, so real are her characters, so total is her sympathy, that one can often accept the faintly cheap horrors and contrivances. Even if not, though, he can dispense with them. It may seem odd to suggest reading a novel while skipping the plot; but it can be done. And if one allows himself to be overexcited by these intrigues (it is hard to escape their clutches, but one should), he misses, I think, the real treasures of Ann Petry's fiction.

There is, first, more intelligence in her novels, paragraph for paragraph, than in those of [many another] writer…; solid, earned, tested intelligence. This woman is sharp. Her wisdom is more useful, even, more durable, than the brilliant, diamond-edged acuteness of Gwendolyn Brooks.

This wisdom, secondly, reveals itself in a prose that is rich and crisp, and suavely shot with the metallic threads of irony. It is a style of constant surprise and delight, alive and alight on the page. It is so charged with sense and pleasure you can taste it—and yet never (almost never) is it mere "display."

And out of the female wisdom, the chewy style, grow characters of shape and dimension, people made out of love, with whole histories evoked in a page. There is not one writer in a thousand who owns so genuine and generous and undiscriminating a creative sympathy. Ann Petry becomes each character she mentions, grants each one a full, felt intensity of being, the mean and the loving, the white and the black, even when they come and go in only fifty words. Rich sick old ladies, lecherous toads, toddlers, half-animal brutes, the belligerently independent, the loved and unloved, the passion- and obsession-maddened, those who scarcely exist: each one, difficult as it may seem, she enters to become, becomes to create, with a universality of creative sympathy that is honestly Shakespearean. (Or at least Faulknerian; he does it too.)

This, to me, the intelligence, the style, and above all the creative sympathy, is what sets Ann Petry … into a place almost as prominent and promising as that of [Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison]. She is not, of course, writing "about" the race war…. This is a delusion fostered either by publishers, playing up a profitable approach, or by the fake guilty egocentricity of white readers, who presume that all books by Negroes must somehow be about them. But if an American Negro can, despite all, develop such an understanding of other people as Ann Petry's—and more prodigious still, convey that understanding—then let her write what Peyton Place-plots she will, she is working toward a genuine truce in the war. (pp. 154-56)

David Littlejohn, in his Black on White: A Critical Survey of Writing by American Negroes (copyright © 1966 by David Littlejohn; reprinted by permission of Grossman Publishers), Viking, 1966.

Petry has penetrated the bias of black and white, even of male and female, to reveal a world in which the individual with the most integrity is not only destroyed but is often forced to become an expression of the very society against which he is rebelling. She shows that the weak, regardless of race, are misled by illusions and stifled by poverty.

Particularly for Lutie Johnson in The Street, the struggle for survival alone is so demanding that even her attempt to struggle also for some status as a human being—despite poverty, racial and sexual stereotypes, and loneliness—gives her more stature in her failure than most people earn in victory.

Lutie can scarcely be said to be attracted to the stereotypes which would define her as a black woman. Her tension grows out of the seeming inevitability of her conforming to the stereotypes despite all efforts she may make to break free. (p. 110)

[Again, in Country Place,] Petry shows … that the sordidness of reality, the inequities and false illusions of society, and the inadequacies of the possibilities for women rob strong and weak alike of a chance for personal development and a sense of security….

In Link Williams, the young black hero of [The Narrows], Petry has succeeded in creating in depth a man of integrity and stature, no mean feat for a woman writer. But Link, too, is driven to violence and eventually destroyed despite—or because of—his integrity. (p. 118)

Camilo [in The Narrows] conforms to female stereotypes—some of the most negative, in fact—just as all of Petry's other women do eventually, whether or not they struggle against such conformity. (p. 119)

Ann Petry does not ignore the particular problems of blacks; her portrayals, especially of Link Williams and Lutie Johnson, in both their individual triumphs and their socially-caused failures, display potentiality enough for admiration and oppression enough for anger to satisfy any black militant. Her first concern, however, is for acceptance and realization of individual possibilities—black and white, male and female. Her novels protest against the entire society which would contrive to make any individual less than human, or even less than he can be. (pp. 119-20)

Thelma J. Shinn, "Women in the Novels of Ann Petry," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by Critique, 1974), Vol. XVI, No. 1, 1974, pp. 110-20.

The Layen family of the title story and other pieces [in Miss Muriel and Other Stories] are the only Blacks in horse-and-buggy upstate New York. They are solid citizens: father is a pharmacist; Aunt Ellen plays Bach and Beethoven, writes articles for magazines and periodicals, and lectures at schools and colleges; another relative knows Shakespeare's sonnets and can recite "whole acts from Macbeth or Hamlet"; they are proud of their Haviland china and "sterling silver knives and forks with the rose pattern" and when talking with Whites refer to each other as Mr. or Mrs. Layen. But beneath the surface, the old, old tensions and uncertainties exist. ["Miss Muriel" is leisurely], almost novelistic in technique…. Although the twelve-year old narrator tends to speak in a fashion I have seldom heard from the lips of either Black or White, the piece moves rapidly despite its length and generates a considerable amount of interest, as do all Ann Petry's stories. (pp. 235-36)

William Peden, in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1975 by Newberry College), Summer, 1975.