Ann Petry Petry, Ann (Vol. 18) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Petry, Ann 1911–

Ann Petry is a black American author of novels, short stories, and books for children. Her fiction is concerned with racial themes. Like Richard Wright, a writer with whom she is often compared, Petry writes realistic, sociological novels with a distinct moral thesis. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Arna Bontemps

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is no longer any doubt about it. The author of "The Street," "Country Place," and now "The Narrows" is a neighborhood novelist…. "The Narrows," whose history and way of life [Ann Petry] chronicles in her newest novel, is the Negro area … in a New England town….

A novel about Negroes by a Negro novelist and concerned, in the last analysis, with racial conflict, "The Narrows" somehow resists classification as a "Negro novel," as contradictory as that may sound. In this respect Ann Petry has achieved something as rare as it is commendable. Her book reads like a New England novel, and an unusually gripping one.

Arna Bontemps, "The Line," in The Saturday Review (copyright © 1953 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 36, No. 34, August 22, 1953, p. 11.

George R. Adams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One of the most noteworthy examples of sociology transformed into art is Ann Petry's story, "In Darkness and Confusion" (1947), which recreates the Harlem riot of 1943…. What is most striking about the story, however, is that within the narrative itself a similar transformation occurs. What begins as a riot ends as a traumatic experience which transmutes the inarticulate and patient protagonist into an enraged and aggressive one. The transformation thus moves beyond the levels of sociological awareness and psychological response to the level of archetypal participation, in which, through rites of passage, an innocent is initiated into the communal experience of the culture.

In accord with the implicit theme of riot as ritual initiation into the mysteries of the community, the transformation in the Black protagonist, William Jones, is presented in terms of darkness and confusion. Before the riot, "darkness" refers to the sociological fact of William's skin color and the ghetto dwelling which his blackness had forced him to rent; psychologically, "darkness" describes the condition of ignorance and restricted awareness which is the result of William's sociological circumstances…. William's life had not allowed him either the education or the leisure to become reflective, to philosophize on his condition, which means that he has not allowed himself to develop what [William H.] Grier and [Price M.] Cobbs call the "black rage" which comes from the Black man's consciousness of his condition. (p. 54)

If William is unable to make sociological analyses, he is even more incapable of noticing symbolic patterns in his life, such as the recurrence of darkness at periods of stress. (pp. 54-5)

Closely linked to the thematic function of darkness is the thematic use of confusion. William's confusion is of two kinds, psychological and sociological. (p. 55)

William's conception of sound values represents his greatest confusion…. [All] his values are white, handed to him ready-made…. William's whole world is defined by his plans for [his son] Sam, but that this is a fantasy world is made clear by what...

(The entire section is 888 words.)

Arthur P. Davis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Street] follows the tradition of hard-hitting social commentary which characterized the Richard Wright school of naturalistic protest writing. The Street is perhaps the best novel to come from the followers of Wright. [Miss Petry's] last full-length adult novel, The Narrows …, depicts Negro life in a small New England city, a subject not often treated in black writing. (p. 193)

A depressing work, The Street follows the thesis implied by this type of naturalistic writing: namely, that the black poor in the ghetto do not have much of a chance to live decent and meaningful lives, to say nothing of happy lives….

In an article that appeared in The Crisis Miss Petry tells us her objectives in this work:

… my aim is to show how simply and easily the environment can change the course of a person's life….

I try to show why the Negro has a high crime rate, a high death rate, and little or no chance of keeping his family unit intact in large northern cities….

[Country Place] follows in the tradition of small-town realistic fiction that goes back to Main Street…. (p. 194)

Country Place deals with the class lines between aristocrats and nobodies, the antiforeign, anti-Roman Catholic prejudices, and the sexual looseness and the ugliness and viciousness found behind the innocent-appearing life in a small town….

In The Narrows … Miss Petry has depicted Negro life in a small New England city…. Miss Petry seems to be saying in many different ways that these ghettos in small New England cities are far more isolated and cut off from the mainstreams of...

(The entire section is 734 words.)