Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Narrows, Ann Petry’s third work of long fiction, is also her most complex one. Published seven years after her first book, The Street (1946), The Narrows has largely been neglected by critics and overshadowed by the success of her first novel. Both books are about racial themes and the impact of racism on the lives of her black people. Her second novel, Country Place (1947), on the other hand, deals with the devastating effects of World War II on the social and moral structures of a small New England town.

Petry is often set apart from black writers who are from the Deep South or from the black communities in the North. To some, her growing up in a small, predominantly white Northern town seems to have disqualified her to write about the experiences of black people. The Narrows, however, is very much a novel about black people’s experience in America; it is about the development of Link Williams, a black youth, and his relationships with his family and the black community. The book is also concerned with the past: Link, a history major whose ambition is to write a book on American slavery, knows that the cause of his imminent execution by the Treadways reaches back to the first shipment of enslaved Africans that landed in Jamestown in 1619. In this respect, Petry has joined Zora Neale Hurston as a model for a later generation of black women writers—Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Gloria Naylor, to name just a few—in understanding the historical context of slavery in America and its legacy to the American people as a whole. Besides writing novels, Ann Petry wrote several historical books for young readers, including The Drugstore Cat (1949), Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad (1955), Tituba of Salem Village (1964), and Legends of the Saints (1970). Her collection of short stories entitled Miss Muriel and Other Stories (1971) demonstrates her remarkable versatility.