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Ann Lane Petry. (tribute).

The first time I read Ann Petry's novel The Street was in 1985, shortly after I had moved to Harlem. Within a few days of settling in to my apartment in a four-story walk-up, I plunged into the novel. So familiar was the setting that a young woman who lived on the third floor of the building could well have been the model for Petry's Lutie Johnson.

Weeks later, after I had explored the streets of Harlem for myself, I imagined a 31-year-old Petry walking through the neighborhood, fascinated by its sights, sounds and smells, and recreating the scene in her writing with exacting detail and honesty. It was those two qualities--her attention to detail and candor--that characterized Petry's storytelling.

Seven years later, after moving to Burbank, California, I reread The Street. Living in an untried city, I needed whatever sense of familiarity I could muster. And Ann Petry unselfishly provided it. No matter how grim much of the novel was, it possessed the power to evoke and embrace comforting memories.

During the decades that followed the Harlem Renaissance, many black women writers were not as recognized on the literary scene as their male counterparts. And in the post-war period that followed, Petry established herself among an emerging number of black women writers who were having an impact, presenting their view of the world. In 1946, her book, The Street was the first novel written by an African-American woman to sell over two million copies, a phenomenal achievement even by today's standards.

Born October 12, 1908, Ann Lane Petry became an influential writer, activist and humanist, who many critics consider a visionary and one of the early black feminists. In the three novels and the numerous short stories she produced, Petry portrayed brave and truthful characters confronting racism and struggling with personal failures and fears. In the process, she illuminated the black experience in a way that had yet to be explored in African-American literature.

Unlike Lutie Johnson, Ann Lane Petry grew up in a middleclass, predominately white community in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, a small, seaside town about 110 miles or so from Harlem. Like her character though, Petry moved to Harlem to try to fulfill a dream.

Like most blacks at the time, Ann Lane encountered racial prejudice at an early age. But once she learned the history of her ancestors--four generations of African Americans in New England--it helped young Ann to cope with the cruelties of racism. Inspired by stories she read and others her mother told her, Ann developed an affinity for narrative and began writing. She enjoyed writing short stories and acting out her one-act plays. The only African American in her class at Old Saybrook High School, Ann Lane developed a slogan for a perfume advertisement while still in school.

After high school Petry enrolled in the University of Connecticut College of Pharmacology in 1929, and after receiving her doctorate in pharmacy, she followed in the footsteps of her father and aunt and became a pharmacist. Petry spent the next two years working in family-owned drugstores in Old Saybrook and Lyme, Connecticut. But in her spare time, she always managed to write.

In 1939, Ann Lane married George David Petry, a U.S. serviceman and aspiring mystery writer. After deciding to devote her energies to becoming an author, the couple moved to New York. That year, Petry published her first short story, a suspense romance in the Baltimore Afro-American. The story, "Marie of the Cabin" was penned under the pseudonym Arnold Petri, since Petry wanted to save her own name for "more serious" work.

Petry's first job in New York City was selling advertising at The Amsterdam News. She worked at the Harlem newspaper for four years before becoming a reporter for the People's Voice, a community weekly founded by Adam Clayton Powell Jr. At the People' s Voice, she edited the paper's women's column and covered everything from social events to news stories. As a journalist in one of the country's most exciting cultural and political centers, Petry immersed herself in Harlem life. As witness to the community's day-to-day struggles with violent crime, indecent housing, crippling unemployment, racial oppression and sexual harassment. Inevitably, the social conditions that plagued Harlem became an integral part of her writing. But reporting for the newspaper wasn't quite enough. Petry wanted to broaden her writing, so she enrolled in creative writing courses at Columbia University.

From 1938 to 1944, Petry wrote and published her short stories for several prominent black magazines, including The Crisis and Opportunity. In most of her stories, it was evident that her interaction with the people she met in Harlem greatly influenced her story lines. The poverty she observed in Harlem led Petry to take an active role in efforts to improve the community. As an activist, Petry helped found the Negro Women Incorporated, an advocacy group. She also became involved in an experimental after-school program at a Harlem school that was designed to help children whose parents oftentimes left them home alone because of work. She also became a member of the American Negro Theatre, something Petry credits for giving her an ear for dialogue.

Eventually, Petry decided to devote herself to writing fiction, and she left her job, vowing to "spend every single minute of my day just writing." She held steadfast to her promise, and in 1943 her short story "On Saturday the Siren Sounds at Noon," was published in The Crisis.

In the story, Petry's main character recalls the deaths of his children, triggered by the weekly, noontime air-raid sirens. Two years later, Petry wrote what is perhaps her best-known short story, "Like a Winding Sheet" which was also published in The Crisis.

Her story of a man who is confronted throughout his day with racial bias garnered Petry national acclaim. "Like a Winding Sheet" was later reprinted in The Best Short Stories of 1946. The story also caught the attention of the editors at Houghton Mifflin. Petry, who happened to have been working on a novel at the time, submitted an outline and five chapters to the publishers. The editors then encouraged her to apply for a writer's scholarship and as fortune would have it, Petry received the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship Award--a $2400 grant and a book contract. The result was her monumental novel The Street.

Not only was The Street a phenomenal best-seller, the story was perhaps one of the earliest works to chronicle the black urban experience, specifically the plight of a woman trying to find acceptance and self-worth.

Set in Harlem in 1940, The Street tells the tragic story of a single mother, Lutie Johnson, and her eight-year-old son struggling to survive. Lutie is an attractive, intelligent and resourceful young woman who is forced to work long hours as a maid. As she strives to maintain her dignity amidst the challenges she faces, Lutie also worries about her son, Bub, and the dangers of the streets that lurk outside their doorstep.

In the novel, Petty confronts the notion of black women being viewed as sexual objects, as spectacle. In the Norton Anthology of African American Literature, one critic noted that until the publication of The Street no one "had made a thesis of the debilitating mores of economic, racial and sexual violence let loose against black women in their new urban ghetto environment."

In American Visions Ray Rickman wrote, "The Street was a story, not propaganda, and it was a truer, more intelligent depiction of Harlem than most previous writers were able to accomplish."

Though none of the books that followed earned the wide acclaim as her first, Petry's next novels are regarded as having literary merit. Again drawing from her surroundings, Petry examined the difficulties of intimate, interracial relationships in her stories. In Country Place (1947), the author focuses on class and gender in a small New England town, where the major characters are white and the minor ones vary in ethnic backgrounds and nationalities. With The Narrows (1953), Petry weaves a tale of a love affair between a black college-educated man and wealthy white woman. The theme was quite provocative for the time. In "Miss Muriel" from Miss Muriel and Other Stories (1971), the first collection of stories to be published by a black woman in the United States, the lead character is a precocious 12-year-old girl who describes her aunt's suitors: one black and the other white.

Petry's narratives are meant to strike out against a racist society as it attempts to make the lives of people--regardless of gender or race--less humane and less productive. Though Petry's works were mostly lauded, they also had their share of detractors. Her inclusion of life's gritty aspects placed her in the company of other, notable naturalistic authors--in fact, she was most often compared to Richard Wright. Some critics called her an "assimilationist" while many accused her of focusing too strongly on "the indictment of a racist" environment.

In her poignant essay The Novel as Social Criticism, in response to the criticism, Petry writes, "It took me quite a while to realize that there were fashions in literary criticism and that they shifted and changed much like the fashions in women's hats. It is my personal opinion that novels of this [naturalistic, realistic] type will continue to be written until such time man loses his ability to read and returns to the cave. The greatest novelists have been so sharply aware of the political and social aspects of their time that this awareness inevitably showed up in their major works."

After the birth of her daughter Elisabeth, Petry began to concentrate on writing children's books. Incorporating historical figures, her goal for writing children's books, she once said, was to nurture young readers' knowledge of and pride in the achievements of blacks throughout history. Two of her more notable children's titles are Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad (1955), and Tituba of Salem Village (1964), the tale of a 17th century slave who was condemned in the Salem witch trials.

In a 1992 interview, Petry said, "I had lived my whole life without paying any attention. It wasn't my life. But once I became aware, I couldn't see anything but." Petry's contribution has been recognized by the Author's Guild and American PEN, along with her many honorary degrees. After a brief illness, Ann Petry died in 1997 in her hometown of Old Saybrook, a short distance from the family's pharmacy.

Many of her books are, indeed, like a treasure. They are difficult to get, but once found, readers will discover that Ann Lane Petty offers impressions of life much as she saw it and as she knew it. And the splendor of her blending life's realities with her vivid imagination makes for an enriched body of black literature.

Clarence V. Reynolds is a writer and freelance copy editor, dividing his time between New York City and Baltimore. Having owned a restaurant and worked at a number of publications, he has decided to devote himself to what seems like a lifelong project: He is currently working on a novella to include in a collection of short stories. "Writing steals a lot of time away from playing, sleeping, and, sadly, reading. Being on the BIBR team, however, I get wind of things I just shouldn't miss." Reynolds pays tribute to literary pioneer Ann Petry on page 79.
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Author:Reynolds, Clarence V.
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2002
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