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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,463

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This is the grave of Ann Petry.

Born in Old Saybrook, Connecticut in 1908, Anna Lane, which was her birth name, grew up in the small Black population of eastern Connecticut. Her father was a pharmacist and her mother did all sorts of jobs, but Ann and her sisters had to work and they didn’t have much money. She was the only Black person in her high school class. So her experiences were simply a lot different than many young Black kids. That said, she did experience discrimination, Her father once wrote to The Crisis, the NAACP newspaper, complaining about a teacher refusing to teach his daughters.

From the time she was in high school, Lane wanted to become a writer. She did so, though it took a long time. Her parents were supportive but also wanted to make sure she had a solid career to fall back upon. So she went to the University of Connecticut College of Pharmacy, where she graduated in 1931. She went back and worked for her father, living at home, and writing on the side. In 1938, she married a man named George Petry and they moved to New York.

In New York, Petry started taking writing seriously. This was such a fertile era of Black New York and there were lots of newspapers for her to place her work. She worked first for the Amsterdam News and then The People’s Voice. The latter was Adam Clayton Powell’s paper and so had a big circulation in the Black community. She got involved in politics that were pretty progressive but not communist. She sometimes worked with communists, but she wasn’t really anything close to one. She was working for Powell after all. She also started publishing her short fiction in The Crisis. She went to Columbia to study writing. All of this required an immersion into the Harlem community. She had her challenges growing up in Old Saybrook, for sure, but this was a very different thing. She took on an anthropological perspective in her work, as this deep poverty wasn’t natural to her life. Part of this was that she supplemented her income by working at an afterschool place. This led her to seeing the realities of children in Harlem. Now that was a good subject for writing.

So Petry began writing a story about a single mother and her son. This became her great novel The Street. This is one of the finest novels in American history. It follows Lutie Johnson, said single mother, who really wants to believe in America. She gets a crappy apartment in Harlem but she is determined to work hard, believe in American success, and protect her way. She wants a better life. But social conditions make this impossible. No one can question her work ethic. But her boy is on the streets in this pretty bad neighborhood. How do you protect him in this world, especially when there are also bad adults wanting to corrupt the boy? Moreover, this won’t just destroy her son. It will destroy her too and boy does it.

The Street is really a fantastic first rate book and it is one of the most underrated works in American literature. It has received more attention in recent years, as less known Black writers get the attention they deserve. But still, if you care at all about the history of American literature, you really have to read this book. Moreover, it was a huge sensation. It sold over 1 million copies! That’s crazy. In fact, it was the first novel in American history by a Black woman to pass a million copies.

But….it was hard for Petry to move onto something else. The fame also freaked her out. She didn’t like all the attention. She got out of New York and moved back to Old Saybrook. She published some stories. In 1953, her second novel The Narrows explored the Black community in a Connecticut town obviously based on Old Saybrook. It has its fans, but it did not sell well. I haven’t read it, and I really should. She was a part of the American Negro Theater as well. She wrote a book on Harriet Tubman in 1955, I think for children. She did a few children’s books over the years. But she taught and just lived. She continued some work in politics as well, mostly being involved in the defense of Paul Robeson during the blacklist years.

Well, there’s nothing wrong with just having one titanic work of fiction or other piece of art in you. Lots of people are in that category, starting with Ralph Ellison and going much farther than that.

Shortly before she died, Petry gave a rare interview. She stated about her retreat from New York: “Continuous public exposure, though it may make you a ‘personality,’ can diminish you as a person. To be a willing accomplice to the invasion of your own privacy puts a low price on its worth. The creative processes are, or should be, essentially secret, and although naked flesh is now an open commodity, the naked spirit should have sanctuary.” I don’t know that it led to that made creation, but I can certainly see why she didn’t want to be a personality in an era when the media was really looking to make writers personalities.

Petry died in 1997. She was 88 years old.

Ann Petry is buried in Cypress Cemetery, Old Saybrook, Connecticut.

Ann Petry reached the Library of America in Volume 314. If you would like this series to visit authors near her in the LOA series, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Urusla Le Guin was 315, but she donated her body to science. Seems right. Wendell Barry is 316 and 317 and he still lives. The World War II writer Cornelius Ryan is Volume 318 and he is in Ridgefield, Connecticut. I’ve covered Booth Tarkington at 319 and Herman Melville, whose poems are Volume 320. Clifford Simak, who has one of the novels in the Science Fiction collection that is Volume 321, is in Minneapolis. Moreover, I again very much appreciate the recent spate of donations to cover this trip to Los Angeles, which will be a true graveapalooza. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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