New Cache of Letters Illuminates Life of African American Novelist Ann Petry

Edna GuyEdna Guy
Nancy F. Cott and Kathryn Allamong Jacob

A previously unknown collection of letters to and from the African American writer Ann Petry—the first African American woman to sell more than a million copies of a novel—is now in the Schlesinger Library. The letters were a gift from her daughter Elisabeth Petry and the main correspondent, Ed Clark.

This collection offers precious untold perspectives on Petry during the last third of her life. Clark was a professor of English at Suffolk University in Boston in 1973 when he first wrote to Petry, whose award-winning and powerfully revealing novel about Harlem, The Street (1946), had already made her famous. Clark had never met Petry but much admired her work, and he invited her to deliver the inaugural lecture in the African American literature program that he had just started at Suffolk. That invitation began a 25-year correspondence and friendship for the two and their spouses.

Jerome LieblingJerome LieblingPetry was born in 1908 in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, where her family lived above the drugstore they owned and operated—for a white clientele, since they were among only 15 African Americans in a town of 1,500. Her aunt Anna James, whose papers also reside in the Schlesinger Library, was a powerful force in her life. A licensed pharmacist (a rare professional achievement for a black woman at the time), James took over the pharmacy from her sister and brother-in-law and ran it from the 1920s to the 1960s. Generations of high school students found their first jobs there; its glass cases and marble-topped soda fountain appear vividly in Petry’s fiction.

Following family patterns, Petry graduated from the College of Pharmacy at the University of Connecticut, but she was unhappy “counting pills,” she later said, because she had aims to be a writer. Marrying George Petry and moving with him to New York City in 1938 put that goal within reach. They arrived in Harlem in the trough of the Great Depression. Economic times were difficult, but the community was hopping with new arts and dissident politics, including consumer boycotts led by black women. She enmeshed herself in the Harlem community, so different from the Old Saybrook of her upbringing. She performed in plays with the American Negro Theater and covered murders, accidents, fires, and rallies for the neighborhood’s newspaper, The People’s Choice, also editing its women’s pages.

Petry’s first breakthrough came in 1943, when the prestigious journal of the NAACP, The Crisis, published a short story of hers. This caught the attention of an editor who suggested that she apply for Houghton Mifflin’s annual novel-writing fellowship. The following year, she submitted a synopsis and five chapters of the novel she had under way and won the fellowship. With its grant of $2,400 (roughly the median annual household income at the time), she finished The Street 10 months later.

The Street takes place on 116th Street, both the home and the enemy of Petry’s protagonist, Lutie Johnson, a hardworking and responsible single mother seeking a small measure of happiness and security for herself and her child against the odds posed by poverty, crime, and human chicanery. The novel was widely praised, both for being a highly realistic, specific portrait—a view from the “inside” of Harlem—and for conveying universal human needs and strivings. Its compelling drama and prose made it a best seller.

In the view of Farah Griffin ’85, BI ’97, a professor of English and comparative literature and African American studies and the director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University, “Ann Petry is an important, if underappreciated, American writer. The first to provide emotionally complex portraits of urban working-class African Americans, particularly women, Petry wrote fiction that is original, compelling, and timeless. Her political and aesthetic sensibilities continue to inform and influence new generations of writers, critics, and literary theorists.” Griffin plans to make Petry one of the subjects of her forthcoming book, tentatively titled “Harlem Nocturne: Black Women Artists and Politics in Mid-Century New York, 1938–1952.”

Petry published two subsequent novels, A Country Place (1947), which features a cast of white characters living in a small New England town after World War II, and The Narrows (1953), set in a black neighborhood in a New England city and focusing on a tragic interracial love story. She also published a volume of short stories titled Miss Muriel and Other Stories (1971), and four books for young people: The Drugstore Cat (1949), Harriet Tubman, Conductor of the Underground Railroad (1955), Tituba of Salem Village (1964), and Legends of the Saints (1970).

With her earnings from The Street, Ann and George Petry moved back to Old Saybrook in 1947 and bought an old sea captain’s house, where they lived for another half-century and raised their daughter. It was from this home that she conducted her correspondence with Ed Clark.

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2012