Connecticut native Ann Petry wrote a bestselling novel in 1946 acclaimed as a masterpiece and the first book by an African-American woman to sell more than 1 million copies.
Critics called The Street a ‘black protest’ novel. One critic called it ‘the most powerful protest novel authored by a black woman.’ Ann Petry rejected those labels. She wrote other novels and short stories that sought a more ‘universal and introspective tone.’
She was born Anna Lane on Oct. 12, 1908, in Old Saybrook. Conn., the daughter of Peter Lane and Bertha James Lane. Her father was a pharmacist. Her mother worked in a factory before starting her own shop. Her aunts worked as maids. She had two older sisters, and later said it never occurred to the women in her family that they couldn’t do something because they were women.
A high school teacher inspired her career choice by telling her, “I honestly believe that you could be a writer if you wanted to.”
She wanted to.
It wasn’t all sisterhood and encouragement while she was growing up. She wrote for Negro Digest about her most humiliating Jim Crow experience. Racists tried to keep her off a beach. A teacher made her read the part of an illiterate ex-slave in the Edgar Allan Poe story, The Gold-Bug.
In 1938 she married George Petry. He was posted overseas in the Army during World War II, and she lived in New York City during that time. She worked for the Harlem press, wrote fiction and worked at an after-school program at P.S. 10 in Harlem. The experience made a strong impression on her. She brought it to paper.
The Street was published in 1946. Critics called it a masterpiece. It’s the heartbreaking story of a young black woman trying to raise her son amid the violence, poverty and racial conflict in Harlem.
The publisher’s advance on the book allowed Ann and George Petry to buy an 18th century Colonial in Old Saybrook. There they raised their daughter. Ann continued to write, but none of her work achieved the fame of The Street.
Her other works are beginning to be recognized. Her novel Country Place draws from her experiences in the 1938 New England huricane. She also wrote The Narrows (1953), other stories, and books for children that are beginning to be recognized.
Throughout her life she remained something of an enigma to the public. She hoarded antiques but threw away her journals and shied from publicity.
The Street was reissued in 1992. Ann Petry died on April 28, 1997.