American Literature Ann Petry
Melina Vizcaíno-Alemán
  • LAST REVIEWED: 16 December 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0145


Ann Lane Petry (b. 1908–d. 1997) was a neighborhood novelist and an adopted daughter of Harlem who sold over a million copies of her first novel, The Street (see Petry 1998, cited under Primary Works: Novels and Short Fiction). She was born 12 October 1908 in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, a mostly white New England town where she spent the better part of her life. In 1988, at the age of eighty and after a long literary career, Petry described Old Saybrook as a “picturesque-postcard kind of town” (p. 254; see Petry 1988, cited under Short Biographies). Her father, Peter Clark Lane Jr., was the town pharmacist, and her mother, Bertha James Lane, was an entrepreneur and chiropodist. Petry’s maternal aunt, Anna Louise James, was the first black woman to graduate with a pharmacy degree in Connecticut. Following in the steps of her father and aunt, Ann Lane received her PhG in 1931 from Connecticut College of Pharmacy (later the School of Pharmacy at the University of Connecticut). She worked in the family drugstore before marrying George D. Petry, of New Iberia, Louisiana, and moving to New York City in 1938 where she began her literary career as a journalist for the Amsterdam News (1938–1941) and the People’s Voice (1942–1944). In 1939, she published her first story, “Marie of the Cabin Club,” in the Afro-American (see Petri 2006, cited under Primary Works: Novels and Short Fiction), and in 1945 she was awarded a Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship to write her first novel. After publishing The Street (1946), Petry and her husband resettled in Old Saybrook, where she published two more novels, Country Place (1947) and The Narrows (1953), followed by two historical biographies and a collection of short fiction, Miss Muriel, and Other Stories (1971). Critics have been ambivalent about Petry’s work, but criticism on the social protest tradition and literary naturalism continues, while studies in ecocriticism, disability studies, queer theory, and black feminism illustrate Petry’s continued importance.

Short Biographies

Many biographies of Ann Petry exist, but the following are most useful for beginning students. Petry 1988 is her autobiographical essay from an edited series on contemporary American authors. Callahan’s “Petry, Ann” is part of a larger African American biography project at the W. E. B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. Other online sources include Horsley, “Ann Petry” from an international database of notable women; O’Donnell 2009 from the Voices from the Gaps series out of the University of Minnesota, and Griffin 2014 from Harvard Magazine. McKenzie 2001 is part of a literary biography series on African American writers and gives an overview of Petry and her work along with a bibliography of primary and secondary sources. Whitson 2004 is an encyclopedic entry on Petry that presents an overview of The Street and its main protagonist, Lutie Johnson. Ervin 1997 pays tribute to Petry’s passing in a special issue celebrating Langston Hughes on the anniversary of his death. These biographies provide a good basis for further study.

  • Callahan, Cynthia A. Petry, Ann (12 Oct. 1908–30 Apr. 1997), Author and Pharmacist, Was . . . W. E. B. Du Bois Research Institute at the Hutchins Center, Harvard University.

    Part of the African American National Biography, an eight-volume project on African American writers, scholars, and intellectuals. This website makes accessible eight sample entries, including one on Petry’s life and her major literary works. Serves as a good introduction to the topic, with a list of special collections for the more serious scholar.

  • Ervin, Hazel Arnett. “Adieu Harlem’s Adopted Daughter; Ann Petry (12 October 1908–28 April 1997).” In Special Issue: Tributes: Remembering Langston Hughes on the Thirtieth Anniversary of His Death. Edited by Freda Scott Giles. Langston Hughes Review 15.1 (1997): 71–73.

    Published in a tribute issue to Langston Hughes on the thirtieth anniversary of his death; part memoir, part eulogy, and part obituary. Imparts facts about Petry’s life and literature by linking her to Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance and supplies useful archival and literary entry points for further research.

  • Griffin, Farah Jasmine. “Ann Petry: Brief Life of a Celebrity-Averse Novelist, 1908–1997.” Harvard Magazine, January–February 2014: 52.

    Retraces Petry’s literary career, from Old Saybrook to Harlem, but focuses on the author’s sense of privacy. Provides a link to Harvard’s Schlesinger Library, which contains a cache of Petry’s letters to Ed Clark (see Primary Works: Manuscripts and Papers). Some letters express Petry’s dilemma with being a celebrity novelist.

  • Horsley, Sarah R. “Ann Petry.” Fem Bio: Notable Women International.

    Part of an international database of notable women, this brief biography of Petry’s life also provides a literary history of her work, including her lesser-known books. Appends a good list of primary and secondary sources.

  • McKenzie, Marilyn Mobley. “Ann Petry (1908–1997).” In African American Writers. 2d ed. Vol. 2. Edited by Valerie Smith, 615–627. Scribner Writers. New York: Scribner’s, 2001.

    From a collection on African American literary biography; this entry gives an overview of Petry’s life, her literary career, and her shifting literary viewpoints. Puts forward a more complex portrait of her fictional work, in an encyclopedic manner. Includes a bibliography of primary and secondary works.

  • O’Donnell, Heather. “Ann Petry.” Voices from the Gaps. University of Minnesota, 2009.

    Part of an effort at the University of Minnesota, launched in 1996 and hosted by the University Digital Conservancy, to highlight minority writers. Pays attention to Petry’s formation as a writer in Old Saybrook, her journalism career in New York and the award that made her first novel possible.

  • Petry, Ann. “Ann Petry.” In Contemporary Authors: Autobiography Series. Vol. 6. Edited by Adele Sarkissian, 253–269. Detroit: Gale, 1988.

    One of the last pieces of writing by Petry in a collection of autobiographical essays. Provides an intimate portrait of the author’s family background, youth in Old Saybrook, as well as her early experience in New York City. Sheds light on the connection between Petry’s fiction and social critique.

  • Whitson, Kathy J. “Petry, Ann.” In Encyclopedia of Feminist Literature. By Kathy J. Whitson, 193–196. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2004.

    Part of an encyclopedic collection arranged alphabetically and thematically. Contains a brief overview of Petry; a plot summary of The Street; and an analysis of the main protagonist, Lutie Johnson. Other entries follow a similar structure. Good resource for a beginning or general audience.

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