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Remembering Petry

A while back I received in the mail an envelope containing a short newspaper article about Ann Petry accompanied by a handwritten note. The sender asked why more students weren’t taught about Petry, and he asked if there were anything I could do about it. My first response is that I could continue teaching her works, which I do frequently, including this month. My correspondent was correct to suggest that Petry is underappreciated; most of my students have not known of her writings or even known her name prior to class. But I first read The Street when I was a teenager and drawn to the grittiness of what people would later explain to me was literary naturalism. Environment, I knew, could be a ------------. The impression the book made on me---a person born a mile-and-a-half up Eighth Avenue from the block depicted in the novel---was indelible. So it stays in my rotation. If we’re going to read Native Son, we’re going to read The Street. I think Nikki Giovanni once commented to the effect that she couldn’t recognize that street or the people on it. I just know Nikki isn’t from Harlem.

At any rate, my current students appreciated the novel and the fight between Lutie Johnson and her surroundings. They engaged it seriously and were enthusiastic in the manner of Tayari Jones, who wrote the introduction to an edition. Their response demonstrated to me the ongoing value of Petry’s landmark achievement. And they all were sad about the ending. Fortunately, there’s more from the author to read.

My correspondent should be pleased about recent developments concerning the Petry canon. Mariner Books Classics issued a reprint of The Street in 2020, with the introduction by Jones. This followed by a year the Library of America volume, edited by Farah Jasmine Griffin, of The Street and The Narrows. In 2023, Mariner has released editions of The Narrows, A Country Place, and Miss Muriel and Other Stories. I hope the resurgence of interest continues and that readers consult The Critical Response to Ann Petry, 2005, edited by Hazel Arnett Ervin with entries by the likes of Arthur P. Davis, Arna Bontemps, Sherley Anne Williams, Barbara Smith, Barbara Christian, Richard Yarborough, Bernard Bell, and Nellie McKay.

Back in class, I wonder if Invisible Man is going to be a letdown.


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