Although Ann Petry’s (October 12, 1908 – April 28, 1997) fiction typically involves African Americans struggling against the crippling impact of racism, her overarching theme involves a more broadly defined notion of prejudice that targets class and gender as well as race. Thus her aims are consistently broader than racial critique, since she regularly exposes the consequences of America’s hierarchical social systems and its capitalistic materialism. That vision explains what might otherwise seem to be inconsistencies of direction in Petry’s career: her decision, for example, following the potent racial protest of The Street to focus her next novel, Country Place, on a white community’s postwar crises of adjustment or her movement into the realm of children’s literature. Like her contemporaries, black and white alike, who came of age in the 1930’s, she adopted a social realist aesthetic committed to documenting the obstacles to human fulfillment imposed on those at the margins of American prosperity. As she explained,
I find it difficult to subscribe to the idea that art exists for art’s sake. It seems to me that all truly great art is propaganda . . . [and fiction], like all other forms of art, will always reflect the political, economic, and social structure of the period in which it was created.
Her work also reveals an increasingly overt Christian existentialist vision celebrating the individual’s potential for spiritual liberation, through which an entire culture might come to relinquish its crippling prejudices.
Rather than celebrating the American ideal of self-making with which her native New England is so closely associated, Petry exposes the illusions it has fostered and depicts their graphic costs to those relegated to the periphery of American possibility. Racism invites Petry’s most scathing attacks, not only for the material hardship it forces upon people of color but also for the psychological and cultural distortions it produces. At her most biting, Petry lampoons the absurdist systems of human classification into which racist societies ultimately fall. Generally, her perspective is a tragic one, however, grounded in the recognition that confronting racism necessitates confronting history itself.
One of Petry’s most insistent indictments of America’s hypocrisy targets the class distinctions that parallel and overlap racism as forces negating individual hope for a better life, a more just world. Repeatedly she shows how Americans in quest of the material security, comfort, and status that propel middle-class striving acquiesce to soul-numbing labor and retreat into a moral inflexibility that blindly sanctions aggressive self-interest. In Petry’s fiction the culture’s high-flown rhetoric is belied by rigid social hierarchies that produce venal, grasping have-nots at the bottom, whose ambitions mimic the ruthless acquisitiveness of those at the top.
Petry’s most important characters are those who reject the fallacy of the self-made individual existing independently of the world or the continuing legacy of the past. Though that perspective assumes certain mechanistic dimensions in her work, she does not concede full authority to deterministic necessity; the dice may be loaded against her protagonists, but the game is not inexorably mandated to play itself out to any single predetermined end. Her characters sometimes prove capable of personal growth that moves them toward a common humanity with the potential to fuel real and far-reaching change in the social order itself. Petry’s narratives of personal trans formation often grow from characters’ chance movements across rigid cultural boundaries; the resulting crises test the spiritual flexibility of many others besides her protagonists.
Overlooked by academic critics, Petry’s children’s books offer tantalizing clues to her larger agenda. Their emphasis upon personal fearlessness in rethinking entrenched assumptions and disengaging from unjust systems invites comparison with numerous figures from her adult fiction. Moreover, in applying their new insights, these characters undertake subtly revolutionary actions that defy the cultural boundaries that had previously defined their lives. It takes a saint, perhaps, to challenge a predatory universe with an alternative vision of love, but having told children in Legends of the Saints that true sanctity is a function of bravery, Petry seems to evaluate her other fictional characters on their receptivity to grace as an antidote to hate.
Miss Muriel, and Other Stories
Although Petry’s reputation rests primarily on her novels, she saw herself quite differently at the start of her career:
I set out to be a writer of short stories and somehow ended up as a novelist—possibly because there simply wasn’t room enough within the framework of the short story to do the sort of thing I wanted to do.
Yet the pieces in Miss Muriel, and Other Stories, written over the course of several decades, provide a compact and provocative introduction to her imaginative concerns, chief among them her sensitivity to racism’s psychological as well as material consequences.
Like a Winding Sheet
In the prizewinning story “Like a Winding Sheet,” she depicts the physical and mental toll exacted by the nature of work in an industrial society where laborers are treated as interchangeable machines. The story dramatizes how the corrosive humiliations of prejudice, when added to work stresses, can trigger blind and catastrophic violence. A husband’s inability to challenge the string of racist assaults on his dignity delivered both during and after his exhausting night shift at a World War II defense plant not only makes him incapable of imagining benign white behavior (even in the face of apologies) but also causes him to respond to his wife’s affectionate teasing with the beating he is forbidden to direct at his real oppressors. Although racism provides the context for his rage, however (her unwitting use of the word “nigger” echoing the hostile epithet regularly used against him by the outside world), his reaction exposes the starkness of the struggle between male and female in Petry’s world and the sobering betrayals it can provoke. The title image begins as the bedsheet in which he has tossed and turned all day in a futile effort to sleep, but his wife jokingly casts it as a burial linen—a reference ironically appropriate to his sense of himself as the walking dead. By story’s end that reference has assumed sinister dimensions as he feels trapped by the violence he is committing but cannot control, “and he thought it was like being enmeshed in a winding sheet.”
In Darkness and Confusion
“In Darkness and Confusion” fictionalizes the Harlem Riot of 1943, an event sparked by the wounding of a black soldier whose uniform provided scant protection on his own home front. The story’s protagonist, William Jones, a drugstore porter who, despite endless humiliations, has worked hard all his life to secure a better world for his son Sam, suddenly loses that son to the wartime draft and the dangers of a Jim Crow world at the southern training camp to which he is sent. When Sam, who once aspired to college and his share of the American Dream, protests an order to move to the back of the bus and then shoots the aggressive military police officer who gave it, he is court-martialed and sentenced to twenty years of hard labor.
As Jones broods over this news in a Harlem bar, he watches as another uniformed black G.I., this one standing in the supposedly more egalitarian North, tries to help a black woman being beaten by a white policeman, punches the lawman, runs, and is summarily gunned down. Jones erupts into a violence ignited by grief and rage and becomes the leader of a mob. When his churchgoing wife learns of their son’s fate, she too turns to retributive action with an explosive passion that kills her: Her religion proves unable to provide her with the strength to resume her burden and go on with her life. Nor is the mob’s looting of local merchants legitimized, for it is produced by the intoxicating siren song of white capitalist materialism, with which the culture regularly deflects attention from matters of real social justice. The riot leaves Jones more completely bereft than he had been before, for it literally costs him his heart and soul, even as it finally allows him to understand the anomie of his disaffected teenage niece, who has baldly scorned his lifetime of exhausting effort for the whites, who in the end allow them “only the nigger end of things.”
The New Mirror
Petry as skillfully evokes the impact of racism on the black bourgeoisie as she does on the proletariat, and in several tales she demonstrates how a lifetime of belittlement and intimidation can erode one’s ability to act ethically in the world. In “Miss Muriel” and “The New Mirror,” Petry creates a black family much like her own—the Layens are professionals who own the pharmacy in a small New England town. The adolescent girl who narrates these tales speaks of “the training in issues of race” she has received over the years, not only through the casual bigotries she has witnessed but also through the painful self-consciousness of respectable people like her parents, whose behavior is a continual exercise in refuting cultural stereotypes while carefully preserving proudly held racial loyalties. In “The New Mirror” the ironies are more overt, cleaner. Mr. Layen’s decision to take a day off to outfit himself with a new pair of false teeth leads his unknowing wife to an excruciating encounter with police, from whom she withholds her fear that the absent Layen may have become another black man who deserts his family as a delayed response to a lifetime of indignities within the white patriarchal social order. Layen’s surprising secrecy leads his daughter to realize that even securing a new set of teeth subjects a black male to humiliation, in this case taking the form of the grinning Sambos and toothless Uncle Toms he fears his dental problems will call to mind. The child learns to use the codes by which the black middle class shields itself from white contempt— just as she shoulders her own share of the burden of always acting with an eye on the reputation of “the Race”: She thus learns why “all of us people with this dark skin must help hold the black island inviolate.”
The title story of the volume, “Miss Muriel,” operates more subtly in its exploration of the racist preoccupations inculcated within and often unwillingly relinquished by its victims. The title itself refers to a white racist joke the young narrator innocently relates to one of Aunt Sophronia’s black suitors—a joke in which an African American trying to buy a Muriel cigar is upbraided for not showing the proper respect for white womanhood by asking instead for a “Miss” Muriel. The child is bluntly chastised for voicing such “nigger” put-downs in one of the many moments of confusion she suffers over the inconsistent and seemingly arbitrary management of prejudices operating among the adults around her: her aunt’s unpopular courtship by Bemish, a white member of their upstate New York community; the equal dismay with which Mr. Layen regards Sophronia’s other suitor, the “tramp piano player” Chink, who evokes the “low” culture of the black masses, from which the bourgeois Layen has distanced himself as part of his accommodation to a scornful white world; the contempt quietly directed against the homosexual partner of her cherished Uncle Johno; the colorist hierarchies of all the African Americans she knows (even when the lightest skinned among them eschew the opportunity to “pass”). At the end of the story, when the black men in her circle have effectively driven Bemish out of town for his persistent wooing of Sophronia, the narrator brokenheartedly confronts their hypocrisy, yelling, “You both stink. You stink like dead bats. You and your goddamn Miss Muriel.” Internalizing such divisiveness as they have just enforced directly clashes with the other set of values she has been taught, and the two are starkly juxtaposed early in the story when the child muses:
If my objections to Mr. Bemish are because he’s white . . . then I have been ‘trained’ on the subject of race just as I have been trained to be a Christian. . . .
It is one of the paradoxes of bigotry that its victims may become its emissaries, at the price of their most cherished beliefs.
Petry revisits this theme in a number of ways throughout the collection. Against the most aggressive forms of white hatred directed at her characters, there is no defense except a temporary abandonment of one’s human dignity. “The Witness” presents the case of a retired black college professor who takes a high school teaching position in a northern white community. Called upon to assist the local pastor in counseling delinquent adolescents, he finds himself their prey as they kidnap him and force him to watch their sexual abuse of a young white woman. Having at one point coerced him to place his hand on the girl, they effectively blackmail him into complicit silence about their crime, for he is paralyzed by the specter of being publicly accused of the ultimate racial taboo. His exemplary life and professional stature cannot protect him from such sordid insinuations, and he bitterly describes himself in his moral impotence as “another poor scared black bastard who was a witness.”
The Necessary Knocking on the Door
In “The Necessary Knocking on the Door” a similar loss of agency is made bitingly ironic by the context in which Alice Knight’s dilemma unfolds: A participant at a conference about the role of Christianity in the modern world, she finds herself unable to master her dislike for a white woman dying in the hotel room across the hall from hers—a woman who had earlier in the day refused to be seated next to a “nigger” and had thus awakened in Alice the bitterness that a lifetime of such indignities has nurtured. Her hardened heart is jolted the next day by news of the woman’s death during the night—and her own guilty knowledge that she alone had heard the woman’s distress but had let the hated epithet reduce her to that “animal,” “outcast,” “obscene” state it implies—not because it had been leveled at her but because she had let it rob her of her Christian commitment to do good to those who harm her. Even her own dreams indict Alice: “The octopus moonlight” pitilessly asserts, “Yours is the greater crime. A crime. A very great crime. It was a crime. And we were the witnesses.” Like other African American writers before and since, Petry warns that prejudice delivers its most sinister harm when it saps its victims’ capacity for decency and compassion and enlists them in the service of a gospel of irreparable division. In these stories Petry vividly captures the spiritual anguish of discovering that one’s own grievances can weaken rather than deepen one’s moral courage.
The Bones of Louella Brown
Petry’s handling of white perspectives on racism is more unyielding. The absurdities into which segregationist practices lead multiracial societies (including the pseudosciences hunting frantically for physical evidence of racial “difference”) are lampooned in “The Bones of Louella Brown.” The most prestigious family in Massachusetts, the Bedfords, find their plans to build a chapel for its deceased members compromised when an undertaker’s assistant confuses the bones of an African American maid with the sole noblewoman in their clan and, because of the “shocking” similarities of hair, teeth, height, and bone mass between the two skeletons, cannot differentiate the two. That alone is newsworthy enough to attract a Boston reporter sniffing for scandal, but the story gets juicier when it becomes clear there is every likelihood that the segregation that has been a hallmark of the cemetery in question will be permanently breached once it can no longer guarantee that “black” bones will not commingle in the same park with “white” bones. After Mrs. Brown makes a series of ghostly visitations to principals in the story, they decide to acknowledge the truth with an epitaph explaining that either woman (or both) may lie in the crypt, along with the admission of their common humanity: “They both wore the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet, the hope of salvation.” Here too Petry moves her reader beyond social contexts and into metaphysical ones by reminding readers that this story of dry bones (an unmistakable homage to a favorite trope of black oral tradition) is also a meditation on mortality itself, which exposes such preoccupation with earthly pecking orders for the consummate folly it is.
The Migraine Workers
“The Migraine Workers” offers another example of white protagonists brought up short in the knowledge of their moral blindness in following the unquestioned attitudes of a lifetime. Pedro Gonzalez, proud owner of a successful truck stop, suddenly finds himself staring into a trailer full of migrant laborers exuding a human misery more palpable than anything he has ever encountered. Outraged by the black driver, who blithely explains how he usually hides such scenes from public scrutiny, Pedro feeds the people with the surplus food left on his premises by other haulers. When he later discovers that an elderly man from the crew has hidden himself in the area and is living off what he can scavenge from the truckstop, his first impulse is to have the man removed by the police. It is only when his longtime assistant challenges his callousness and points to the resources they could easily spare for the man’s upkeep that Pedro realizes how his own fleshy body indicts him of complicity in a system of polarized haves and have-nots: migraine-producing epiphanies indeed in the land of equal opportunity.
Other stories in the collection evoke the mysterious private centers of grief hidden in the human heart: “Olaf and His Girl Friend” and “Solo on the Drums” show Petry’s interest in African American music as an exquisite, untranslatable evocation of that pain. “Mother Africa” introduces Emanuel Turner, another of Petry’s junk men, whose business indicts the acquisitive mandate of American consumer culture. Years earlier, the loss of his wife and baby in childbirth had robbed him of any further desire for self-improvement; as a junk dealer he is free from anxious adherence to other people’s standards of worth or accomplishment, and because he is his own man, he is a welcome figure to those around him. All that changes when a friend blesses him with the huge sculpture of a female nude being discarded by a wealthy white woman. The statue seduces Turner back into a realm of selfconscious striving as he tries to live up to its grandeur; in the process he loses his liberty and the easy rapport he has had with his neighbors. Convinced that she is a mythic evocation of Africa itself, he resents the prudish efforts of others to clothe her as missionaries had once done to his ancestors. Thus he is stunned to learn that this dark madonna is not a black woman at all but a white woman—the oxidized metal had misled him.
By parodying the assumed black male obsession with white women in this way, Petry implies that the real hunger at work is for authentic enunciation of the African American experience, a hunger left unsatisfied when Turner hurriedly rushes to sell the piece for scrap. In succumbing to the desire to make a world fit for his queenly companion, Turner submits himself for the first time in twenty-five years to the pressures of conformity and material acquisition. Is it love which so compromises him?— or are the statue’s racial associations Petry’s warnings against the lure of cultural standards derived from the spiritually bankrupt spheres of white consumer capitalism? Taken together, the stories in this collection offer tantalizing variations upon Petry’s most insistent themes.
Children’s literature: The Drugstore Cat, 1949; Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad, 1955; Tituba of Salem Village, 1964; Legends of the Saints, 1970.
Novels: The Street, 1946; Country Place, 1947; The Narrows, 1953.
Bell, Bernard. “Ann Petry’s Demythologizing of American Culture and Afro-American Character.” In Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition, edited by Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.
Clark, Keith. “A Distaff Dream Deferred? Ann Petry and the Art of Subversion.” African- American Review 26 (Fall, 1992): 495-505.
Ervin, Hazel Arnett, and Hilary Holladay, eds. Ann Petry’s Short Fiction: Critical Essays. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004.
Gross, Theodore. “Ann Petry: The Novelist as Social Critic.” In Black Fiction: New Studies in the Afro-American Novel Since 1945, edited by A. Robert Lee. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1980.
Hernton, Calvin. “The Significance of Ann Petry.” In The Sexual Mountain and Black Women Writers. New York: Doubleday, 1987.
Hernton, Calvin. “The Significance of Ann Petry.” In The Sexual Mountain and Black Women Writers. New York: Doubleday, 1987.
Washington, Gladys. “A World Made Cunningly: A Closer Look at Ann Petry’s Short Fiction.” College Language Association Journal 30 (September, 1986): 14-29.
Wilson, Mark. “A MELUS Interview: Ann Petry—The New England Connection.” MELUS 15 (Summer, 1988): 71-84.
Categories: Short Story