Groundbreaking 1946 novel by Old Saybrook's Ann Petry back in new edition
Proportionately, we can't complain much in terms of how many successful authors have lived in or hailed from these parts.
But it's possible that one of our most accomplished writers — one who shattered stereotypes and barriers — has with time slipped under the radar. That would be Ann Petry, the one-time Old Saybrook resident who also briefly lived in Lyme, and whose 1946 novel "The Street" became the first novel written by an African American woman to sell over a million copies. A literary, page-flipping thriller with sharp and eloquent writing, "The Street" is the story of Lutie Johnson, a single mother in the 1940s who moves from Connecticut to Harlem, determined to find a place for herself and her son in the American Dream. But her determination and self-confidence are battered at every turn by the predators of the street and the racism and sexism of the times.
"The Street'" was an astonishing success particularly because Petry was an African American woman, and her career flourished after the book became popular. She went on to publish two other well received novels, "The Narrows" and "The Country Place"; an exceptional collection called "Miss Muriel and Other Stories"; and a middle-grade biography titled "Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad," which was named an American Library Association Notable Book and a New York Times Outstanding Book.
Over time, "The Street" and Petry, who died in Old Saybrook in 1997, had largely slipped from memory, although the book never disappeared from the marketplace.
"'The Street' has gone through cycles of heightened attention, for sure, but it's never been out of print — and there are plenty of books from 1946 that are," says Nicole Angeloro, an editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. "It has staying power, even if it isn't always as known and read as it once was. There are so many new books being published each year, it can be hard for older books to really surface amid all the noise."
In that spirit and context, it's refreshing, particularly at this point of cultural awakening in society and, tangentially, the publishing business, that Mariner Books, the paperback imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt overseen by Angeloro, has come out with a new edition of "The Street."
"We were the original publishers of the book," Angeloro says. "Ann Petry won the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship and, as a result, we published the book in 1946. It's a proud part of our own history. Plus, the book grapples with race, gender, and class in a way that feels very much of our own time despite being published almost 75 years ago. But it's also a great read that will keep you on the edge of your seat."
The Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship was a prize designed to help aspiring writers that provided a cash award against royalties for publication of the winner's first book. Along with Petry, other winners included Philip Roth ("Goodbye, Columbus"), Robert Stone ("A Hall of Mirrors"), Margaret Walker ("Jubilee"), and Robert Penn Warren ("Night Rider").
If "The Street" is renowned for its dark and gritty depiction of a single mother's plight in 1940s Harlem, it's true that Petry's childhood and early years would not have suggested such a book. Born in 1908, Petry grew up in Old Saybrook. Her father was a pharmacist who owned his own drugstore, and her mother was a chiropodist and businesswoman — both of whom, Petry later said in interviews, were emphatic in the belief that she and her sister should follow their dreams regardless of gender or racial barriers.
Petry got a degree in pharmacology but, long fascinated with Louisa May Alcott, wanted to be a writer. When she married and moved to Harlem with her husband George Petry, she started reporting for various newspapers and writing short stories — work that reflected her first experiences with poverty and segregation on a large scale. She took a writing course at Columbia and committed herself to social issues via the NAACP and programs for low-income school children. She also acted at Harlem's American Negro Theatre, performing onstage as Tillie Petunia in Abram Hill's "On Striver's Row."
It was during these years that she wrote the manuscript that became "The Street." Eventually, as her career took off, Petry was by all accounts proud of her efforts, particularly on behalf of female writers and authors of color. Still, she was never comfortable with fame and, when the attention became too much for Petry, she and her husband returned to Old Saybrook.
Shiny and new
The new edition of "The Street" has a beautiful design that resonates in a contemporary fashion. Angeloro says, "We wanted a new cover that would convey that there's a character-driven story here that's perfect for your book club, not just trenchant social criticism."
Even more exciting, an addition to the edition is an introduction written by Tayari Jones, the bestselling author of four novels including "Silver Sparrow," "Leaving Atlanta," "The Untelling" and the Oprah Book Club selection "An American Marriage."
"I, for one, am enormously pleased by the reissue of 'The Street,'" says Jones by email. "In the 1980s and 1990s there was a new attention to African American women writers, but much of our efforts to right the wrongs of racism and sexism in the academy and canon focused on uplifting the writers who were publishing at that moment — and what a pleasure it was to celebrate the greats like Morrison, Walker and Naylor."
She adds, "However, our mission must also include amplifying the voices of the writers who have been overlooked. 'The Street' is an excellent novel to be reissued. Petry was before her time ... and this is the perfect novel for this moment of #metoo and intersectional feminism. Plus, it's a page-turner, to boot!"
Petry's daughter, Liz Petry, author of the book "At Home Inside: A Daughter's Tribute to Ann Petry," which was published in 2009 by the University Press of Mississippi, and who lives in Middletown, was also part of the team working on the reissue.
Though Liz Petry was unavailable for comment, Angeloro says, "Liz was onboard with the new look for the cover and bringing Tayari Jones on for the introduction. It's really a partnership — we're all committed to getting this book in people's hands."
When asked to speculate on what Ann Petry might have thought about a reissue of "The Street" at this point in America, when it seems there have been advances in equality, acceptance and tolerance, Jones says it's hard to tell. "I imagine she would have been pleased that there is progress, but annoyed by the pace — but that's hardly a unique view. I think, however, that Petry would likely be delighted by the recent flexibility in genre by African American writers," she says.
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