Friday, February 22, 2019


Ann Petry (1908–1997)
From Ann Petry: The Street, The Narrows

Harlem, 1949, as captured by American photographer George Leavens (1902–2006). Nineteen images by Leavens accompanied Ann Petry’s essay in the April 1949 issue of Holiday magazine. The pair of photos above opened the piece and included the following captions: “Harlem Shopping Center, 125th & 7th Ave. Negroes hope these business properties, largely white-owned, someday will be Negro-owned.” / “Harlemites love flashy cars. Song writer Dusty Fletcher (left) shows his Cadillac to Tiny Bradshaw, whose Buick is fire-engine red.” Other images portrayed members of Harlem’s “aristocracy” and local celebrities, as well as the less glamorous side of Harlem, including a crime scene and downtrodden tenement dwellers.
During World War II, Ann Petry somehow found the time to take two years' worth of classes at a Columbia University writing workshop while she was publishing a weekly column for The People’s Voice, cofounding and running the Harlem consumer group Negro Women Incorporated, and—while her husband served in the Army—taking on numerous jobs, both part-time and volunteer, at a variety of community organizations. In 1943 her short story “On Saturday, the Siren Sounds at Noon,” was accepted by The Crisis (the magazine published by the NAACP); after reading it, an editor at Houghton Mifflin suggested to Petry that, if she planned to write a novel, she should apply for the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship Award. So the following year she began working on a novel and submitted an outline and sample chapters to the award committee. In February 1945, as the war in Europe was winding down, she learned that she had won the $2,400 fellowship, which allowed her to scale back her activities and work on the book. She completed it in just a few months and The Street appeared in early 1946.

Early notices and reviews suggested a best seller might be in the making, but nobody predicted the staggering success of the book. Twenty thousand copies were sold in advance of its release, and The Street would eventually become the first book by an African American woman to sell more than a million copies. Over 100 editions in at least a dozen languages have since appeared; the cover of a 1985 U.S. paperback boasts, “Over 1,500,000 copies sold!” The novel enjoyed yet another renaissance when it was reissued in 1992, prompting wide, career-retrospective coverage in the national press.

Petry was born and raised in the relatively sedate seaside community of Old Saybrook, Connecticut, where her father was the owner of a local pharmacy and her mother, a licensed barber, operated a beauty salon. Petry later described her home as “picture-postcard of a town,” but there were only four black households in what was “an essentially hostile environment for a black family.” In 1938 she and her husband moved to Harlem, and her years in New York City—particularly her work developing programs for latchkey children—provided her with material for The Street.

She had long hoped to become a respected, full-time author but nothing in her upbringing prepared her for fame. “I was absolutely astounded,” Petry told The New York Times a half century later. “I was shocked that suddenly my soul was no longer my own. I was a black woman at a point in time when being a writer was not usual, and I was besieged. Everyone wanted a part of me. That was when I ran, back home to Connecticut. I stopped giving interviews. I unlisted my phone.” She returned to Old Saybrook in 1947, and she and her husband remained there in relative seclusion for the rest of their lives. She published two other novels (one being The Narrows, which many critics regard as her masterpiece), a collection of short stories, and several books for young readers, including a still-popular biography of Harriet Tubman.

In late 1948, less than three years after her life-changing debut novel, the editors of the travel magazine Holiday asked Petry to contribute the text for a photo essay on Harlem for their upcoming issue devoted to the sights of New York—or, more accurately, Manhattan. The line-up for the April 1949 number included such celebrity authors as E. B. White (who provide the celebrated essay “Here Is New York”), S. J. Perelman, John Lardner, Roger Angell, Walter Bernstein, Jan Struther (of Mrs. Miniver fame), and Langston Hughes. Petry’s contribution was accompanied by photographs both glamorous and gritty by George Leavens. Never reprinted since its publication seventy years ago, “Harlem” has been included the new LOA volume bringing together The Street and The Narrows, and we present Petry’s essay here as our Story of the Week selection.

Notes: Petry mentions numerous residents who were famous to New Yorkers—and to many Americans—at the time. Dutch Schultz (Arthur Simon Flegenheimer), who died in 1935, was an organized crime figure who ran speakeasies and, after Prohibition, the Harlem numbers racket. Bill (Bojangles) Robinson was a dancer and actor. Walter White was head of the NAACP from 1931 to 1955. Channing Tobias was senior secretary of the Colored Work Department on the YMCA from 1924 to 1946. Jane Bolin, the only female African American judge in the United States, was appointed to the New York City Domestic Relations Court in 1939. A. Philip Randolph was a prominent labor organizer and civil rights leader. Rochester was the character of Jack Benny’s butler played by the radio comedian Eddie Anderson on The Jack Benny Program. The Little Flower was Mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s nickname: a translation from the Italian of his first name, and a reference to his short stature.

Anna Lucasta is a 1944 play by Philip Yordan; after opening at the American Negro Theatre in Harlem, it ran for over two years on Broadway. Real gone was a bop slang expression that, depending on context, could mean either mellow or wild and carefree or might describe someone who is “with it” (i.e., keeping up with the latest). The phrase became especially popular after Nellie Luther’s 1947 crossover hit “He’s a Real Gone Guy” peaked at #2 on the R&B charts and #15 on the pop charts. “Always marry a woman uglier than you” is a line from the mid-1930s calypso song “Ugly Woman” by Roaring Lion (Rafael De Leon).

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The shadow of the past hangs heavily over Harlem, obscuring its outlines, obliterating its true face. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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