Ann Lane Petry’s birth date is not certain. Some biographers state October 12, 1911, while others list it as October 12, 1908. Either way, she was born in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, a predominantly white, rural community. Her family often told stories while she was growing up, and Petry began writing short stories and plays while she was still in high school.
The Street is her most famous novel, published in 1946; it made her the first black woman writer with book sales over a million copies.
As Petry is considered one of the most successful members of the “Richard Wright school” of writing, some overlook the Gothic–the dark and macabre–tones in her writing. In Keith Clark‘s book, The Radical Fiction of Ann Petry (Louisiana State University Press, 2013), Clark compares Petry’s work to Poe’s, saying she has brought the symbolism of classic Gothic into the 1940s. The tenement building becomes a haunted castle, filled with beings bent on destruction. Imagery of darkness, seclusion, entombment, and insanity pervade the work. Even the physical descriptions of characters, both black and white, are monstrous, draping Lutie’s (our main character’s) every move in fear.
Clark goes on to note the use of dark comedy and the macabre in Petry’s short stories “The Bones of Louella Brown,” a ghost story in which a maid comes back to haunt her employers and “The Witness,” in which a teacher is forced to witness a crime committed by his students.
Over the course of her life, Petry lectured widely throughout the United States, and her contribution to literature was acknowledged by membership in the Author’s Guild and other literary societies, and honorary doctorates from several colleges and universities.
Ann Petry died April 28, 1997, near her home in Old Saybrook, after a brief illness.