To continue with our celebration of Women’s History Month, we’re honoring HMH author Ann Petry – the first African American woman to sell more than one million copies of a book!
The title of Petry’s hugely successful and very first novel was The Street, a story about a single mother and her son living on 116th street in Harlem during the 1940s. Prior to The Street, Petry published two short stories, one of which caught the eye of Houghton Mifflin.
“Someone from Houghton Mifflin read it and asked if I would be interested in writing a novel and applying for a Houghton Mifflin fellowship,” explained Petry. “I said that I wasn’t writing a novel but that in another year I might be. They wrote again the following year and asked if I was ready. The application asked for five chapters and a synopsis. In two or three months they wrote saying they would like to meet me. I thought they were going to give me my manuscript back, but they said they wanted to publish it. I believed that if I lifted my arms up I could fly.”
The Street was published in 1946 and was an immediate success. It was translated into French, Spanish, Japanese and Portuguese, and Petry was the subject of much interest. Several articles were published about her, including a glossy feature article in Ebony that described her book launch party held at the Hotel Biltmore in New York City: “Her debut was attended by over 200 guests who downed large quantities of liquor, consumed several huge trays of hors d'oeuvres and indulged in a surplus of conversation. By and large the evening was a success – many guests left convinced that they had participated in a significant event in American literary history.”
Petry was born in Old Saybrook, Connecticut in 1908. Her father was a pharmacist, and her aunt, Anna Louise James, was the first woman pharmacist of color in Connecticut. Petry also became a pharmacist, graduating from the Connecticut College of Pharmacy in 1931, even though she knew that she wanted to be a writer. She kept writing while working in the pharmacy, and when she married George Petry, an author of detective novels, they moved to Harlem and she began her writing career at the Amsterdam News.
Petry is often described as shy or brusque by those who interviewed her, but in reality, she was actually just impatient with any notoriety and wanted to devote herself to writing. She and George eventually moved back to Old Saybrook to avoid the publicity and there they stayed for the rest of their lives. Here is a snippet from a letter that Petry wrote to a friend in 1987 explaining her need for quiet and privacy:
Following the success of The Street, Petry published two more novels, A Country Place in 1947 and The Narrows in 1953, as well as a collection of short stories titled Miss Muriel and Other Stories in 1971. Additionally, Petry also published four children’s books with another publisher, Thomas Crowell.
Houghton Mifflin reissued The Street in 1992. Petry agreed to do publicity for the reissue and received praise from younger African American writers, such as Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor and Terry McMillan. To the right is Petry’s publicity photo from 1992.
Petry died in 1998, but The Street lives on.If you’re ever in Old Saybrook you can still visit the James Pharmacy and see a small historical display about her family and their contributions to Connecticut and the world.