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The Radical Fiction of Ann Petry

Keith Clark

Publication Year: 2013

This welcome study delivers a long-overdue analysis of the works of Ann Petry (1908–1997), a major mid-twentieth-century African American author. Primarily known as the sole female member of the “Wright School of Social Protest,” Petry has been most recognized for her 1946 novel The Street, about a woman’s struggle to raise her son in a hardscrabble Harlem neighborhood. Keith Clark moves beyond assessments of Petry as a sort of literary descendent of Richard Wright to acclaim her innovative approaches to gender performance, sexuality, and literary technique. Engaging a variety of disciplinary frameworks, including gothic criticism, masculinity and gender studies, queer theory, and psychoanalytic theory, Clark offers fresh readings of Petry’s three novels and collection of short stories. Clark explores, for example, Petry’s use of terror in The Street, where both blacks and whites appear physically and psychically monstrous. He also identifies the use of dark comedy and the macabre in her startling depictions of race, class, gender construction, and sexual identity in the stories “The Bones of Louella Brown” and “The Witness.” Petry’s overlooked second novel, Country Place—set in a deceptively serene, bucolic Connecticut hamlet—camouflages a world as palsied and nightmarish as the Harlem of her previous work. While confirming the black feminist dimensions of Petry’s writing, Clark also assesses the writer’s representations of an array of black and white masculine behaviors—some socially sanctioned, others transgressive and taboo—in her unheralded masterpiece, The Narrows, and her widely anthologized short story, “Like a Winding Sheet.” Expansive in scope, The Radical Fiction of Ann Petry foregrounds and analyzes Petry’s unique concerns and agile techniques, re-introducing and situating her among more celebrated male contemporaries.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press


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p. C-C

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-xiv

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INTRODUCTION: THE “LITERARY BONES” OF ANN PETRY: Excavating and Re-situating a Reluctant Icon

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pp. 1-7

My introduction to Ann Petry’s most widely acclaimed novels, The Street and The Narrows, occurred in an early 1990s graduate seminar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Until that time, my knowledge of Petry’s works had been limited to the short story “Like a Winding Sheet,” which was included in the estimable Richard Barksdale/...

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1. FROM GANGSTA TO GOTHIC: Ann Petry’s Unbounded Aesthetic Universe

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pp. 8-24

The “darker brother” of whom Langston Hughes sang in the poem “I, Too”—the unrecognized native son relegated to the “kitchen” of America’s racial house—has always been the foreboding presence in our culture, the inscrutable br/other whose presence is indelible but irrepressible. Thus, gothic’s literal and metaphorical emphasis on “darkness”...

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2. BLACK BOYS, HOODS, AND WANNABES: Images of Imperiled Black Manhood in The Narrows

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pp. 25-57

Given Ann Petry’s reply to an interviewer’s 1988 query as to whether or not she considers herself a feminist—“I don’t like labels like that. . . . But I am an ally of feminists, there’s absolutely no question about that” (“An Interview” 100)—one might be inclined to attribute it to any number of things. While I’m not necessarily questioning the ...

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3. MASCULINE ANGST REVISITED: The Anguished Black Men of “Like a Winding Sheet,” “Has Anybody Seen Miss Dora Dean?” and “Miss Muriel”

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pp. 58-92

As novelists such as Nella Larsen and black feminist scholars such as Mary Helen Washington have contended, domesticity and its cherished institutions—marriage, motherhood—often short-circuited black female subjectivity, though occasionally affording women moderate degrees of fulfillment and occasional power. But in contradistinction to...

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4. “OPPOSITIONAL GOTHIC”: The Street and Ann Petry’s Place in the Literature of Terror

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pp. 93-121

Viewed collectively, the titles of canonical and lesser-known African American texts project a long-standing—if unintentional—concern with the nexus between blackness, fear, and terror. Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, in a Two-Story House, North. Showing that Slavery’s Shadows Fall Even There;...

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5. HAUNTING/HAUNTED B(L)ACK: Tormented and Tormenting Souls in “The Bones of Louella Brown” and “The Witness”

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pp. 122-156

As evidenced in the previous, companionate chapter, The Street’s dingy tenement setting conjures up the inapprehensible dread of the slave ship and plantation—though the sites and experiences are not, of course, coterminous. Given Petry’s long-standing valuation of alternative cosmographies and the unabating horror associated with and experienced ...

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6. “ENTOMBED WHILE STILL ALIVE”: Images of Domestic Terror and Monstrousness in Country Place

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pp. 157-179

Given the critical and popular acclaim—not to mention the profits it reaped for Houghton Mifflin as the first million-selling novel by an African American woman—that accompanied The Street’s publication, the academic and reading publics might have indulged Ann Petry had she chosen to repeat the book’s surface naturalistic and protest formulae. To be ...

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7. “A QUEER MIXTURE OF VIOLENCE AND LOVE AND HATE AND TERROR”: (Wannabe) Gangsta, Gothic, and Grotesquerie in “In Darkness and Confusion”

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pp. 180-201

Terror in our contemporary sociopolitical idiom has become an arabesque of fraught and contested meanings. Right-wing politicians speak alarmingly and gravely of the self-professed “war on terror,” using the notion of a “pre”- and “post”-911 America as a cudgel to bludgeon opposing politicians and critics as nay-saying and yellow-bellied, insufficiently...

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CONCLUSION: FROM THE 1960S TO THE 2000S AND BEYOND: Ann Petry’s Prescient Vision

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pp. 202-212

In her standard no-nonsense, borderline curt way, Ann Petry penned this response to a 1970 invitation to speak on racial matters at an institute called “The Young Adult in Conflict”: “I have talked to too many audiences and given too many speeches and taken part in too many seminars, etc. I can’t talk any more about what ‘being black in white America’...

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pp. 213-234

...1. I’m alluding here, of course, to Howe’s controversial 1963 essay “Black Boys and Native Sons” (Dissent magazine), in which he chided “young Turks” Baldwin and Ellison for failing to match the same degree of righteous racial anger that pulsates through the fiction of the man he considered their literary father, Wright. In effect, Howe called out the younger writers for apparently eschewing the genre of protest, which he seemed to ...


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pp. 235-246


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pp. 247-257

E-ISBN-13: 9780807150672
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807150665

Page Count: 264
Publication Year: 2013