- At Home Inside: A Daughter's Tribute to Ann Petry
Elisabeth Petry's second book contributing to our knowledge of her mother, novelist Ann Petry, is an effective blend of biography, memoir, and synthesis of journals and letters. It is a companion volume to her first book, Can Anything Beat White? A Black Family's Letters (UP of Mississippi, 2005), which wove a narrative around letters by and about Ann's older relatives. The current work is of much greater interest to Petry scholars because it focuses directly on the novelist and presents a new and personal perspective on her.
Elisabeth announces her purpose at the end of her "Prelude":
I've written this work because I want to correct the record about the basic facts of [Ann's] existence. And I want to express my admiration for her as a trailblazing writer and as human being whose passion spilled over into many aspects of her life. I regard this work as part love letter, part exploration of her genius, and part request for forgiveness for any obstacles I may have put in her way that kept her from writing more brilliant stories and novels.(18)
The body of the work fulfills these aims and comprises three sections: "Keeping Secrets," on Ann's early years and her obsession with privacy; "Scribbling Woman," on relationships between life and creative work; and "Nurturing Mother," on the close bond between mother and daughter and on Ann's later illnesses. A "Coda" provides a necessary, though brief summary of her mother's character and life experience.
Elisabeth opens by acknowledging that "[m]y mother did not want this book to exist" (1), but her revelations of Ann's private life are neither embarrassing nor sensational, but respectful and humanizing. We learn of the novelist's early experiences of racism, her ambivalence about her education at Hampton and at pharmacy school, and contradictions between her needs for creative solitude and for social connection. Particularly interesting is her relation to social class: her outspoken critique of social injustice, her belief that black people all constitute one separate class, and her New England middle-class values of thrift, hard work, appearances, and privacy. She fled [End Page 757] New York when the publicity over The Street "began to interfere with her writing" (65), and later in life, despite her desire for more readers, she shunned interviews and accepted few speaking engagements. Ultimately, many aspects of her private life remain obscure even to her daughter. The New York years and leftist connections are a confessed blank to Elisabeth (61-62), though Alex Lubin's essay collection, which I recently reviewed in this journal, now helps fill that gap (Revising the Blueprint: Ann Petry and the Literary Left [UP of Mississippi, 2005]).
With respect to Petry as a writer, we learn about her early encouragements and discouragements and that she was intuitively sure of her own talent: "no question about it I was endowed with a rich imagination—a rich and fertile imagination," reads a 1983 journal entry (10). She emphasized both the hard work of rewriting and the magical power of the subconscious, which she considered "a grabbag, a junkyard and a treasure house all at one and the same time" (95). Elisabeth illuminates many sources of the fiction: newspaper stories, the 1938 hurricane, places she lived, and family and friends.
Of particular interest are the reasons for Petry's sparser writing in the last half of her life, echoing similar silences of two other black women writers roughly of her generation, Nella Larsen and Dorothy West. Although she continued voluminous journal writing and collecting of newspaper clippings, and published some stories and two important young-adult historical biographies, Petry herself was painfully aware of her decline in creative productivity. In a 1983 letter to her daughter she said, "I have never felt that I lived up to 1/100th of the potential I had" (2). Journal entries from the 1960s on echo a 1982 lament over lost time and a...