As Keith Clark points out in The Radical Fiction of Ann Petry, the author for a long time was known almost exclusively because of her short story “Like a Winding Sheet” (1945) and her first novel The Street (1946). This singular emphasis resulted in Petry’s works being confined to the category of naturalist protest fiction—not to mention the author being considered something of an imitator of the father of the form, Richard Wright. To a significant extent, this very limited critical perspective on Petry developed because both of these works appeared at a time after the publication in 1940 of Wright’s Native Son, a novel that made a vast impact on the male-dominated literary establishment and enshrined naturalistic protest as the dominant African American literary mode. Moreover, critics and readers neglected an œuvre which included novels, short stories, literature for children/adolescents, and essays.
As Clark shows in his groundbreaking study, however, Petry’s work offers so much more than Wright’s masculine-focused naturalist protest. “Like a Winding Sheet” and The Street have naturalist characteristics, but Clark’s close reading of both reveals that the works are substantively deeper and richer than naturalism. One of Clark’s two main emphases is that Petry portrayed a black male ontology that differed markedly from Bigger Thomas’s in Native Son; the second is that gothic elements in her writing continue an often overlooked mise-en-scène in the African American literary tradition and anticipate the gothic settings and horror in the writing of contemporary black and white American authors such as Toni Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates. There is a gothic horror and haunting in Petry’s work that applies not only to African American life, but also to that which is white, and generally American too. Clark demonstrates that Petry was far ahead of her time in the exploration of black male ontology, and, further, foregrounds how the gothic [End Page 385] dimensions of her writing fit the pattern of the broader African American tradition more than critics usually acknowledge, perhaps most importantly anticipating the gothic horror and haunting of American life in contemporary African American literature. Clark shows that all the works from the inception of her career reveal that Petry always greatly exceeded the boundaries of naturalist protest in which critics all too often confine her. Petry’s writing is sui generis, rich, and indeed, radical.
Besides “Like a Winding Sheet” and The Street, the main works Clark explores are Petry’s other novels, Country Place (1947) and The Narrows (1953), and other stories, “The Bones of Louella Brown” (1947), “In Darkness and Confusion” (1947), “Has Anybody Seen Miss Dora Dean?” (1958), “Miss Muriel” (1963), and “The Witness” (1971).
The fiction throughout her career displays the diversity of black male subjectivities and the horror and haunting of both African American and American life that place Petry far ahead of her time and clearly give her writing a depth and substance and that make her more important than most critics preceding Clark ever thought. Johnson, the African American male protagonist in “Like a Winding Sheet,” occupies a space between traditional abusive, naturalist masculinity determined by environment and a more positive humanity. His job in a Northern plant terrorizes him in many of the same ways that racism in the South historically terrorized black people. As a consequence of his Northern life, Johnson physically attacks his wife Mae at the end, and thus apparently becomes a product of his environment. But because of his initial conflicting desire not to be abusive to Mae, he is more complex than a natural-istically determined character. Clark’s reading of the story emphasizes Johnson’s complex characterization, but also hints at the gothic horror and haunting that are central to Petry’s fiction, and concomitantly, to Clark’s overall analysis. The racism of the North is essentially no different from the racism of the South; it has permeated the entirety of American society and culture, and terrorizes and haunts both black and white people. In...