Country Place: Ann Petry's 'White' Novel Reissued; or, Flipping the script

I have been considering myself a serious reader – reader, not critic or scholar – of African American literature for the last fifty years, let us say since buying Abraham Chapman’s Black Voices: An Anthology of Afro-American Literature (Mentor Books) in 1968 for $ 1.50! Black Voices included Ann Petry’s 1947 novella In Darkness and Confusion, a fictionalized account of the Harlem riot of 1943, thus becoming my introduction to Ann Petry’s world – or worlds – of fiction.

Ann Petry (1908-1997) was born and raised in Saybrook (Old Saybrook since 1947), Connecticut, where her family owned the town pharmacy. A pharmacist herself, after marrying she moved in 1938 with her husband to Harlem, becoming a journalist, social worker, community activist, and short story writer, making a name for herself with her first novel, The Street (1946), set in Harlem, and famously becoming the first novel by a black woman to sell more than a million copies.

By 1947 she was back in Old Saybrook, where she lived the rest of her life with her husband and daughter, Elisabeth Petry. And New England became the setting for her next two novels, Country Place (1947) and The Narrows (1953). Her short story collection, Miss Muriel and Other Stories (1971), collects both her Harlem and New England stories (including In Darkness and Confusion).

All of her fictions have since been reprinted in paperback over and again – with the exception of Country Place, her ‘white’ novel, all the main characters being white.

This year The Library of America have reprinted The Street and The Narrows (LOA # 314), The Narrows considered to be Ann Petry’s most accomplished novel by both her editor Farah Jasmine Griffin and Elisabeth Petry, her collaborator on the LOA-volume and Petry scholar in her own right (A Home Inside: A Daughter’s Tribute to Ann Petry, University Press of Mississippi, 2008).

Also this year, Northwestern University Press have finally reprinted Country Place in paperback, a book that Farah Jasmine Griffin in her foreword calls “a complex, if at times sensational, portrait of a world that Petry knew even better than she knew Harlem,” harshly critical of the racism, ethnic bigotry and misogyny of the world she depicts.

Why the long wait? Many early and later critics of Country Place found the novel overly melodramatic. Others may have thought that we have plenty of fictions about white New England small town life by white writers, but few – if any – about African American minority life in these small New England communities. Or simply that The Narrows was the superior effort.

However, contemporary critics like Griffin and Petry, Emily Bernard, Hazel Arnett Erwin, and Keith Clarke, have found new ways of reading Country Place. As Keith Clarke (The Radical Fiction of Ann Petry, Louisiana State University Press, 2013) writes: “Country Place enabled the black writer to ‘flip the script’ and focus her artistic lens almost singularly on those who are denominated as ‘raceless’ – the always normative, always unmarked, always aproblematic whites.”