Academic journal article MELUS

White Family Values in Ann Petry's Country Place

Academic journal article MELUS

White Family Values in Ann Petry's Country Place

Article excerpt

Hired by Columbia Pictures in 1957, Ann Petry wrote a script called "That Hill Girl" for a movie featuring Hollywood glamour girl Kim Novak. The job must have been a dream come true for Petry. In an autobiographical essay for Contemporary Authors, she confessed to "an absolute passion" for the movies: "I'm addicted to them--good ones, bad ones, indifferent ones" (266). Petry sold the rights to her third novel, The Narrows (1953), though it never materialized on the silver screen. The black novelist speculated, no doubt correctly, that the interracial affair at the center of the narrative proved too controversial for the 1950s movie industry. Petry's second novel, Country Place, would have been controversial, too, but for a different reason. Published in 1947, the novel mocks the sentimentality of postwar white family narratives such as William Wyler's award-winning film The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), which dramatizes the difficult homecomings of three veterans. Country Place tells a similar story about white folks, but without the happily-ever-after ending.

Country Place belongs to a group of "white life" novels published by black writers in the years following World War Two. Some of these novels, like Frank Yerby's Foxes of Harrow (1946) and Willard Morley's Knock on Any Door (1947), became bestsellers and then major Hollywood films. Although such novels were generally well received when first published, subsequent critics have too quickly dismissed the works that Langston Hughes, in 1950, cited as evidence of "superior achievement" on the part of black American writers. The end of World War Two brought into even sharper focus the problem of the color line in American life; as in earlier periods, intellectuals proposed various strategies for promoting racial equality through art. Phylon, a journal founded by W. E. B. Du Bois in 1940, devoted a special edition to the role of the black writer in the postwar struggle against racial oppression. Hughes contributed to this special issue in a colloquy with the journal's editors. After the poet laments the lack of good black literary criticism, the editors ask him if he finds anything particularly promising about the present condition of Negro writing. Hughes then responds with enthusiasm:

   The most heartening thing for me ... is to see Negroes writing works
   in the general American field, rather than dwelling on Negro themes
   solely. Good writing can be done on almost any theme--and I have
   been pleased to see Motley, Yerby, Petry, and Dorothy West
   presenting in their various ways non-Negro subjects. Dunbar, of
   course, and others wrote so-called "white" stories, but until this
   particular period there have not been so many Negroes writing of
   characters not drawn from their own race. (311)

Hughes's comments reflect the spirit of interracial co-operation in the 1940s that made it easier for black writers to find outlets for their work. The Saturday Review, for example, regularly published pieces by black writers during the war years. Later critics, particularly those associated with the 1960s Black Arts Movement, would look back on this period, however, and interpret the "literary passing" of writers like Yerby and Motley as the unfortunate result of either naive, misguided thinking, or worse, their authors' tacit endorsement of white racial superiority (see Bone). Though such interpretations have much less currency now, critics have yet to consider how the racial politics of these black-authored "white life" novels might contribute to our understanding of national identity formation in the postwar period.

Even while Hughes celebrated the unprecedented outpouring of "white" publications by black writers, America was being reconstructed as a white nation committed to democracy and freedom. The experiences of African Americans contradicted this construction and so had to be ignored or contained. In this context, white narratives by black authors might seem to contribute to the erasure of black life and identity upon which white supremacy depended in the reconversion period of the late 1940s and early 1950s. …

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