September 25, 2014
I found out only quite recently that Ann Petry had a second novel, very different from her first. And I bet I’m not alone — another version of the Invisible Man syndrome. Except that Country Place (1947) didn’t appear posthumously, as Juneteenth did, but just one year after the enormous success of The Street (1946).
Its setting is Old Saybrook, Connecticut, where Petry was born, and where she would live most of her life. She had moved to Harlem only in 1938, after her marriage to George Petry of Louisiana; with the unwelcome publicity of The Street, her quintessential urban novel, she would move permanently back to Connecticut.
At the center of Country Life is the 1938 hurricane, a storm more powerful than Sandy that hit Long Island, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont on September 4. It left 564 dead, more than 1,700 injured, 8,900 homes destroyed. The high death toll was due to the lack of hurricane warnings: forecasters simply expected the hurricane to turn east and proceed out to sea.
Katharine Hepburn’s family house — also in Old Saybrook — was gone completely, washed out to sea. “It was something devastating—and unreal—like the beginning of the world—or the end of it,” she later wrote in her memoir. She estimated that 95% of her belongings were lost.
But Hepburn rebuilt her house, and Petry wrote a novel that, especially in the wake of Sandy, points to an important new line of inquiry: a water-based humanities responsive to climate change and the accompanying extreme weather and rising sea levels.
An unlikely pair that makes me think of Rebecca Solnit’s argument in A Paradise built in Hell.