Reflections on Rejection

Ann's Fans

From left: Professor Maryemma Graham,

Professor Diane Isaacs, and Liz Petry

Credit: Photograph by Kathryn Golden

Today has been filled with laundry, Reiki, unpacking, grocery shopping, and not computering during the latest round of thunderstorms. So here the lecture I delivered at the American Literature Association meeting on Friday, May 28.

When I started writing At Home Inside: A Daughter’s Tribute to Ann Petry, I knew I would learn a great deal about my mother. But reading through the vast collection of journals, letters, and drafts of speeches gave me more of an education than I expected.

I learned that she thought she had a peculiar sense of humor. Two characters in the novella “Miss Muriel” illustrate it. One was the shoemaker Mr. Bemish, who likes the young narrator but refuses to remember her name. “The town is full of children,” he tells her. “All those children look just alike to me. I can’t remember their names. I don’t even try. I don’t plan to clutter up my mind with a lot of children’s names.”

The other character was the cook Aunt Frank whose real name was Frances Jackins. She was a “courtesy” aunt to our family, not a blood relation. In the story she has hysterics over bats that have flown into the drugstore. The real Aunt Frank appeared threatening to children and had “curious  smells, sweetish smell of gin like a peculiar perfume, and a musty dank old smell.” Mother and her sister taunted Aunt Frank, who responded by trying to hit them with her umbrella. In the commotion, Mother fell, with Aunt Frank, “that furious old drunken woman,” standing over her. Mother felt so threatened she bit Aunt Frank in the leg. While the humor of the situation wasn’t apparent at the time, Mother found it amusing in retrospect.

I suspect she reacted so violently because Aunt Frank disapproved of children. She was one in a long line of adults who made young Anna Houston Lane feel the world was not a friendly place and rejection was the norm.

That my brilliant and talented mother could feel so excluded revealed itself unexpectedly, but as I began to search, I found examples everywhere. Feelings of rejection became a salient aspect of her character from childhood and continued throughout her life.

I would like to take a few minutes to explore some major instances of rejection and demonstrate how she managed to turn the loss and pain to her advantage.

Before I started writing At Home Inside I had some sense of the childhood of Anna Lane. She was still young, perhaps ten or eleven, when she outgrew the rest of her family. She was overweight, and her mother, who was otherwise an expert seamstress, bought mail-order clothes designed to make fat girls look thinner. Mother described her attire as “navy blue surplice dresses … fastened at a diagonal across the front.” Needless to say these outfits made her feel like a misfit and an outcast.

Even though she found a certain amount of comfort in literature, it never quite assuaged her feelings of rejection. Grammy read all manner of things to Mother and her sister, my aunt Helen. Mother’s favorite was Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling,” the “drab, rejected misfit who discovers that he is a swan, the most beautiful of all beautiful birds.” I carry with me the image of this sensitive, overweight rather wistful child who absorbed the message of the duckling but never felt that she grew into the swan even though she was truly beautiful.

Her family treated her as a second-class citizen in the matter of education as well. Despite my grandparents’ limited means, they sent Helen to Pembroke. They had different expectations for Mother. “It seemed quite logical to my family – we owned drugstores, there was no son, only two daughters and I was [younger] and they didn’t really know what to do with me.” She compared herself to Thornton Wilder, whose father said, “Poor Thornton. He’ll be a burden all his life.” His parents decided he would become a teacher, (I’m quoting Mother here) “on the theory that he would fail at any other profession, and teaching was easy to do and required a very low level of intelligence.” Her parents decided to make a druggist out of her. She dutifully attended pharmacy school and worked in the pharmacies until she married my father and moved to New York.

We already had one celebrity in the family before my mother became famous. Everyone along the Connecticut shoreline from New Haven to New London and a great many people in Hartford, New York, and even Chicago knew my grandmother’s youngest sister, Anna Louise James. She graduated from pharmacy school in 1908 and became the first black woman, perhaps the first woman, to receive a pharmacy license from the state of Connecticut. She took over the pharmacy from my grandfather in about 1920 and ran it until 1967. She received a variety of awards, and her papers now reside at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe.

Miss James did not think that her young niece Anna would ever succeed as a writer. Mother sent out stories and kept receiving by return mail the fat envelopes that meant the manuscript had been rejected. Miss James invariably said, as she handed over one of those fat envelopes: “Ha! here are more of your chickens come home to roost.” And then she would sigh, frugal New Englander that she was, and say, “And all that postage – wasted, simply wasted.”

Another relative said she was never able to get beyond the first chapter of The Street. “None of them had ever said they ever enjoyed reading anything I wrote so I simply assumed that they were ashamed of it … Nobody has ever said, ‘Gee, I think that stinks or gee I think that’s wonderful.’ ”

Like most beginning writers, she wrote and wrote, mostly short stories. And as I mentioned, she received a great many rejection slips early in her career. The slips were printed, so she never believed that anyone had actually read the story. “It looked as though it had been transferred from the envelope in which it arrived to the stamped self-addressed [return] envelope …”  I never found any of the slips, but she did keep letters from her agent and editors saying in effect, I’m sorry this story, this book, doesn’t meet our standards. Three instances, and her reaction in each case, will serve to illustrate her struggle with her art.

The first was the short story “The Witness,” about an African American high school teacher who witnesses the rape of a girl and is forced to leave town because he is terrified the young rapists will implicate him. Mother described the white perpetrators as “the seven dark bastard sons of some old and evil twelfth-century king.” She modeled them on my cousin Anna’s classmates. The Old Saybrook High School class of 1964 “bugged” a teacher – tormented him until he had a nervous breakdown. The following year they charged another teacher with voyeurism.

Mother struggled but finally sent the story to her agent, Henry Volkening, in early 1966. He put forth a herculean effort to find a magazine, but a few weeks later he sent a list of the publications that had turned down the story. “I am ashamed to have to say (not for you, or for me, but only for them), that the following magazines have rejected ‘The Witness.’ New Yorker, McCall’s, Saturday Evening Post, Playboy, Esquire, Redbook, Harper’s, Atlantic, Harper’s Bazaar, Good Housekeeping, Kenyon Review, Reporter, Commentary, Cosmopolitan, Ladies Home Journal, Yale.” (Note how many of these magazines no longer exist; and of the ones that do, how few still publish literary fiction.)

That seemed to be the end of that. I’m not sure if she rewrote the story or if Mr. Volkening resubmitted it, but I got to deliver the news on a fall day in 1970.

“Yesterday, [I was] returning with groceries, Liz ran out to car … she said in a whole burst of talk: ‘I’ve got something to tell you – hurry up and get out of the car – Never mind the groceries. Mr. Volkening called – he’s sold your story – “The Witness” to Redbook for $2,000. I’m so excited – we have to celebrate.’ ”

“The Witness” appeared in the February 1971 issue but continued to plague her. Her friend Laura Z. Hobson had achieved success with Gentleman’s Agreement, the story of a gentile passing as a Jew to uncover anti-Semitism. Mrs. Hobson wrote to Mother that “The Witness” “flummoxed” and frightened her. She thought Mother was showing signs of “hate-whitey.” She asked Mother to consider how she would feel if a white person wrote “The Witness” about seven black boys. She added that she always felt that the two of them had been friends, “even sisters.” Mother replied:

In the light (or darkness) of that statement it would seem to me some new form of idiocy for me to explain “The Witness” … to you. I think [this is a] great stor[y], and truthfully, your reaction … amazes me. “flummoxed”? “frightened”? Oh – man!

As for being friends, colleagues, sisters – indeed we are. For in this year of our Lord one thousand nine hundred and seventy-one we all walk along the same bloodstained path that leads from Vietnam to San Quentin to Attica and back – you and I and our brothers Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon and John Mitchell – all of us hand in hand.

Mrs. Hobson responded that she must have missed something and begged Mother not to ignore her plea. Agnew, Nixon, and Mitchell were not her brothers. “As I walk on that bloodstained path from Vietnam to San Quentin to Attica; I think they are the enemies of everybody who loves people and who loves peace and reason.” She implored Mother not to sound so scornful. Mother never replied as far as I know.

While Mr. Volkening was submitting “The Witness” to those sixteen periodicals, Mother began another work that would cause her even greater anguish. It was the children’s book Legends of the Saints. Elizabeth Riley, her editor at Thomas Y. Crowell, suggested the topic. Lest Mother think it odd that the publisher was asking a lifelong Congregationalist to write about Roman Catholic saints, Miss Riley explained, “We contracted with someone to do the work but she turned out to be very disturbed and the text was never finished … For some wild reason, we thought it might interest you.”

And so Mother became as she put it something of an expert on saints. From the pantheon, she selected among others, Genesius of Rome, patron saint of actors and musicians; Catherine of Alexandria, patron of students and philosophers; Thomas More, beheaded by King Henry VIII of England and patron of lawyers and politicians; and her favorite, Martin de Porres, patron saint of African Americans.

She submitted the manuscript in 1968, though she missed the deadline by a month or more. Miss Riley said no. Mother wrote in her journal in early 1969: “Had a letter from Elizabeth Riley from Zurich saying, ‘I wanted to write to you before I left for Europe about the saints book, because there are a few problems to be dealt with (saints are difficult people, as you well know!) But I was so pressed and so tense and so weary that I know I would not be giving you of my best judgment.” Mother added, “Well, anyway, I hope the ‘problems’ are easy to deal with.”

She submitted a revised manuscript later in the spring. This time Miss Riley replied: “Thank you for sending the saints. It is a beautiful job. I shall be in touch with you about a few details in a week or so. Meantime our thanks.” Mother added in her journal, “I relaxed and rejoiced and felt rejuvinated. …”

A month later she wrote, “I remembered … E. Riley saying to me that she’d showed the … manuscript to various Petry ‘fans’ and their reaction was ‘What is it?’ And I was furious.” But she followed the “don’t get angry, get even” approach and tried again.

This time she unleashed her wrath on the material and let passion drive her work. “[I] decided then and there that if it was the last thing I did I would write a satisfactory … manuscript of exactly 32 pages and I did.” She cut and snipped and rewrote, version after version after version. She calculated that over a period of two years she wrote and rewrote fifteen or twenty times for each saint.

Mother said received more of an education from the rewriting than she did from all her other books. She learned, painfully, to take a great mass of practically indigestible material turn it into one or two pages of understandable, poetic language – the absolute essence of the saints. “I think I made them come alive within this really beautiful little book. Each of these people had to make a choice between keeping quiet and being safe or admitting their religious beliefs and being put in mortal danger as a result.” One example she said summed up two or three pages of research: “The bishop who had sometimes wondered what he would do if he could save his life by denying his identity and his religion said, without hesitation, “You were right the first time, my dear. I am Bishop Blaise.” His confession resulted in his execution.

This time the effort paid off and the editors accepted her work. Legends of the Saints saw print in 1970.

While those works were finally published, she never did achieve success with her penultimate story, titled variously “The Visitor,” “The Dark Angel,” “The Small Dark Angel,” and finally “Checkup.” It concerns a being that appears in Harlem one Christmas Eve. Most people see a dirty, hungry little African American boy, but a few view him “in the full panoply of his angelic appearance.” He is in fact an angel sent to measure the health of the planet by people’s reaction to him. The ones who see the angel in each case have been kind, either to him or to someone else.

Mother worked on the story on and off from 1955 till 1989. Mostly she struggled with the ending, but she finally sent the story to her agent who shopped it around but never found a publisher. I tried a couple of years ago and have heard nothing.

That series of rejections and others never curtailed her passion for life or work. In fact multiple roadblocks served to improve her creativity. For example, the result of my grandmother’s efforts to dress a fat girl turned my mother into a truly creative clothing designer and an expert seamstress. I don’t know how she did it, but she would make a sketch, then cut the pattern from newsprint. With simple A-line skirts, this is fairly easy, but she did pleats and gores, and tucks, all in the right places, producing exquisite items that rivaled the best designer selections.

She compensated for the lack of a liberal arts degree by learning history, art, music theory, psychology, and of course literature. She painted. She studied piano. She taught herself economics to help a friend whose grandson was flunking a course.

The humiliation and ridicule she suffered as a child helped her attune to the plight of minorities, the poor, women, and all oppressed peoples. That favorite children’s story, “The Ugly Duckling,” became a touchstone. She found support from William Gibson, author of The Miracle Worker: “The artist, always an ugly duckling, is by instinct on the side of the outcast …”

Even the professional rejection she experienced strengthened her resolve to succeed. After she finished “Checkup,” she wrote a final short story, “The Moses Project,” which was published in Harbor Review. She published poetry as well as essays. And she gave speeches, delivering the esteemed Richard Wright Lecture at Yale in 1982.

Mother received more plaudits than she did brickbats during her long career. She was awarded four honorary doctorates. She cherished a sign that I made, based on things people had said or written about her: “national treasure, star, living legend, vibrant, absolutely fabulous, celebrity Mom, cultural hero, lovely lady, recluse.” It should be noted that she counted “recluse” as praise because she regarded solitude as a necessary prerequisite for cultivation of the subconscious, the source of her work.

Even her struggles with Legends of the Saints paid dividends. One writer called it a “wise and gentle book.”

Most of her other works remain in print and continue to receive critical acclaim. I was thrilled to learn this spring that the education panel recommending uniform standards for the nation’s public schools suggested Harriet Tubman by Ann Petry as one of the books for the middle school curriculum. Mother’s version of Harriet’s story is in exalted company with Little Women and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

In conclusion, I believe that the personal and professional rejections that Mother suffered prevented her from ever recognizing how truly multi-faceted, talented and beautiful she was. But they also enabled her to become a national treasure.

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One Response to “Reflections on Rejection”

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