Novelist Frank Yerby (1916–1991) was one of the first successful writers of popular fiction who was also of African American heritage. With nearly three dozen titles to his name, Yerby enjoyed a lucrative career in the mid–twentieth century, with some 60 million copies of his books sold, but critics on both sides of the color bar dismissed his work as formulaic. Sometimes compared to pulp–fiction novelist Chester Himes, who was also black, Yerby has been termed by Journal of American & Comparative Cultures essayists Bruce A. Glasrud and Laurie Champion "one of the most maligned and misunderstood writers of the twentieth century."
Educated at Historically Black Schools
Born on September 5, 1916, in Augusta, Georgia, Yerby was the son of a hotel doorman whose work in Miami, Florida, and Detroit, Michigan, often kept him away from the family. The burden of raising the four Yerbys fell to his mother, Wilhelmina, who enrolled the biracial children in the Haines Institute, a private school for black students in Augusta. From there, Yerby went on to Paine College, a historically black school also in Augusta, where he studied English and foreign languages toward his 1937 undergraduate degree. A year later, he completed his master's degree at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and then headed north to the University of Chicago. He spent a year in its doctoral program in English, and also worked on the government–funded Federal Writers' Project. It was during this time, in 1939, that his first short story, "The Thunder of God," was published.
Leaving Chicago behind, as well as his Ph.D. studies, Yerby took a job as an instructor in English at Florida A&M College in Tallahassee, and in 1940 moved on to Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. But Yerby disliked the stultifying atmosphere of black academia, and headed north once again, this time to take a laboratory technician post with the Ford Motor Company outside of Detroit. He married Flora Williams in 1941, with whom he would have four children, and spent the remainder of the World War II years with Ford and with an aircraft factory in New York.
Succeeded with Social Themes
Yerby's career as a writer was launched when "Health Card" won the prestigious O. Henry Memorial Award for best first short story in 1944. A tale of racial injustice suffered by a United States soldier and his wife, the story would be included in numerous anthologies of black fiction over the years. Yerby penned five other short stories along the same vein, but found little success when the war ended and Americans seemed eager to move on. In a lengthy and sometimes astringently worded article he wrote for a 1959 issue of Harper's, "How and Why I Write the Costume Novel," he explained that he felt a change in direction was needed in his fiction as well. "Having collected a houseful of rejection slips for works about ill–treated factory workers, or people who suffered because of their religions or the color of their skins, I arrived at the awesome conclusion that the reader cares not a snap about such questions; that, moreover, they are none of the novelist's business. . . . The reader will believe in Tobias Skinflint, the hard–hearted banker; he balks when the antagonist is 'The Bank.' "
Literary scholars believe that around this time Yerby had produced a novella about a black steel–mill worker who was also an outstanding prizefighter, which he entered in a Redbook magazine fiction contest. It failed to win, and he could not find a publisher for it, either, likely because of its incendiary portrayal of American race relations. No copy survives, and Yerby probably burned it. Vowing to write more lightweight historical fiction, he turned to the classics of the genre from the previous two centuries, and re–read Moll Flanders, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre, among others. In 1946, Dial Books published his first novel, The Foxes of Harrow. The novel was set during the nineteenth century and featured many of the standard motifs of historical romances set in the south, including sex, magnolias, fighting, plantations, and financial ruin. It was a bestseller, and made Yerby's name in popular fiction.
Found Lucrative Formula for Fiction
His next work, The Vixens, was set in Reconstruction–era New Orleans, and subsequent books would delve into the faded glory of the antebellum South for its settings and themes. Slavery, or its injustices, rarely entered the plot, for Yerby concentrated on the landowning or middle class and their travails, creating a hero who was prone to violence but nevertheless of good moral character, often with a frosty wife and unpredictable mistress. The plot revolved around a nefarious villain, sometimes a family member, over whom the hero must triumph. Some compared Yerby to Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott, known for his romantic adventure stories.
It was a genre that worked well for Yerby, and his books sold thousands of copies for Dial, even in foreign translation. The Foxes of Harrow was made into a film by Twentieth Century–Fox in 1951 starring Rex Harrison and Maureen O'Hara, but Yerby was appalled at the final cut. In an interview with Jean W. Ross for Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, he claimed to have received 6,000 letters from irate fans of the book who had seen the movie and were disappointed as well. "Every time I have met anybody who has liked that motion picture, it goes without saying that he has not read the novel," he asserted. "Because nobody, absolutely nobody who has read the novel has liked the picture."
Self – Imposed Exile
Another book, The Golden Hawk, was also made into a feature film in 1952, but by this point Yerby had left the country. He spent time in France before settling down in Madrid, Spain, where he lived for the remainder of his life. A well–known figure whose publications regularly made the New York Times book review pages, Yerby and his wife divorced in a legal action that was given brief mention in the Times. He eventually married a Spanish woman, Blanca Calle–Perez, who served as his secretary, translator, and researcher for the remainder of his career.
It was a prolific career that followed. The Saracen Blade, his 1952 novel about the campaign of Frederick II in Italy, was also filmed. Yerby then spent the next years varying tales from the American South with events from European history for his melodramatic plots. The Devil's Laughter was set during the French Revolution, while the The Serpent and the Staff, from 1958, chronicled the story of a New Orleans physician in 1905. In the end, Duncan Childers renounces his amoral ways and the New Orleans social whirl for his true love, a nurse, and a small–town practice. "Yerby's style could be called old–fashioned . . . but it is nevertheless employed by a writer of intelligence and, more surprisingly, a writer of authentic moral nobility," noted a Times Literary Supplement review of this book.
"What They Say Doesn't Matter"
Though Yerby was a black writer whose works crossed color lines in their appeal, African American literary scholars dismissed his work. Yerby, they asserted, should use his talents to chronicle the black American experience, not torrid plantation stories of thwarted love and missing inheritances among the white landowning class. Yet the Journal of American & Comparative Cultures essay from Glasrud and Champion noted that Yerby's works did fit into an unusual literary niche in their depiction of "white southerners as ruthless, as scoundrels, as immoral—certainly the opposite of the whitesouthern representation of the white south." Yerby, in the Contemporary Authors New Revision Series interview that remains one of his sole discussions of his work, pronounced himself immune to scholars' disparagements of his work. "There's one peculiar thing that you soon learn about criticism, which is that critics want you to write the novel that they would write if they could write," he told Ross. "And since they couldn't write if they were paid their weight in Saudi Arabian oil bonds, what they say doesn't matter."
Titles from Yerby's pen during the 1960s included The Garfield Honor, An Odor of Sanctity: A Novel of Medieval Moorish Spain, and Judas My Brother: The Story of the Thirteenth Disciple. His 1969 book, Speak Now: A Modern Novel, was the first to explore contemporary race issues in its story of a black jazz musician in Paris. His next work, The Dahomean: An Historical Novel, was an epic saga of a African royal who is sold into slavery. In Yerby's Times of London obituary, the writer deemed it "badly written and vitiated by its too painstaking and unnecessary recourse to anthropological sources. But it is moving and controlled a thousand miles away from his melodramatic costume pieces. Judas, my brother . . . was another novel of genuine interest."
Died in Madrid
Yerby continued to produce novels well into his later years, usually at a rate of nearly one a year. In a 1979 title he finally turned to the issue of slavery and its role in the American South before the Civil War. That work was A Darkness at Ingraham's Crest: A Tale of the Slaveholding South, but it was one of his last books. The final work to emerge from his pen was McKenzie's Hundred, published by Doubleday in 1985. He died in Madrid of heart failure at the age of 76 in November of 1991, and is buried in that city's Almudena Cemetery. His wife Blanca, and four children from his first marriage, survived him. He was also survived by a brother, Alonzo Smythe Yerby, who was the first African American to serve as commissioner of the New York City hospital system.
Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Volume 16, Gale, 1986.
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2003.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 76: Afro–American Writers, 1940–1955, Gale, 1988.
Twentieth–Century Romance & Historical Writers, third edition, St. James Press, 1994.
Harper's, October, 1959.
Journal of American and Comparative Cultures, Winter, 2000.
Times (London, England), January 11, 1992.
Times Literary Supplement, May 1, 1953; March 27, 1959.