Yerby, Frank Garvin

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Yerby, Frank Garvin

(b. 5 September 1916 in Augusta, Georgia; d. 29 November 1991 in Madrid, Spain), best-selling African American novelist.

Yerby was the son of Rufus Garvin and Wilhelmina Ethylyn Smythe Yerby. His father was a hotel doorman in Detroit and Miami. His mother, who raised Yerby, was a teacher, as were his aunts, all of whom influenced Yerby’s development. He became interested in writing while a high school student at Haines Institute in Augusta, Georgia. The famed writer James Weldon Johnson, who visited the high school, gave Yerby early encouragement. After graduation from high school in 1933, Yerby matriculated at Paine College in Augusta, where he majored in English and languages and received a B. A. degree in 1937. He studied briefly at the City College of New York before returning to Paine. Yerby earned an M.A. degree in English at Fisk University in 1938, then studied in the education department at the University of Chicago in 1939. He worked for the Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration in Chicago, joining a Muslim religious cult for research purposes.

In June 1939 Yerby took a position teaching in the English department at the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College in Tallahassee. He then taught for a year at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He married Flora Helen Claire Williams on 1 March 1941, and he said that his wife gave him the drive he needed as a writer. The Yerbys had four children.

During World War II, Yerby first worked as a lab technician for the Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan. He then moved with his family to New York, where he worked in the Ranger engine division of the Fairchild Airplane Manufacturing Company on Long Island from June 1944 until August 1945.

Yerby’s first publications were poems, which were printed in New Challenge, an African American literary quarterly, as early as 1937. His first fiction, a short story called “The Thunder of God,” appeared in New Anvil, a left-wing bimonthly, in 1939. In 1944, Harper’s magazine gave him his first national exposure by publishing his short story “Health Card,” which was chosen for an O. Henry Memorial Prize. Critics hailed these stories and others published over the next few years for their sensitive portrayal of African Americans in Georgia. Other short pieces that Yerby wrote in this period about racial discrimination remain unpublished. Yerby’s first novel, The Foxes of Harrow, published in February 1946, was written with the intent of making money. His aim was accurate, for the book sold over a million copies by the end of its first year in print. Black critics hailed the book as a breakthrough but white critics generally dismissed it as a flowery tale of the Deep South, packed with stock characters and melodramatic turns of plot. The book was reprinted several times and in 1947 was made into a film starring Rex Harrison and Maureen O’Hara.

The racism Yerby and his family experienced while living in New York drove them into exile in France in 1952. In his 1951 novel, A Woman Called Fancy, a sympathetic white character states that “blacks and whites can’t live together,” and then details racist insults endured by intellectual African Americans. Supported by his ample earnings, the Yerbys lived in Nice, sent their children to school in Switzerland, and enjoyed racing cars and skin diving. In 1956, Flora Yerby returned to the United States and filed for divorce, claiming that Yerby had abandoned her the year before. Soon thereafter Yerby married Blanquita Calle-Perez, a Spanish secretary who worked for an American military corporation. Devoted to Yerby, she nursed him through a serious illness and became his assistant and secretary. They visited the United States briefly in 1956, but angered by hostile stares, the interracial couple soon departed for Europe. Yerby rarely returned to his home country again, preferring to live in Spain with his second wife. They had no children.

Yerby churned out twenty-eight novels in the next three decades. In a 1960 article, Yerby explained his devotion to the “costume novel,” which was “a certain genre of light, pleasant fiction.” Although his novels are often set in an earlier historical period, Yerby maintained that he was not a historical novelist, because, he said, most of his research wound up on the cutting-room floor. He contended that the novelist’s primary job is to entertain and stay in contact with the readers; real talent, he said, is never neglected and unread authors simply have not mastered the craft of writing. His rules were to make the protagonist a picaresque, romantic, dominant male, who was physically imposing but emotionally immature. The hero should be incurably polygamous, while the heroine should be sexy and beautiful. Plots should be lean and dramatic. Novelists should stay out of politics and stick to the big themes of God, sex, death, and evil. For most of his career, Yerby used only white heroic figures, a practice that ultimately alienated his African American followers.

Generally, critics derided Yerby’s novels, claiming that he often resorted to strokes of fate to untwine apparently insoluble problems in his plots. The Saturday Review of Literature in 1946 reviled The Foxes of Harrow as one of the “technicolored fantasies” that had been recently popular. As Yerby published a novel almost every year, few of them were even reviewed. The critic Darwin Turner credited Yerby with a vast imagination and an ability to portray emotions and the plight of the poor and oppressed. More significant was the criticism that he avoided difficult racial issues. Turner argued that behind the soap opera cliches in Yerby’s books were “ideas… bitter ironies, caustic debunking, painful gropings for meaning.” Turner and his student James Lee Hill have proposed that Yerby’s portrayal of his southern white characters as flawed and picaresque results in a subtle debunking of southern mythology. Because his characters are often mean-spirited, greedy, and bigoted, Turner and Hill interpret Yerby’s art as existential and antiheroic. Although he appreciated Turner and Hill, generally Yerby dismissed critics. In a 1984 interview, he retorted that critics “couldn’t write if they were paid their weight in Saudi Arabian oil bonds.”

Despite his contempt for reviewers, Yerby worried about his reputation. He gradually moved beyond formulaic southern novels to fictionalized histories of ancient Greece, Spain, and the Caribbean and the origins of Christianity and Judaism. His novels Speaf Now (1969) and The Dahotnean (1971) were well-received deliberations on African American and African cultures. Yerby published his last novel, McKenzie’s Hundred, in 1985. His influence on African American letters is found in the popular historical novels of Alice Walker, Terry McMillan, and Robert Dean Pharr. Yerby died of a heart attack in Madrid. At his request, Yerby’s widow kept his death a secret for five weeks and he was buried in complete privacy, presumably in Madrid. In addition to his wife, his survivors included his four children and seven grandchildren.

Yerby’s unpublished stories and papers are held at the library of Boston University. An early glance at Yerby and his career is in Current Biography (1946). A fuller sketch plus a bibliography and an interview can be found in Contemporary Authors: New Revision Series, vol. 16 (1981). Also see Louis Hill Pratt, “Frank Garvín Yerby,” in Contemporary African American Novelists: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook (1999), and James Lee Hill, “Anti-Heroic Perspectives: The Life and Work of Frank Yerby,” Ph.D. diss., University of Iowa (1976). A key article is Darwin T. Turner, “Frank Yerby as Debunker,” Massachusetts Review 20 (summer 1968): 569-578. Obituaries are in the New York Times (8 Jan. 1992) and London Times (11 Jan. 1992).

Graham Russell Hodges