Frank G(arvin) Yerby 1916–
Black American novelist and short story writer.
Although Yerby has written about racial themes in such early works as "Health Card" and in more recent works such as The Dahomean, he has been criticized for most of his literary career for failing to reflect the black experience. He answers this criticism by saying, "The novelist hasn't any right to inflict on the public his private ideas on politics, religion, or race. If he wants to preach he should go on the pulpit." Yerby is best known for his costume romances—historical novels characterized by melodramatic plots and fast-paced, often violent, action.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
As a novelist Yerby has gained laurels by focusing upon white rather than Negro characters. Performance—and not pigmentation—has been the basis of his success….
The recipe for Yerby's achievement in fiction is not new. It is an old one used many times before but still sufficiently toothsome to please the literary appetites of American readers. It is the recipe of Southern historical romance: a bold, handsome, rakish, but withal somewhat honorable hero; a frigid, respectable wife; a torrid, unrespectable mistress; and usually a crafty, fiendish villain. These characters, with their conflicting passions, are brought together in the land of mansions and magnolias during a period replete with social, political, and racial strife. The result is sufficient to satisfy any reader who likes bloody fights and sexy romance. (p. 12)
The Foxes of Harrow reflects painstaking study of the Louisiana milieu and its history. Steamboat races, lavish social affairs, duels, yellow fever epidemics, secession, and war are depicted on the broad canvas of the novel. The institution of slavery is described, and events leading to the Civil War are woven into the story. Convincing portraiture is done of Inch, Etienne's upstanding Negro servant who rises from bondage to become an influential figure in Reconstruction government. In the delineation of Inch and several other Negro characters Yerby makes noteworthy departures from the...
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[The Foxes of Harrow] is primarily the story of Stephen Fox, an Irish-American, and his loves and lusts, as he carves for himself a financial empire out of the rich farm lands of Louisiana. It is secondarily a story of the social, economic, and political relationships between the South and the North. Only incidentally does it touch upon Negro-white relations prior to and during the Civil War.
The Negroes in the story serve primarily as background for the activities of Stephen Fox. They never rise above the level of pawns manipulated by a capricious fate.
Mr. Yerby is at his best in the numerous love scenes that make up the plot. In fact, no American novelist surpasses him in his ability to evoke in the reader genuine feelings of tenderness and romantic love.
In his second book, The Vixens, which was constructed from the overflow of historical material he collected but did not use in The Foxes of Harrow, his determination to avoid all semblance of racial propaganda is revealed by his treatment, or lack of treatment, of the Negro's part in the reconstruction of Louisiana. (p. 37)
Mr. Yerby has dedicated himself to the proposition that a novelist must not take sides in the controversial, political, religious, or racial issues inherent in the material he uses…. He agrees that it is important for the novelist to know his character's emotional life, his emotional...
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An Odour of Sanctity is long and diffuse…. The story itself has much inherent interest, but Mr. Yerby's panoramic ambitions render it rather formless. The narrative bristles with exotic sexual encounters, untrammelled violence and a maze of half-formed characters. The technique is repetitious and new events and climaxes lose their impact. Part of this failing is the result of Mr. Yerby's unfortunate attempt to write in the style of a tenth-century chronicler. The prose is ruined by the continual use of sensational and melodramatic adjectives, and there is a tiresome use of such words as "Godwat", "mayhap", "methinks", "ye", and a whole barrage of phoney antique diction. Mr. Yerby should have reduced the book to half its length and translated it into modern English.
"Escaping to the Cape," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1966; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3361, July 28, 1966, p. 656.∗
Frank Yerby has complained that 99 44/100 of his historical research lands on the cutting-room floor at Dial Press. If this is true, critical readers should thank the man with the scissors for sparing 56/100 in Goat Song….
[Goat Song is] the sordid story of Ariston, a Spartan-Macedonian bastard, who struggles to achieve happiness in Athens in the fifth century B.C. (p. 51)
As the plot of Goat Song is predictably familiar to Yerby's fans, so the philosophy repeats his characteristic themes….
[As usual,] Yerby concerns himself with the problems of an oppressed minority group whom he never fails to include in his novels despite his once-ardent protests of his indifference to discrimination. In this instance, the oppressed are slaves, Helots, who, Yerby argues, have lost their sense of personal responsibility as a natural consequence of slavery. They must be taught to regain their dignity, to act wisely, to control their passions, and to think for themselves. Otherwise, even if freed, they will act as slaves rather than as men.
Among so many familiar vistas stand a few that are unpleasantly new. The most obvious of these is the ugliness of the story. Rather than teasing his readers' sadistic sensibilities, Yerby tortuously details horrors more shocking and more sordid than any since Benton's Row. He does not merely describe Phryne's lynching once, he repeats the details…. Yerby proffers every salacious...
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I suspect that [Judas, My Brother] will disappoint [some] Yerby enthusiasts…. Some may be shocked by the obviously controversial theme…. Other enthusiasts may be disappointed by the diminution of sex and by the limited appeal to sadism…. (p. 80)
Judged according to literary criteria, Judas, My Brother is not exceptional, even for Yerby. The main plot is too familiar: it is the story of the loves and other adventures of Nathan bar Yehudah…. The minor plot is more unified than usual only because the gospels furnished Yerby with a tightly knit, well-constructed outline.
Nevertheless, although he may disappoint enthusiasts and literary purists, Yerby has developed his most significant theme—an interpretation of "the greatest story ever told." Troubled by the discrepancies and contradictions which are obvious to anyone who compares the four gospels, Yerby searched through other historical materials—especially the Antiquities of Josephus, visited the original locations, studied Aramaic and Hebrew, and familiarized himself with Hebrew ritual in order to present an accurate account.
He has not always succeeded. For example, in an unnecessary effort to explain each miracle, he occasionally has resorted to melodramatic contrivances more absurd than any propagandistic romancer could have devised. Furthermore, he sometimes annoys by thrusting his fictional characters into some of...
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Yerby's plot construction reveals artistic weakness. Despite his skillful tangling and untangling of exciting narratives which mesmerize even many sophisticated readers, Yerby too often depends on contrived endings. Even more dangerously for a spinner of thrillers, he frequently snarls his plots with digressive essays on customs, language, philosophy, and history.
Such strengths and weaknesses are the trademark of an entertainer…. Surprisingly, however, Yerby's costume novels exhibit another dimension, disregarded by the readers who lament his failure to write an historical novel and by the others who condemn his refusal to write an overtly polemical treatise on the plight of the American Negro....
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[What] makes The Dahomean seem superior to Yerby's earlier best sellers?
I believe a major reason is that Frank Yerby has written about the history of Africans and that I, as a Black man, am more interested in the generally ignored account of my ancestral past than I am in another gallop—even a thrilling gallop—through the frequently traveled terrain of medieval Europe or the Crusades or the antebellum American South. (p. 52)
[Despite] Yerby's comment that the Furtoos (whites) may have been more coldbloodedly cruel, there is nothing distinctively or generically Black or African about the character, intelligence, or behavior of the Africans in Yerby's novel…....
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While Yerby implies [in Speak Now] that racism can be overcome by love, he stresses the point that it could not happen in the United States. (p. 155)
Love can triumph, according to the author, but only at the cost of alienation from a racist world. Despite the use of melodrama, sensationalism, romance, and stereotypes to excessive degrees, Yerby catches the revolutionary temper of the late sixties in both France and the United States…. Against this dynamic background Yerby enacts a passionate story that also competently reflects the racist attitudes of white people, especially in regard to miscegenation; but in typical Yerby fashion the romance and the melodrama are paramount. (p. 156)...
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For all Yerby's protestations about the inappropriateness of social protest as "stuff" for literature, it is difficult to say that he is oblivious to the fact that his writing reflects his world view, his thoughts and even his neuroses. He most certainly protests but about different matters.
Often compared to William Faulkner in terms of popularity and volume but not in terms of stature or literary merit, Yerby, like Faulkner, has created a world in which the order in people's lives has been disrupted. And one gets the feeling that, like Faulkner, Yerby is not especially fond of people, that he has carved for himself a place among his heroes and anti-heroes. (pp. 89, 91)
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