Frank Yerby Biography


ph_0111207126-Yerby.jpg Frank Yerby Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Frank Garvin Yerby, the son of Rufus Gavin, a black, half-Indian postal clerk, and his Scotch-Irish wife, Wilhelmina Smythe Yerby, was born and reared in Augusta, Georgia. After high school Yerby earned an A.B. from Paine College in 1937, and an M.A. from Fisk one year later; in 1939 he began graduate studies at the University of Chicago. Financial problems forced Yerby out of graduate school, and he, along with Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, and Langston Hughes, briefly worked for the Federal Writers’ Project in the Chicago area.

That same year, in 1939, Yerby secured a position as an English instructor with Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College in Tallahassee. During 1940 to 1941 he taught English at Southern University and at A & M College in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In 1941 he married Flora Helen Claire Williams and left the teaching profession, claiming that colleges had a “stifling” atmosphere and were “Uncle Tom factories.” He and his wife, with whom he eventually had one son and three daughters, moved to Dearborn, Michigan, where Yerby worked as a lab technician with Ford Motor Company until 1944. During 1944 to 1945 he was chief inspector at Magnaflux with Ranger (Fairchild) Aircraft in Jamaica, New York.

In 1944 Yerby published the short story “Health Card” in Harper’s and was awarded the O. Henry Memorial Award for “best first short story.” It was a bitter story about racial injustice, the last fiction he would publish with such a theme until The Dahomean, a novel set in nineteenth century black Africa. In 1945 Yerby became a full-time writer. One year later his The Foxes of Harrow became a best-seller.

From 1946 through 1964 Yerby published one book a year. Of the first ten, all but one were among the top ten best-sellers of the year, which put Yerby in the elite list of top commercial American novelists. Novels that sell well on the commercial market do not generally receive critical...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Frank Garvin Yerby was born in Augusta, Georgia, on September 5, 1916. He received a bachelor of arts degree from Paine College in 1937 and a master of arts degree from Fisk College in 1938. Subsequently, he did graduate work in education at the University of Chicago.

From 1939 to 1941, Yerby taught English, first at Florida A&M and then at Southern University and A&M College. He married in 1941 and then worked until 1944 at the Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan, as a technician and then as an inspector at Fairchild Aircraft from 1944 to 1945. In 1944, he won an O. Henry Memorial Award for the short story “Health Card,” a story that dealt sensitively with black issues. In 1945, he started work on a novel, The Foxes of Harrow, which he aimed to make a commercial success. Thereafter, Yerby wrote many similar melodramatic best sellers. His books have sold millions of copies and have been translated into at least fourteen languages.

Divorced in the 1950’s, Yerby moved to France and then to Spain, where he died in 1991. He had four children from his first marriage. His second wife was his researcher and general manager; some of his later novels give evidence of considerable research. He traveled widely, and sometimes his travels involved investigating locales of works in progress.