Frank Yerby was a best-selling author, and much of what he wrote has clear commercial appeal, a point on which he made inconsistent remarks. His plots are intricate and involved, but in many of his novels, the characterizations are basically flat. His favorite era is the nineteenth century South, yet he wrote about many other places and times in his more than thirty novels. Occasionally, he set a novel in modern times. The reader of popular best sellers will find in Yerby’s novels fast-pacednarrative with appropriate amounts of violence and sex.
Yerby was more, however, than a best-selling writer. His short stories written early in his career show promise and develop radically different themes from those of his costume novels. In the 1960’s, secure after many commercial successes, Yerby began to do his best work, dealing with larger issues of race and religion, which figure less prominently in his earlier novels. The characters in these later novels are no longer cardboard figures, while the backgrounds are as richly detailed and vividly re-created as ever. Yerby’s historical novels must be evaluated within the context of that often unappreciated genre. His novels almost always show the conflict between two worlds or orders, as great historical novels do. Yerby rarely deals with actual historical figures but rather creates characters who have to deal with the essential conflicts of their eras. Often his novels, even the early ones, destroy widely held myths and stereotypes; Darwin Turner suggests that this revisionism might be Yerby’s most significant contribution as a novelist. While extensive research is not evident in his early work, many of Yerby’s later novels were thoroughly researched. Yerby was at his best in creating the color and movement of a particular era.
Yerby’s typical protagonist is, in the words of his main character in The Serpent and the Staff, an auslander or outsider, excluded from the ruling social order. The protagonist experientially develops a philosophy that often approaches modern existentialism, an attitude that life has no answer but that people still must cope with the bleakness of human existence with both dignity and humanity. This pattern emerges in Yerby’s first novel, The Foxes of Harrow, and is developed in three of his best novels: Griffin’s Way, An Odor of Sanctity, and The Dahomean.
The Foxes of Harrow
The Foxes of Harrow, Yerby’s first novel, is set in the South and covers the years from 1825 to just after the end of the American Civil War. Superficially, it is a novel about a clever schemer who rises to own a plantation with a neoclassical mansion, Harrow, and who has marriages to beautiful white women and a liaison with a stunning mixed-race woman. Much of the novel is composed of stock devices of pulp fiction, and Yerby himself said of The Foxes of Harrow that he set out to write a popular novel that would make him a lot of money, regardless of literary merit. Yerby added, however, that he became strangely involved with the writing of the novel and, despite himself, exceeded the ambitions of the pulp genre.
Stephen Fox, the protagonist, is an outsider, originally shanty Irish. He is not merely the rogue that early reviewers took him for, whose success and eventual fall conform to a predictable pulp outline. Fox sees all values and ideals slip from him, so that at the end, he is a failure despite his humanity and perception. He is superior to the southerners with whom he sympathetically deals. More than merely a novel of stock devices, The Foxes of Harrow is a story about the failure of a culture.
In the opening of the novel, Yerby’s authorial voice establishes a pensive tone as he describes a visit to Harrow, now in ruins, in the twentieth century. Harrow is the symbol of a lost cause. Thus, for symbolic purposes, Harrow is cut off from the modern world. Bathed in moonlight, the ruins of Harrow have a decadent grandeur. The visitor feels driven from room to room and finally away from the house, never wanting to look back. The shortness of the opening, six brief paragraphs, makes the tone all the more striking, and the mood shifts quickly into the dialogue and description of the arrival of Stephen Fox in New Orleans in 1825.
Yerby was at his best in the novel in creating vivid images and scenes of the region during the forty or so years the novel spans. New Orleans appears as a lush feudalistic world where color is measured by degrees, given the novel’s constant references to mulattoes, quadroons, and octoroons, references that are historically true to the setting. New Orleans emerges as a backward society that refuses to drain the marshes where the mosquitoes carrying yellow fever breed and instead fires cannon to disperse the plague. The society also destroys the creativity of freed blacks. In one case, a thoroughly educated black man returns from France and is killed for acting as if he were equal to whites. The most poignant scene occurs at the end of the novel, when the young heir to Harrow returns after the war to New Orleans to be confronted by a former slave of Harrow now in control. This former slave presents the heir’s unknown half brother (by a beautiful mulatto) to his former master, who sees the image of his father as a young man—but the half brother is mentally disabled. As the scene concludes, Yerby deftly shows the social history of the next one hundred years of the South.
The former slave, now the ruler, knows that power will again return to the whites but suggests that blacks and whites can live together and respect one another. The heir, a combination of the worst of his father’s roguish tendencies and the excesses of New Orleans, emphatically denies that such equality and reconciliation between the races are possible.
Yerby was weakest in his creation of character in The Foxes of Harrow, for the characters are one-dimensional and move woodenly through a convoluted, overheated plot. Stephen Fox is the fox, the rogue set off from southern society by his birth, whose goals are riches and the most beautiful woman in New Orleans, Odalie Arceneaux, a cold, haughty belle. Her sister, Aurore, is a foil to her, for she is warm and beautiful and in love with Stephen, who is too blind at first to see her love. As is common in pulp fiction, Odalie dies in childbirth, and Stephen then marries gentle Aurore, but only after having fathered a child by a beautiful mulatto when Odalie had spurned his strong sexual drives.
Underneath this claptrap, though, is an author working with social issues not to be found in the typical 1946 pulp novel. In one scene, a black woman recently inducted into slavery throws herself into the Mississippi rather than live in bondage. Old Calleen, a trusted slave at Harrow, later tells her grandson, Inch (the son of the drowned slave), that someday, the rightness of their freedom will be made apparent. More significantly, in understated dialogue, Stephen talks to his son, Etienne, about freeing slaves and says that the country must treat all people equally, including the blacks and the poorest whites. When his son dismisses the poor, white or black, Stephen uses history as a defense, mentioning the French Revolution, Haiti, and insurrectionist Nat Turner. It is in his sympathy and balance in treating social matters that Yerby’s “moral mobility” appears, a phrase that a Times of London writer used in reviewing a later Yerby novel.
Griffin’s Way was published in 1962, sixteen years after The Foxes of Harrow, and is a departure in some respects from Yerby’s work up to that time. It treats the Mississippi of the 1870’s unglamorously, highlighting squalor, inbreeding among whites, and the violence of the Ku Klux Klan in a manner more characteristic of William Faulkner than of the standard best-selling author. The novel shows the paralysis of humane white society after the war, a paralysis symbolized by the central hero’s amnesia and invalid status.
Much of the novel debunks the grandeur and opulence of the Old South, which Yerby himself had occasionally...
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