Frank Yerby Yerby, Frank G(arvin) (Vol. 1) - Essay

Yerby, Frank G(arvin) (Vol. 1)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Yerby, Frank G(arvin) 1916–

Black American novelist, best known for The Foxes of Harrow. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 11-12.)

Frank Yerby is a very successful and popular writer. He is rather distinctive because he has consistently provoked controversy as to his art. Adverse criticism which began after his first novel, The Foxes of Harrow (1946), in the New York Times Book Review, has failed to affect Yerby's popularity. His works for the most part are historical novels. In writing these works, Yerby has consistently drawn characters from all ethnic groups in the American scene…. In the historical novel few themes appear because such fiction gives merely characterizations against the background of history. Of course, there are issues which may very well have challenged the author for interpretation, but Yerby concentrates upon the pleasure principle of literature. He seeks to entertain by giving a recreation of a particular era in history….

Floodtide shows everything that Yerby does as a writer. His artistic technique comes out in this book more fully because it is his most ambitious and the most loosely constructed….

Yerby is a conscientious worker, and his historical material shows accurate research. His deftness with Spanish customs is an achievement. Even though Yerby is a writer for a reading public which does not want the weighty or ponderous books, he includes in all of his books a mixture of seriousness. This admixture of lightness and seriousness spills over, and a definite point of view greets the reader. Yerby insists, rightly so, on presenting the Negro as an unusual person of stature and dignity in some cases despite the shackles of slavery. He is keen in giving the white psychology behind the rejection of black people.

Carl Milton Hughes, in his The Negro Novelist 1940–1950, Citadel Press, 1953, pp. 149-57 (in the paperbound edition, 1970).

The prince of pulpsters is of course Frank Yerby…. Yerby has won serious treatment, or at least friendly tolerance, in some unexpected quarters. In his defense it must be conceded that whomever else he has fooled, he has never fooled himself….

All of Yerby's pot-boilers are historical novels which give a superficial impression of research and authenticity, in order to balance the fabulous element in his plots. His favorite recipe, as described by Hugh Gloster, contains a bold, handsome, rakish, but withal somewhat honorable hero; a frigid, respectable wife; a torrid, anything but respectable mistress; and a crafty, fiendish villain…. A dash of sadomasochism and a generous sprinkling of derring-do, and the formula is virtually complete….

The shining image of Frank Yerby as the fully integrated Negro novelist is simply an hallucination. Yerby's early literary career reveals an embittered, race-conscious Southerner who as late as 1944–46 was still writing protest stories in a Wrightian vein. If Yerby has since abandoned overt protest, it is strictly for commercial reasons. As a matter of fact, the unhistorical intrusion of race consciousness and of regional consciousness into Yerby's "historical" novels would itself provide interesting material for discussion.

Arguments concerning integration in the arts often cut two ways. If the Negro novel were really integrated, Frank Yerby would be taken no more seriously than Mickey Spillane. By the same token, if Yerby can be hailed as its chief prophet, we may be sure that the recent trend toward "raceless" fiction is basically extraliterary in character.

Robert A. Bone, in his The Negro Novel in America, Yale University Press, revised edition, 1965, pp. 167-68.