Frank Yerby Yerby, Frank G(arvin) (Vol. 7) - Essay

Yerby, Frank G(arvin) (Vol. 7)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Yerby, Frank G(arvin) 1916–

Yerby is a Black American novelist and short story writer living in Spain. To charges that his best-selling historical melodramas are insufficiently concerned with racial themes, Yerby unfailingly responds that he is neither sociologist nor preacher. However, his first published short story, "Health Card," for which he won an O'Henry special award, as well as other early works, specifically concerned racial topics. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

For the devotee of the plushy, over-heated romance, [The Foxes of Harrow] should provide nothing less than an orgy. It has everything. There are by now so many time-tested characters and situations which have successively furnished the melo-romantic novel that it would seem necessary for the writer who plans one to choose this or that pattern of raging passion and leave the others, however regretfully.

But, you will find, Mr. Yerby has had no such problem. He got them all in, and with notable ease. Stephen Fox, the hero of his book—and the word was never so apt—can only be described as a reincarnation, in one body, of Lucifer, D'Artagnan, Frank Merriwell, and Superman. There is nothing he cannot do, no man he cannot best, no woman he cannot have; and from the moment he lands in New Orleans (time, 1825) with the usual shoestring, all of these things are demonstrated, to the steady accompaniment of the clash of arms, thunder, and lightning. Naturally he builds the greatest fortune in Louisiana, is loved by the two most beautiful women in the South, sisters, and marries both of them, successively.

There is, too, the other side of New Orleans, represented by a beautiful Creole, making a triangle of women about the restless Fox. There are sons and daughters who grow and repeat with variations the thematic violence of their begetter. Some mention of the problem of slavery, mounting to the Civil War, is made too, in ringing, telescopic March-of-Time phrases.

As a matter of fact the book rings throughout with colorful passions and the words to match. It is not a historical novel—for that must have some reality in it—but it is a good example of the technicolored fantasies that have been passing as such of late. (p. 38)

Nathan L. Rothman, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1946 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), February 23, 1946.

What is a reviewer to do with an historical novel he knows will make the best-seller list (possibly its top), and whose story and dialogue he honestly thinks are but slightly above the level of the romantic-erotic type of comic strips (though, of course, far more verbose)? Is he to prove he's a good sport by typing off a string of non-committal sentences, throwing in a few condescending adjectives for good measure, and getting it over with a mumbled cui malo?

I don't know. I really don't know what to do with ["The Golden Hawk"]….

In short, I feel that the enormous popularity of printed material of this kind constitutes a case for the sociologist rather than for the book reviewer. If, as a book reviewer, I am asked whether—all literary judgment put aside—I had at least some fun with "The Golden Hawk," I must confess I had none. But as it happens, I don't particularly enjoy the "romantic" species of comics either.

Robert Pick, "Kit Gerado, Pirate," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1948 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), May 8, 1948, p. 25.

[After writing successful fiction with some racial implications, Yerby] published The Foxes of Harrow which was not concerned with racial problems; and it sold over 2 million copies and was translated into at least twelve other languages; and he followed that book with over twenty others that his publishers tell us have sold 25 million copies. 25,000,000.

How did Yerby suddenly become such a bad writer?—he must be bad [critics] feel because he is a very popular writer. And how could be betray his race to become a best seller with a big reputation …? Even Saunders Redding in "The Negro Writer and American Literature" (in Anger and Beyond, 1966), places Yerby in the tradition of Alice Dunbar, who totally "ignored her racial and social heritage." Redding suggests that Yerby's allegedly white writing exhibits "pathological overtones."

Yet Yerby does not write pure escape fiction, because many of his white novels deal at least secondarily with the race issue. Generally, in his earliest novels, the racial problems are employed peripherally, almost perfunctorily, and occupy little space or overt interest in the novel. None the less Yerby's racial attitudes pervade these early novels of the South, sometimes in obvious and sometimes in disguised fashion.

A surprising number of white males in Yerby's books are paralyzed from the waist down…. Very few white children are in evidence in his books, while there are scores of Negro infants and even more yard children, the product of miscegenation between white males and Negro females. Negro males, incidentally, never are sexually attracted to white females (until his recent novel, Speak Now, 1969) as they often are in the works of white writers such as Thomas Dixon (The Leopard's Spots), William Styron (The Confessions of Nat Turner), and Tennessee Williams (The Seven Descents of Myrtle). Several Negro women are raped by whites, and the sexual superiority of the Negro female is emphasized even by white women. (pp. 747-48)

But another submerged racial element in Yerby's books is black self-betrayal…. In the instance of betrayal, Yerby may have been unconsciously impelled by what seemed to so many and perhaps himself, his own betrayal.

I have been offering perhaps latent, perhaps unconscious employment of racial attitudes in Yerby's fiction. But his books often clearly and consciously use the white-black problem as well. Generally his thrust has been toward greater and more organic, that is artistically relevant, emphasis on race issues. (p. 748)

Griffin's Way [was] published in 1962, some sixteen years after The Foxes of Harrow, by which time Yerby was financially secure as a writer. And of course the book appeared eight years after the Supreme Court's historic decision on school integration. Griffin's Way is possibly Yerby's first Negro novel. That is, the white novel within it is quite unimportant, and the book focuses clearly and directly on the Negro's predicament in Mississippi in the 1870's. (p. 751)

In 1969 Yerby published his twenty-third book, Speak Now. Though the novel is Yerby's most open, extended portrait of racial conditions, it is an ambivalent book.

Yerby's hero is clearly black to his soul's bones. His skin is black and his awareness is black…. He is a classic example of the black artist who found in his music an honest and creative mode of black self-expression and further one that he could practice openly (and be rewarded for) while living in alien white territory, for the music becomes a coded black self-assertion and white denial. (p. 753)

Harry is truly a marginal man, pained by knowing that wherever he goes he is an American, and yet knowing that he cannot live in America. Further, he is black and yet cannot take total pride in his color. Though his attitude toward radicalism shifts slightly, I cannot see that his response to his own race moves from that stated in his diatribe declaring "the guilt of the victim." He is totally hostile to white American life, and ashamed of his own race's history as he sees it. How close is he to Frank Yerby, who still writes realistically about the American experience, obsessively about the black experience, and still for all that I can see lives in Madrid, Spain?

Yerby in no way turned his back upon his race after he published The Foxes of Harrow. Instead, he used his popularity to write frequently about blackness in works that were widely disseminated in America. In his fiction Yerby indicates every lousy, crippling, murderous pressure that the white man applied to the black. But he also reveals a not so latent contempt for the resistance the black man put up (or did not put up). Furthermore, in a number of books, such as Griffin's Way and Speak Now, he suggests a kind of assumed inferiority that he claims black history reveals. At least characters within these books state a strong case against black history that is never successfully refuted. Yerby appears to have adopted a posture similar to that of Harry Forbes in Speak Now. He hates white American society for what it has done to him and his people, and he cannot live in that society. Yet he respects the accomplishments of the white world, does not feel a part of the African experience, and feels some shame at being part of a race that has allowed itself to be victimized for so long—that indeed in Africa and America was complicit in its own victimization. I would suggest this is another reason why Yerby left America and straight protest fiction. Perhaps he could not whole-heartedly attack the enemy—white America—feeling out of touch with the (he would claim) voluntary victims.

Many of my remarks on Yerby's assumptions about race are conjectural, based upon interpreting the books from my angle of vision. I may very well be incorrect or my vision out of focus. But what is not out of focus, what is not conjectural, is the fact that from the very early poems and stories on through the best sellers, Yerby has … almost systematically written of all the chief elements of the black experience…. (p. 755)

Jack B. Moore, "The Guilt of the Victim: Racial Themes in Some Frank Yerby Novels," in Journal of Popular Culture (copyright © 1975 by Ray B. Browne), Spring, 1975, pp. 747-56.