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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.)
Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 562
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 handkerchief-head stereotypes who conventionally appear in Southern historical fiction….
Like The Foxes of Harrow, The Vixens gives a good picture of its historical setting. The economic and social foundations of feudal Louisiana are in ruins as a result of four years of war. Negroes are casting the ballot, holding office, and seeking to gain a foothold as citizens. Die-hard Dixie aristocrats, operating through the Knights of the White Camellia and the Ku Klux Klan, are straining to wrest power from Carpetbaggers, Scalawags, and Negro freedmen. In portraying these varied characters of Reconstruction Louisiana, Yerby neither condemns nor glorifies, but lets the reader draw his own conclusions.
Despite their popular appeal, The Foxes of Harrow and The Vixens do not establish Yerby as a first-rate novelist. The use of secondhand materials … causes the reader to think that the young writer knows more about libraries than about life. Furthermore, the author's seeming lack of ideological conviction is somewhat unexpected in fiction treating the cross-currents of life and thought in nineteenth-century Louisiana. Yerby also has a flair for melodrama…. While the assignment of Yerby's first novel to this category is highly debatable, the criticism does point to an inclination which assumes sizable proportions in The Vixens. Another questionable practice in Yerby's work is a delight in over-embellished diction…. This relish for melodrama and flamboyant phrases suggests a lack of restraint.
Nevertheless, Yerby has assets as a writer. He shows intimate knowledge, gained through study and research, of his locale and its history. He exercises balance in handling inflammatory, controversial subjects. He has faculty in the use of words, especially pictorial and passionate ones, and the power to maintain interest from the beginning of a tale to its close. His chief contribution, however, has been to shake himself free of the shackles of race and to use the treasure-trove of American experience—rather than restrictively Negro experience—as his literary province. (p. 13)
Hugh M. Gloster, "The Significance of Frank Yerby," in The Crisis (copyright 1948 by The Crisis Publishing Company, Inc.), Vol. 55, No. 1, January, 1948, pp. 12-13.
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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 reaction to political ideas, but he asserts that what the political ideas themselves are should be a matter of indifference to the novelist. (pp. 37-8)
[Each of Yerby's next five novels] is a variation of the theme and pattern of The Foxes of Harrow. The basic plot presents a hero or heroine who has been rejected, rising from the depth of poverty or social ostracism or political defeat to a position of wealth or power or leadership. There is generally one trusted friend who serves both as an accomplice and as a severe critic. The hero's or heroine's love life is always divided between two lovers of opposite character and temperament, with the one of lesser appeal being the lawful mate. Occasionally in each plot there are scenes of great literary power, followed by episodes of incredible adventure, with too little preparation for the miraculous results. There is a considerable amount of the comic-strip-radio-serial technique by which heroes or heroines meet inevitable "death" only to reappear alive at another place and another time.
Now, all of this is not to say that Yerby is an inferior writer. He has rich imagination, a talent for vivid expression, ability to create pity and terror, and an understanding of the suffering of the poor and the oppressed. In short, he possesses the qualifications that could make of him a great novelist. But it appears that Yerby is satisfied with popularity without greatness. He says emphatically, "I think the novelist has a professional obligation to please his reading public." (p. 38)
Nick Aaron Ford, "Four Popular Negro Novelists," in PHYLON: The Atlanta University Review of Race and Culture, 25 (copyright, 1954, by Atlanta University; reprinted by permission of PHYLON), Vol. 25, No. 1, First Quarter (March, 1954), pp. 29-39.∗
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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.∗
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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 sliver of the night during which Ariston, half-asleep, mistakes his beautiful mother for a slave, rips her dress from her, nearly attacks her, then clings nakedly to her nakedness in grief and terror. I dare not count the numbers of times characters vomit…. If Yerby does not include all forms of perversion in Goat Song, he certainly emphasizes the most sadistic.
Yerby also seems more engrossed with homosexuality than in any earlier work. Yerby's thesis, of course, is that homosexuality as well as heterosexuality characterized the Hellenic states. Needless to say, he more than proves his point. (pp. 52, 81)
Paradoxically, however, Yerby does not attribute homosexual practices to most of the historical characters. To the contrary Yerby, sometimes disregarding scholarly surmise, has emphasized their heterosexuality. (p. 81)
If nothing existed in the book except the materials described thus far, the only readers would be those faithful fans whom Yerby has described as middle-aged ladies and sex-starved men. Fortunately, however, that scissors man in the cutting room at Dial spared 56/100 of the history. Athens of the fifth century B.C. comes alive, and the people assume a vigor far superior to the lifeless and sterile representations in the history texts.
I have been reading about Athens and Sparta for most of my life, but I never before felt their realities completely as in this book. Regrettably, however, I am not certain that Yerby fully realizes the details which inspire such an impression in his readers…. [The] Hellenes do not assume flesh from the mass of historical detail but from the very credible and vivid pictures of men in action—not Yerby's stereotyped heroes and the villains but the ordinary men.
I shall remember Yerby's description of the Spartan method of subduing an enemy…. I shall remember the famous men as Yerby described them…. If only one might keep the historical vignettes and throw away the rest!
Unless readers are made too squeamish by blood and vomit, Goat Song … will become a bestseller. The fact that he has written better—in Foxes of Harrow or The Saracen Blade or Captain Rebel—is not important to those who buy Yerby as regularly as they purchase a new calendar. (pp. 81-2)
Darwin T. Turner, "The Tragedy of 'Goat Song'" (reprinted by permission of the author; copyright, 1968 by the Johnson Publishing Company, Inc.), in Negro Digest, Vol. 17, No. 9, July, 1968, pp. 51-2, 81-4.
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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 the more familiar incidents of the New Testament…. Occasionally, Yerby arbitrarily discounts familiar stories; for example, he ridicules the legendary flight into Egypt by advising credulous readers to ask Miriam (Mary) whether she knows anything about that country.
Nevertheless, serious consideration must be given to much of the material, which Yerby has documented with 28 pages of footnotes. For example, he has argued persuasively that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem because, at the supposed time of his birth, there was no census which would have compelled Joseph to go there. (pp. 80-1)
Probably the section deserving the most intensive study is Yerby's account of the last supper, the trial, and the crucifixion. If his explanation of the disappearance of the body from the tomb disappoints those who believe in miracles, it is at least valuable in pointing up what is clear in the gospels—the fact that for a significant period of time no one guards the tomb.
This sketchy summary may suggest that Frank Yerby has gleefully written sacrilege. To the contrary, Yerby actually seems to love Mary and Jesus—as human beings, not as gods. (p. 81)
Yerby does not condemn the human beings who suffered the sorrows that shaped the legend; instead, he attacks the Pauline myth, which, rooted in pagan tradition, has been used for almost 2,000 years to delude and destroy godly men. This book, then, climaxes the theme which he formed in The Saracen Blade (1952) and developed further in An Odor of Sanctity (1965). Although some of Yerby's interpretations may be questioned, his book should stimulate a reader to question the myth and to seek his own answers. Judas, My Brother should be read by everyone who professes to be a Christian. (pp. 81-2)
Darwin T. Turner, "'Judas, My Brother'" (reprinted by permission of the author; copyright, 1969 by the Johnson Publishing Company, Inc.), in Negro Digest, Vol. 18, No. 6, April, 1969, pp. 80-2.
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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. Ideas—bitter ironies, caustic debunkings, painful gropings for meaning—writhe behind the soap-opera facade of his fiction.
Significantly, Frank Yerby, a Georgia-born Negro exile from America, has concentrated on the theme of the outcast who, as in existentialist literature, pits his will against a hostile universe. By intelligence and courage, he proves himself superior to a society which rejects him because of his alien, inferior, or illegitimate birth. (pp. 64-5)
But Yerby discounts the possible amalgamation of certain groups. Regardless of talent, beauty, or wealth, the quadroons of Louisiana remain outcasts…. If, apparently, Frank Yerby sees intermarriage and amalgamation as the ultimate solution to all animosities, but recognizes that some societies prohibit that solution, there is little reason to wonder why he taints his tales with the somber hint that man's life is a joke played by a merciless and senile deity.
Furthermore, despite his avowed respect for his readers' prejudices, Yerby repeatedly has violated his own dictum that a writer should neither preach nor instruct. Driven by emotions which inspired him to write fiction of social protest in his early years, Frank Yerby now writes anti-romantic, existentialist melodrama which is frequently as satirical as Voltaire's Candide. (p. 65)
Yerby inflicts such severe physical and mental tortures upon his protagonists that a thoughtful reader searches for a reason. Although Yerby may have wished merely to gratify his American readers' avidity for sadism or to imitate the bloody, tragic incidents abundant in the dramas of Shakespeare, whom he admired and frequently quoted, another possibility must be considered—that Frank Yerby, who now admits that discrimination compelled his exile, has avenged himself vicariously by punishing his American protagonists who, unrestricted by skin color, can attain the status denied to him. (p. 66)
In addition to maintaining his own disbelief by creating anti-romantic stories, Frank Yerby teaches more than a careless reader would suspect…. [He] has debunked historical myths relentlessly. Perhaps this crusade eventually will be considered Yerby's major contribution to American culture….
Chiefly, of course, he has attacked America, in particular the South. Until recent years this section of America has received literary glorification as a region of culture and gentility. The males reputedly were aristocratic, cultured, brave, and honorable. The females were gentle and chaste. Savagely, Yerby has ridiculed these myths.
The South, he has pointed out, was founded by adventurers, outcasts, and failures who migrated to America because they had nothing to lose; the actual aristocrats, having nothing to gain by emigration, remained on the continent….
Second-generation Americans, Yerby has shown, did not resemble the idealized stereotypes of the myth. (p. 67)
Yerby has charged that even the houses and towns have been idealized in the myth….
Unlike a typical propagandist, however, Yerby has not restricted his attack to one group. He has also castigated Americans above the Mason-Dixon line. (p. 68)
Relentlessly condemning the senselessness of war, Yerby has exploded many myths which glorify heroes and causes. (p. 69)
Yerby is no misanthrope; he has heroes: Thomas Jefferson, who freed his slaves; George Washington, who led American revolutionists heroically despite his incompetence as a military tactician; Henri Christophe, who helped free Haiti from French authority. Moreover, Yerby has struggled to evolve a positive philosophy. Significantly, he has repudiated the patient goodness frequently held before Negroes as a desirable standard. Yerby persists in showing that men succeed and are extolled because they are smarter, stronger, bolder, and braver than other men. Sometimes, they act morally and honorably; more often they do not. But neither their contemporaries nor their descendants evaluate the morality of the successful, the heroes. The minority groups in Yerby's stories suffer because they are ignorant, weak, and cowardly. Foolishly, they beg for help from a deity, which, according to Yerby, if it exists, views mankind hostilely, indifferently, or contemptuously. Life has meaning only when man—frail and insignificant—sparkles as brightly as possible in his instant of eternity. (p. 70)
[Yerby] has not yet demonstrated, however, that he can make a significant theme emerge credibly from the interaction of characters. Unless he does this, the philosophy will stand out as incongruously and as absurdly as a candle on a fallen cake.
It is to be hoped that, questing for the Grail of significance, Yerby will not tarnish his golden luster as an entertaining debunker of historical myths. (p. 71)
Darwin T. Turner, "Frank Yerby as Debunker," in The Black Novelist, edited by Robert Hemenway, (copyright © 1970 by Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company, Columbus, Ohio), Charles E. Merrill, 1970, pp. 62-71.
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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….
That, perhaps, is what Yerby has been saying, or thinking, throughout a quarter of a century of writing novels: the differences between people do not stem from a difference of blood but a difference of opportunity and power. (p. 84)
The story clearly supports Yerby's philosophy that worldly success is not determined by one's goodness and virtue—or, in this case, by racial purity and blood—but by strength and by the intelligence and ruthlessness to use that strength towards one's ends….
The Dahomean implies that Blacks appear more virtuous and loving historically only because the history books do not detail the careers of Blacks with the power to be tyrants. Yerby's historical research (which I have learned not to dispute) tells of Black men who slaughtered and sold members of their own tribe, who fed their vanities with oppression, who slaughtered neighbors in senseless wars, who taxed and spied upon their subjects, who tried to murder their leaders, who established despotic rule, and who satiated their various lusts with abominable cruelties. (p. 85)
Virtues of the book then are the presentation of an exciting and illuminating history of Black people and a determined focus of the story on a single Black hero. But there is more. In The Dahomean, Yerby's strength reveals itself to best advantage and even his former weaknesses become strengths. His primary strength is as a historical novelist, or, as he would say, a writer of "costume" novels. Even though he has written with seriousness and concern about contemporary events in Cuba and France or about relatively contemporary events in the white American South, Yerby is at his best when he envelops his plot with a history he has unearthed painstakingly and with a serious or satirical but always devastating debunking of historical legends and myths. That achievement is superior in The Dahomean, not so much in the presentation of historical facts as in the presentation of a people and a culture. (pp. 85-6)
I was delighted to find myself unable to criticize elements which, I felt, weakened some of his earlier novels. In particular, I have criticized his penchant for sticking foreign terms into the dialogue for the sake of authenticity, his tendency to digress in essays in which he provided the historical background he had not been able to work into his plot, and his over reliance on chance to effect outcomes. All of these appear in The Dahomean; but, because of the particular setting, they are desirable rather than disturbing. (p. 86)
Most important of all, however, may be the fact that Yerby finally has a structure in which the whims of Fate seem to be natural forces to effect outcomes….
It is this fatalism, however, which causes my only dissatisfaction with the story…. I do not—cannot—protest against the protagonist's behavior; it is inevitable in terms of his character and philosophy. Yet, emotionally, as a contemporary Westerner who admires him, I wish that I might see him squirm against the chains.
Where does Yerby go from here? Can he top The Dahomean? I do not know. Maybe he has produced his masterpiece. If so, it was worth waiting a quarter of a century for. (p. 87)
Darwin T. Turner, "Books Noted: 'The Dahomean'" (reprinted by permission of the author; copyright, 1972 by Johnson Publishing Company, Inc.), in Black World, Vol. XXI, No. 4, February, 1972, pp. 51-2, 84-7.
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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)
[Yerby] indicates that under certain conditions interracial love can triumph over racism on an individual basis. White society in general, though, as depicted in [Speak Now] …, is impervious to the problems and the agony of Negroes. The love affairs described in [this novel], and in the others of the apologetic field, tend to alienate the participants from their society, and, in many cases, from their country. Whether racism tends to force the lovers closer together, causes them to crack under the pressure, or simply forces them to see that a mixed couple cannot function within white society, the affair is fated to be a source of pain. It tends to evoke the bigotry of people around them, and sometimes of the lovers themselves. (pp. 156-57)
Noel Schraufnagel, "Apologetic Protest in the Sixties," in his From Apology to Protest: The Black American Novel (© 1973 by Noel Schraufnagel), Everett/Edwards, 1973, pp. 147-72.∗
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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)
What has fascinated readers and critics through the years of Yerby's career has been his insistence upon giving us an objective picture. His castigation of the South is, of course, unyielding. White Southerners are bad not because they believed in slavery but because they sustained the pretentiousness of being a virtuous, cultured aristocracy when in fact they were guileful, indolent and degenerate…. Blacks were no better because they were treacherous, complacent and made "such good slaves," came another of Yerby's pungent remarks.
The Yerby world is therefore one in which the ancestors, both Black and white, live in the present. The legendary South is exchanged for Yerby's South, a microcosm where evil, guilt, defeat, and social, political and economic frustration lurk supreme among mankind. Even in the novels not about the South, little is changed except the geography….
[It] is possible that Yerby's potboilers were not just hurling anger at the South and America; that his anti-heroes, despite their strengths and intelligence, had been too close to the diseased and morally decadent environment to be able to come out untarnished; that all of man's legends and myths, which he creates to sustain himself in this world, don't mean a thing ultimately in this world or the next, which Yerby doesn't believe exists. It is possible that all noble efforts result in defeat. In short, it is suffering that gives man a profound sense of the evil that envelops good and bad alike. (p. 92)
Maryemma Graham, "Frank Yerby, King of the Costume Novel" (copyright © by Essence Communications Inc. 1975; reprinted by permission of the author), in Essence, Vol. 6, No. 6, October, 1975, pp. 70-92.
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