Matthew Teutsch, editor: Rediscovering Frank Yerby: Critical Essays (University Press of Mississippi, 2020)

In The Negro Novel in America (Yale University Press, 1958, revised 1965), opinionated critic and literary historian Robert A. Bone had dismissed novelist Frank Yerby (1916-1991) as “the prince of pulpsters.” While critics like Darwin T. Turner – see “Frank Yerby as Debunker,” published in The Massachusetts Review, vol. 9, no. 3, 1968 – had painted a more positive picture of this now almost forgotten novelist, ‘debunking’ the myths of an idyllic Antebellum South ‘before the War’.

And Frank Yerby himself, in interviews and articles like “How and Why I Write the Costume Novel” (Harper’s, October 1959), had explained and defended his novels.   

Now, in Rediscovering Frank Yerby: Critical Essays, a new generation of critics are taking a second look at his short stories and his once popular novels, selling more than sixty million copies, almost all selections of The Book of the Month Club – most (all?) now out of print.

From Georgia to Chicago, Illinois.  Born in Augusta, Georgia, in 1938 Frank Yerby – a graduate of the local Paine College and Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee – had enlisted at the University of Chicago, becoming for a short time a part of the Black Chicago Renaissance, a member of FWP, the integrated Federal Writers Project in Illinois, the following year dropping out of the university for lack of funds and returning to the South.

Just nine months, they nevertheless left their mark. In 1939 novelist Jack Conroy, a fellow member of the FWP, selected his short story The Thunder of God – set in Yerby’s home town, using Augusta’s great flood of 1929 as a background for a story of blacks conscripted at gunpoint to shore up the levees protecting only the white part of town – for inclusion in his magazine, The New Anvil. Yerby’s first published story*, except for four printed in school newspapers at Paine and Fisk.

And thirty years later, in 1969, he dedicated the novel Speak Now to novelist Arna Bontemps (Black Thunder, 1936), director of the famed “The Negro in Illinois” project that Yerby had been a part of.

A winning formula.  From the very beginning, with his first novel The Foxes of Harrow (Dial Press, 1946) Yerby had set the pattern, the ‘winning formula’ for his many bestselling novels, including several, or all, of the following elements, according to Yerby scholar James L. Hill:

A picaresque protagonist alienated from society by misfortunes of birth or personal convictions (preferable with a dark secret in his past). A loyal companion. A villainous antagonist. Several beautiful women who are attracted to our hero. Sex. One or more oppressed groups – blacks, poor whites, slaves, serfs, etc. A significant historical focus, like an important historical event or issue.

Add to this: There will be black characters, but the main characters must be white!

Selling over two million copies within three years, The Foxes of Harrow was soon adapted for the big screen and filmed in 1947 by 20th Century Fox, starring Rex Harrison and Maureen O’Hara, making Yerby the first African American to sell a novel to a Hollywood studio.                               

Film critic Phyllis R. Klotman in A Harrowing Experience  (CLA Journal, vol. 31, no. 2, December 1987) makes short shrift of the movie, addressed by Matthew Teutsch in his essay “The Film Adaption of The Foxes of Harrow,” carefully comparing the film with the book.

African Americans initially celebrated Yerby’s success. Simple, Langston Hughes’ famous fictional character featured in his column for The Chicago Defender and often speaking on behalf of his author, in “Matter for a Book” (see Simple Speaks His Mind, 1950) had this to say: “It is good when a colored man writes a book.” But the narrator cautions us: “Colored books can be bad, too.”

Yerby in the Caribbean.  Ostensibly a lurid pirate tale, Frank Yerby’s third novel, The Golden Hawk (Dial Press, 1948), discussed at some length in John Wharton Lowe’s essay, Pirates of the Caribbean¸ is set around the time of the historic 1692 earthquake destroying Jamaica’s Port Royal, at one time the largest city in the Caribbean, with colonial powers like England, France, and Spain fighting piracy and each other over territory, slaves, and control of the slave trade. 

Demonstrating his ”impressive research” and “keen understanding” of what Lowe calls Circum-Caribbean culture, Lowe suggests that Yerby had benefitted from his association in Chicago with anthropologist Kathrine Dunham – his supervisor at the FWP – and her pioneering research in the Caribbean Basin, informing her work as dancer/choreographer, and author.

A pivotal manuscript.  Frank Yerby was reluctant to give up his ‘winning formula’, even as he set more than half of his historical romances, like Judas, My Brother (1968), anywhere but in the Antebellum South. And his publisher, Dial Press, was equally reluctant to let their bestselling novelist, for years finishing one book almost every year, give it up. 

(The exception is Bride of Liberty (1954), a novel that Yerby wrote to educate young readers about the role of New World Africans in the American Revolution, according to critic Gene Andrew Jarrett, published not by Dial, but by Doubleday, and made into a one-hour television film).

Yerby had often dismissed his critics. In a 1963 letter to Richard Wright biographer Michel Fabre, he wrote that “the race problem is not  a theme for me.” He felt that James Baldwin and others “were preaching to the converted. I was trying to get to the bigots.” Saying in a 1975 interview with Maryemma Graham, former student at Paine College: “In every novel I have written about the American South, I have subtly infused a very strong defense of Black history and Black culture.”

But by the 1960s he had become increasingly concerned with his literary reputation, not wanting to be remembered as a writer of popular fiction only, writing in 1964 to his long-time agent at Dial Press, Helen Strauss: “I should like to be allowed to make up for my literary sins by writing some good books before I die.”

One result was the manuscript The Tents of Shem, a Civil Rights novel about a black family integrating an all-white neighborhood. Twice rejected by his publisher, in 1963 and again in 1969, Stephanie Brown in her essay nevertheless states that it was ‘the pivot’ around which Yerby’s career as a novelist turned, making way for the three novels with black protagonists – out of a total of thirty-three, several dealt with in passing in these essays –  that he did published late in life.

Navigating prejudice.  Speak Now: A Modern Novel (Dial Press, 1969) – set in Paris on a background of the 1968 student uprising and rival Middle East political groups fighting each other on French soil – centers on the love affair between Harry, a black war veteran and expatriate jazz musician, and Kathy, a white southerner abandoned by her boyfriend and stranded in the street of Paris, trying to navigate the prejudices resulting from an upbringing in the American South. Ultimately, to critic and Yerby scholar Gene Andrew Jarrett, Speak Now is “an outstanding and complex novel about love, politics, and the social construction of human identity.”

Based on Melville J. Herskovits’ Dahamoy: An Ancient West African Kingdom (1967) and his own research, most critics consider Yerby’s The Dahomean (Dial Press, 1971) by far his best novel.

A Darkness at Ingraham’s Crest (Dial Press, 1979), opens with A Note to the Reader, a blistering ‘debunking’ of the plantation Antebellum South. Read it! But if you do, the novel itself may come as something of a disappointment. Written with his usual narrative flair, in the end it is much less interesting than his ‘modern novel’ Speak Now, even if Jarrett may be overstating his case.

Pulpster, debunker – or both?  A final assessment of Frank Yerby’s fiction, as suggested by Guirdex Massé in his essays subtitled “The Strange Case of Frank G. Yerby,” would seem to depend on “questions we may have about the value of popular literary genres.”

For Yerby, with the possible exception of The Dahomean, never seems to have really abandoned the conventions of the popular, commercial novel. And yet, his meticulous research for his novels also allowed him to be, in the words of James L. Hill, “one of America’s greatest debunkers of historical myths,” challenging official histories of ‘American Exceptionalism’ and other myths.

EXPATRIATING himself from American racism (“I don’t have time for this nonsense”), in 1952 he moved to France, settling with his wife in Nice on the French Riviera. Divorcing, in 1955 he fled to Madrid to lick his wounds, met his second wife, became fluent in Spanish and a citizen of Spain.

A recent portrait of Yerby, his life and writings, can be found in James L. Hill’s essays “Frank Garvin Yerby” in Writers of the Black Chicago Renaissance (University of Illinois Press, 2011).

UFI// 18 May 2020

*This is the second of two articles on Frank Yerby. See also The Short Stories of Frank Yerby (University Press of Mississippi, 2020), edited by Veronica T. Watson.  

Postscript.  Looking for additional material on Frank Yerby on the internet, I came across a new article by Ka Toya Ellis Fleming: “You Never Can Tell About a River. My search for Frank Yerby and our Augusta, Georgia” (Oxford American, 17 March 2020), taking its main title from the first line of Yerby’s short story The Thunder of God, mentioned above.  

Fleming’s article is further testimony to the continued interest among a new generation of critics in this writer, whose elusive person (Ebony’s “Mystery Man of Letters ”) seems to fascinate critics almost as much as his writings, Fleming working on a manuscript called Finding Frank.

UFI | 05/18/2020