At this moment, I am almost exactly halfway through Frank Yerby’s oeuvre. During his career, he published thirty-three novels, and at the time of this writing, I am reading my seventeenth, Devilseed (1984). I’ve been reading Yerby for about five years now, working, in my spare time, to complete his works. I have twenty-four of his novels on my shelf, so I still need to get nine more. Yerby began as an enigmatic figure for me, someone who was known yet not known. He didn’t fit neatly into the mold of the Black literary canon that arose in the academy in the late 1960s, but his work spoke directly to that moment, historical moments, and future moments. Today, I want to take a moment and share with you my five favorite Yerby novels, in no particular order.
Choosing my top three Yerby novels was fairly simple. They are ones I go back to, again and again, for various reasons. However, when I started to think about the last two novels that I wanted to highlight, it became tougher. I thought about Benton’s Row because of generational scope, its exploration of the flattening of whiteness after the Civil War, and my reading of it as a response to William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!. I thought about Griffin’s Way, mainly for Candace Trevor’s discussion of the “visceral feelings” of racism. I thought about The Saracen Blade because of the way that Yerby uses thirteenth century Italy to comment on twentieth century America. I thought about Tobias and the Angel, still a favorite, for its postmodernism and its commentary on religion. Yerby’s work impacts me in different ways at different moments, and that is why I think it was hard for me to choose the final two novels. I chose them, partly, because they speak to me at this moment.
Speak Now (1969)
If you have read my blog for a while, or if you have read Rediscovering Frank Yerby, you know that Speak Now was the first Yerby novel that I actually read. I probably had three to four Yerby novels on my shelf at that point, but I didn’t read them until I finished Speak Now. Plain and simple, what prompted me to read the novel, and dive into Yerby, was the cover which depicted Harry Forbes and Kathy Nichols, front and center, standing back to back as the 1968 student protests erupt behind them in a swath of red. This cover looked different than all of the Yerby covers I had seen before. It was contemporary. It reminded me of John A. Williams, Chester Himes, or others.
The novel itself, of course, is overtly political, and that fact alone primed me to go back and read Yerby for his subversion. Most critics knocked Yerby for not being political, but he was. Speak Now highlights that. There are multiple aspects of the novel that demand attention from the student protests, the postcolonial discussions, and more. However, at its core, the novel focuses on Harry, a Black man from Georgia, and Kathy, a white woman from South Carolina, who meet in Paris and start a relationship. It’s a novel that examines the racial baggage that carry with them, wherever they go, and the ways that they disentangle that baggage, leading to a meaningful relationship. The disentangling of racial stereotypes and assumptions is at the core of Yerby’s work, no matter when or where the novel takes place.
The Foxes of Harrow (1946)
The Foxes of Harrow is Yerby’s first novel. It appeared in 1946, and immediately, it sold well, leading Twentieth Century Fox to scoop it up. He was the first Black author to option the film rights for a work. If I hadn’t read Speak Now before picking up Foxes, I would probably be like KaToya Ellis Fleming who said, “While I was reading the book, I had to fish it out of the trash twice.” On the surface, Foxes focuses on the rise of Stephen Fox, “a Dublin guttersnipe” as he calls himself, who comes to Louisiana in the early 1800s and amasses a fortune through the institution of slavery and loses it during the Civil War and its aftermath. The novel sees Fox grow and change his views on slavery; it sees his relationships; and it shows the transmission of racist thought that occurs between parent, culture, and child through the depiction of his son Etienne.
At its core, though, Foxes focuses on the enslaved: Tante Caleen, Achille, La Belle Sauvage, Inch, Suzette, and more. It focuses on the ways that they built Harrow, not Fox. It focuses on the ways that they sustained Harrow, not Fox. It focuses on the ways that they worked to move Louisiana forward after the war, not Fox. These characters are the center of Foxes, and if I had not read Speak Now before Foxes, I would not have noticed these aspects. I would have overlooked them amidst the window dressing of the moonlight and magnolia story of Fox’s loves, his building of wealth, and its ultimate crumbling. I would not see Foxes as a response to Gone with the Wind or Faulkner. I would have see it as a mere extension of the same tired Lost Cause tropes and motifs. However, it is much more than that. It subverts these things in every way.
The Treasure of Pleasant Valley (1955)
The Treasure of Pleasant Valley is, for all intents and purposes, a frontier novel, bordering on a western even though it takes place during the California gold rush in 1849–50. I’ve read this novel a couple of times, and it has to be, for various reasons, my favorite. It’s short, about half the length of Yerby’s other works, and it breaks down, as Yerby does elsewhere, the social constructions of race by removing it from a black/white binary by moving the setting from the South to the West.
When I reread this novel a few months ago, what stuck out to me was what appeared to be semi-autobiographical moments contained between the covers. Little exists on Yerby’s personal life, but we do know he expatriated in 1952 and moved to Madrid, Spain, in 1955. Bruce Harkness’ story is a story of expatriation from the South to the West, a story akin to Ernest Gaines’ move in the same direction. The difference, however, is that Harkness is white. He takes the inheritance that he gets from his father and leaves South Carolina, setting out to make a new life of refuge in California. He tells Hailey, a man he meets on the voyage, “This slavery question is a touchy business. . . . When you get right down to it, a case could be made for the idea that it’s us who’re enslaved.” Yerby left due to racial discrimination. Harkness leaves because he sees the effects that that discrimination and violence has on his own psyche. There are other semi-autobiographical ways to read Harkness journey, but the key is that racism and violence, for different reasons, cause both Yerby and Harkness to leave their home for new frontiers.
The Vixens (1947)
Yerby had other plans for the follow up to The Foxes of Harrow; however, his publisher did not accept the initial manuscript, Ignoble Victory. Instead, they told him to edit it and cut into what would eventually become The Vixens. Stephanie Brown talks about the manuscript and how it focuses on Inch, Etienne, and others during Reconstruction. These characters still populate The Vixens, but the narrative now focuses on Laird Fournois who returns to New Orleans after fighting for the Union in the Civil War. Yerby stated that he could not read The Vixens after publication because it made him sick. For me, though, the novel opened the doors for me to learn about the racial violence, voter suppression, and terror that occurred in my hometown region in Northeast Louisiana.
While I do not remember much about Laird’s story, I remember Yerby’s references to the Mechanic’s Institute Massacre in 1866, the Bossier Massacre in 1868, the St. Landry Massacre in 1868, and the Colfax Massacre in 1873. I did not know about these events prior to reading The Vixens, and I did not know much about Reconstruction in Louisiana. Yerby’s novel caused me to dig further into that history, to explore what happened in my own hometown on Bossier in 1868, violence that led to the murders of over 120 Blacks all for the cause of voter suppression and terror. It caused me to learn about the ways that Louisiana could have, again, been an example for America and the South with the 1868 constitution but how that example became squashed under the heel of white supremacy. These are the things that stuck out to me. Things that Yerby, through his meticulous research, laid bare in one of his “costume dramas.”
Goat Song (1967)
As I said earlier, I think my favorite Yerby texts vary from time to time, and I think I chose Goat Song because it was the most recent novel that I read. I found it last fall in an antique store here in NE Georgia, and since then, whenever I do my frequent searches from “Frank Yerby” on Twitter I see people mention Goat Song as the novel they remember the most. That’s a really interesting assertion for me considering it came out in 1967 and that it takes place in ancient Sparta and Athens. It follows Ariston, a Spartan who is taken captive by Athenians and lives his life in Athens. It has Socrates, Euripides, and more classical thinkers, and on some level, I see it as a commentary of classical philosophy. The novel ends with the death of Socrates.
However, for me, what continually caught my attention was the ways that Yerby, as he did in The Saracen Blade and other historical novels, used the setting to comment on the present. In the early parts of the novel, there are numerous moments where I thought, “This passage speaks to 1967.” I see it speaking directly to the Civil Rights Movement and to the Loving v. Virginia decision. I see Speak Now doing the same thing, but since it takes place in 1968, the connections are a little more obvious.
Ariston talks about his parentage. His mother was a Spartan and his father a Helot. He calls himself a Mothone. Speaking to his mother, Ariston asks, “Haven’t you ever seen a Mothone before? Well, maybe not a Mothone. It’s an interesting linguistic problem, isn’t it? If you were my father, and he my mother, I’d be a Mothone. But since it’s the other way around, I’m — a bastard. Bastardly is universal, isn’t it, Mother?” Here, Ariston comments on his parentage, and this discussion correlates to the legal discussions of children in interracial relationships. I’ve written about this before. There are other things too, but these types of moments really stood out to me as I read Goat Song.
“White Magnolias” (1944)
Choosing my favorite short story by Yerby proves just as difficult as choosing my favorite novels. For me, it’s really between “Salute to the Flag” and “White Magnolias.” I chose the latter because of the ways that it deconstructs white southern womanhood and the mythological views of an idyllic Old South that never existed. There are many things that stand out in the story from Beth confronting her parents to Beth’s mother telling Hannah that instead of going to graduate school she should consider working for her as a domestic. However, right now, the tearing down of the white magnolia, a symbol of white southern womanhood and the moonlight and magnolia image of the Old South stands out.
I always think about the end of the story as Beth and Hannah walk away from the house and Beth picks a magnolia flower and envisions balls with women in hoop skirts twirling around a ballroom. This image shifts, though, and she begins to realize the true history. She sees “only the long line of black men and women in their faded rags moving between the stalks of the cotton. And the auctioneer was holding open a black man’s mouth to show his fine teeth. And the slow heartbreaking songs rose up from the little cabins and the stench of black flesh drowned out the jasmine.” At this, she tears the flower to shreds, ripping the false image of the idyllic South asunder.