If you have been following my blog over the past few years, you have seen a lot of my work on Frank Yerby. That work has led to the publication of Rediscovering Frank Yerby: Critical Essays, a collection of essays that seeks to, as the title says, rediscover and reorient Yerby within the African American and American literary tradition. Pubisher’s Weekly review of the books states, “This collection makes for an effective introduction to a now comparatively little-known author, and a strong case for a greater literary significance than has typically been accorded him. “
This has been a project years in the making, and over the course of it, I have come into contact with some amazing people. One of those in KaToya Ellis Fleming who recently had a piece published in The Oxford American about her uncle and Frank Yerby. They made a list of individuals in Augusta that to research an dwrite about, and Yerby was on that list. Uncle Wayne told KaToya, “That damn Yerby was a trip. He’ll be right up your alley.” Wayne’s statement resonates with me, because the more I delve into Yerby’s life and work, the more I realize he “was a trip,” but I also realize that he is “right up [my] alley” in the ways he interrogates many facets of our society.
Today, I want to share with you some of the introduction from Rediscovering Frank Yerby. Make sure to head over to the University Press of Mississippi’s website and pick up a copy along with Veronica Watson’s The Short Stories of Frank Yerby, both due out in May. Watson’s collection is extremely important because it shines light on Yerby’s early work and also brings him back into print because his novels have not been reprinted over the years.
Frank Yerby published thirty-three novels throughout his career, which extended from the 1940s to the 1980s. He was the first African American author to have one of his works adapted to the big screen. He won the 1944 O. Henry Memorial Award for his short story “Health Card.” He rubbed shoulders with luminaries of the Chicago Renaissance. He expatriated to France in 1955 then settled in Spain until his death in 1991, linking him to expatriate authors such as Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Chester Himes. He published stories and poetry while attending school at Paine College and Fisk University in the 1930s. Yet, he has become nothing more than a footnote in African American and American literary studies. How does an author who was so successful over so many decades all but disappear from the literary landscape?
The consensus seems to be that Yerby has fallen to the wayside because he does not neatly fit into established literary categories. The son of a Scots-Irish mother and an African American and Seminole father, Yerby constantly pushed back against those who sought to label him. During an interview with James L. Hill in 1977, Yerby asked, “is a black writer a writer who writes about black themes?” If that is the case, according to Yerby, then “the white Frenchman Guy de Maupassant, who wrote stories defending Blacks in France, is a black writer, and brown-skinned, kinky-haired mulatto Alexander Dumas who never wrote a word about Blacks in his life, was a white writer.” Gene Andrew Jarrett makes clear that we “must remain fully aware of the fluidity and contestability of racial identity,” and Yerby does just that when he asks how we define a black writer. After questioning how we define and categorize various authors such as Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov, Yerby concludes by stating, “I reject adjectives. Adjectives, which are the enemy of nouns, don’t mean anything.”
For others, especially during the Black Arts era, they saw Yerby as nothing more than a pulpster peddling stereotypical images to a predominantly white audience. Critics disparaged him for not overtly addressing issues of racism and social oppression in his work; however, these issues resided underneath the surface, within the pages of novels that focused on white characters and their lives. Not until Speak Now (1969), Yerby’s twenty-third novel, did he feature a black protagonist. The novel runs counter to most of Yerby’s “costume novels” because it forefronts discussions of race and oppression rather than having them in the background. Speak Now was the first novel I read by Yerby, and it served as a meaningful entry point for me into his oeuvre. Upon finishing Speak Now, I backtracked and read The Foxes of Harrow (1946), discerning the ways that Yerby subversively deconstructs the moonlight and magnolia myth of the Old South and the social construction of race. Following The Foxes of Harrow, I moved around chronologically: The Dahomean (1971) and its follow-up A Darkness at Ingraham’s Crest (1979), The Saracen Blade (1952), The Old Gods Laugh (1964), Gillian (1960), Tobias and the Angel (1975), and more. As I read, I began to discover that Yerby was much more than “the prince of pulpsters,” as Robert Bone described him in his 1958 The Negro Novel in America. I began to see Yerby, rather, as “the debunker of myths,” as Darwin Turner described him in 1968. . . .
Rediscovering Frank Yerby: Critical Essays explores multiple aspects of Yerby’s life and career. Ultimately, each contributor addresses the ambivalence that underlies Yerby’s comments in his interview with Hill about how he sees his role as an author. Although the essays here do not definitively resolve these ambiguities, each of the writers works through the contradictions that Yerby himself repeatedly expressed throughout his life. In addition to these discussions, the contributors explore a myriad of topics: pedagogy and teaching Yerby; reading Yerby in relation to the Harlem Renaissance and the Chicago Renaissance; the reaction of Yerby’s readership to his work; the ways that Yerby addresses issues of masculinity and patriotism in his short stories; the film version of The Foxes of Harrow; the transnational aspects of his third novel, The Golden Hawk; how Yerby engages race and identity in Speak Now; Yerby’s continued work within the protest novel tradition; and religion and its construction throughout Yerby’s work. . . .