The Foxes of Harrow, 1946
The Vixens, 1947
The Golden Hawk, 1948
Pride’s Castle, 1949
A Woman Called Fancy, 1951
The Saracen Blade, 1952
The Devil’s Laughter, 1953
Benton’s Row, 1954
Bride of Liberty, 1954
The Treasure of Pleasant Valley, 1955
Captain Rebel, 1956
The Serpent and the Staff, 1958
Jarrett’s Jade, 1959
The Garfield Honor, 1961
Griffin’s Way, 1962
The Old Gods Laugh: A Modern Romance, 1964
An Odor of Sanctity, 1965
Goat Song, 1968
Judas, My Brother, 1968
Speak Now: A Modern Novel, 1969
The Dahomean: An Historical Novel, 1971 (pb. in England as The Man from Dahomey, 1971)
The Girl from Storyville, 1972
The Voyage Unplanned, 1974
Tobias and the Angel, 1975
A Rose for Ana Maria, 1976
Hail the Conquering Hero, 1978
A Darkness at Ingraham’s Crest, 1979
McKenzie’s Hundred, 1985
“Health Card,” 1944
Frank Garvin Yerby, the son of Rufus Gavin, a black, half-Indian postal clerk, and his Scotch-Irish wife, Wilhelmina Smythe Yerby, was born and reared in Augusta, Georgia. After high school Yerby earned an A.B. from Paine College in 1937, and an M.A. from Fisk one year later; in 1939 he began graduate studies at the University of Chicago. Financial problems forced Yerby out of graduate school, and he, along with Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, and Langston Hughes, briefly worked for the Federal Writers’ Project in the Chicago area.
That same year, in 1939, Yerby secured a position as an English instructor with Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College in Tallahassee. During 1940 to 1941 he taught English at Southern University and at A & M College in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In 1941 he married Flora Helen Claire Williams and left the teaching profession, claiming that colleges had a “stifling” atmosphere and were “Uncle Tom factories.” He and his wife, with whom he eventually had one son and three daughters, moved to Dearborn, Michigan, where Yerby worked as a lab technician with Ford Motor Company until 1944. During 1944 to 1945 he was chief inspector at Magnaflux with Ranger (Fairchild) Aircraft in Jamaica, New York.
In 1944 Yerby published the short story “Health Card” in Harper’s and was awarded the O. Henry Memorial Award for “best first short story.” It was a bitter story about racial injustice, the last fiction he would publish with such a theme until The Dahomean, a novel set in nineteenth century black Africa. In 1945 Yerby became a full-time writer. One year later his The Foxes of Harrow became a best-seller.
From 1946 through 1964 Yerby published one book a year. Of the first ten, all but one were among the top ten best-sellers of the year, which put Yerby in the elite list of top commercial American novelists. Novels that sell well on the commercial market do not generally receive critical acclaim, however, and critics’ refusal to accord Yerby’s novels respect was two-pronged: Black reviewers faulted his novels for “abandoning” his race in using white protagonists. Others faulted him for stereotypical characters and plots and for writing purple prose. Yerby responded to such criticism by pointing to his racially mixed parentage, asserting that, “I simply insist on remaining a member of the human race.” In a 1959 essay he also wrote that he had a “houseful of rejection slips” for works about “ill-treated factory workers, or people who suffered because of their religions or the color of their skins.” He contended that this led him to the “awesome conclusion” that such was not the proper ground for novelists. He recounts that he had thereupon begun systematic research to discover what combination of content, plot, character, and theme created “universal” fiction. Deciding that classics are yesterday’s best-sellers, he opted to write novels that would reach his readers; he called them “costume” novels.
After his divorce from his first wife, Yerby in 1956 married Blanca Call-Perez, who managed his professional affairs. There was much to manage: Not only was Yerby a prolific writer, he was also an impeccable researcher and noted for historical detail in his fiction. Through research, he came to be a proficient reader in eight languages. Before his death his works had sold 55 million copies in eighty-two countries and had been translated into twenty-three languages. Throughout his successful life Yerby, with his mixed racial heritage, felt he really did not belong anywhere. His fiction illustrates his research, his realism, and, through his protagonists, this sense of being an outsider. Yerby was a political independent and belonged to no church, though he considered himself a Christian. In 1955 he became an expatriate, settling, finally, in Spain, where he died.
In The Voyage Unplanned the protagonist and authorial narrator John Farrow, a self-isolated, middle-aged man, says, “I belong nowhere. I am alien–a stranger,” and when he returns to peacetime Europe he recounts scenes from his Office of Strategic Services (OSS) days during World War II in flashbacks. Yerby depicts the Nazis’ torture of Jews, having, in his preface, translated the account of a woman who suffered–and survived–the same experiences as does Yerby’s heroine. The simplicity of her words sets the tone of the novel, which rivals the stark profundity of The Dahomean, a novel about Nyasanu, an African chieftain, and his culture. This work, a rite-of-passage story dealing with friendship, family, and betrayal, was judged by many critics to be profound in its simplicity.
Yerby’s simplicity is a mark of realism. The critic John Crowe Ransom contends that irony, a mark of realism, is the way people live with their realization that the ideal and the real do not match. Each of Frank Yerby’s fictions provides compelling depictions of reality, yet, simultaneously, all of his works uplift readers through characters who, fully aware of ugly reality, which they have endured, choose to give credence to aspects of dreams.