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Yerby, Frank(1916–1991) - Novelist, poet, Literary Career, The Costume Novel, Chronology

published african short fiction

Poet, short story writer, and novelist Frank Yerby is the creator of the costume novel (which has been described by some as historical romance). Between 1946, when he published his first novel (The Foxes of Harrow ), and 1985, when he published his last (McKenzie’s Hundred ), he published a novel almost yearly, which resulted in over thirty books. These novels were translated into several languages and sold in hardback and paperback, over 55 million copies worldwide. Of his first eight books, seven became Doubleday’s Dollar Book Club selections, and his books were included in the list of ten given by the Literary Guild as incentives for membership.

Yerby’s books were published in hardback, released the same year in paperback, and were frequently reprinted, attesting to his popularity and reception. Adding to this reception and recognition is the fact that Hollywood purchased the rights to several of his works: The Foxes of Harrow, The Golden Hawk , and The Saracen Blade . In spite of the public response, his popularity, and achievements, he was frequently criticized by scholars and reviewers for failing to address the racial problems of African Americans and writing what was seen as pulp fiction. However, late in his writing career, some critics began to recognize his fiction, which did not have an African American protagonist until 1969, as being a literature of protest, one that dealt with the oppressed and the disenfranchised. His protagonists are outcast who achieve success. However, his poetry and his short stories are more candid about the racial problems in the United States.

Frank Garvin Yerby was born in Augusta, Georgia on September 5, 1916, to Wilhelmina Smythe Yerby, who was Scots-Irish, and Rufus Garvin Yerby, an African American. He attended Haines Institute, a private school for African Americans, for both elementary and high school, graduating in 1933. He matriculated at Paine College in Augusta where he earned a B.A. degree in 1937, and he furthered his education at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, earning an M.A. in 1938. In 1939, he briefly entered a doctoral program at the University of Chicago. He worked with the Federal Writers Project of the WPA and came in contact with such writers as Margaret Walker and Richard Wright. Yerby later taught English at two southern institutions: Florida A&M College (now University) in Tallahassee and Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Finding the work both demanding and unrewarding, he moved north and began working in Dearborn, Michigan as a technician at Ford Motor Company and later as an inspector at Ranger Aircraft in Jamaica, New York. Like many of his peers, he found the discrimination and restrictive racial nature of the United States stifling. He moved to Europe, spent some time in Paris, and finally in 1951 settled in Madrid, Spain where he lived until his death of congestive heart failure on November 29, 1991. Yerby was married twice: his first marriage in 1941, which resulted in four children, was to Flora Helen Clare Williams; they were later divorced. His second marriage occurred in 1956 after the move to Spain; his wife Blanca Calle-Perez was his secretary, translator, researcher, and general manager.

Literary Career

Yerby began publishing poems and short stories while at Paine College and continued with more publications at Fisk University. One of his most anthologized poems, “The Fishes and the Poet’s Hand,” was first published in The Fisk Herald; this poem and his short story, “A Date with Vera” (1937), demonstrate his ambivalence about handling racial content. This ambivalence about race was expressed by his refusal to identify his race; thus, his readers often did not know he was African American. His early works were published in small magazines, including Challenge and New Challenge . Following college, he continued to write and seek publication. He wrote a protest novel and submitted it to Red-book , but it was not accepted. However, the editor encouraged him to submit another piece. Yerby submitted a short story which again was not acceptable to the magazine, but it was forwarded to Harper’s where it was published. This story, “Health Card,” about the degrading of an African American soldier and his wife, won the O’Henry Memorial Award for best first short story (1944). Yerby’s short stories also include “Homecoming” and “My Brother Went to College.”

The Costume Novel

Realizing that he would not be published as long as he wrote protest fiction openly addressing the issue of race, he researched canonical fiction and the popular fiction of his day. One of the most marketable forms of the day was the historical novel. Given his research, he began to write what he called the costume novel. In a 1959 Harper’s article, he explains the rules for the novel which include a use of picaresque characters, lean plots and conflict, and themes such as evil and man’s relationship to others, to nature, and to God. In a 1966 conversation with Hoyt Fuller of Ebony , Yerby said the costume novel is to entertain, not to address serious issues. He later indicated that he believed the writer has no right to inflict his ideas and politics on the reader and that he had some doubts about his ability to write serious fiction. In spite of what he said, though, a close reading of Yerby’s novels indicates that he is historically accurate, deals with the oppressed and disenfranchised (the outsider), and he sets out in many instances, especially the novels of the South, to correct historical stereotypes.

Once he began to use this genre, his fame and popularity were established; he became the first African American to have twelve bestsellers, books translated, and novels bought by Hollywood and turned into movies ( The Golden Hawk 1948 and The Saracen Blade 1952), and one televised. His first novel, The Foxes of Harrow (1946), which was set in New Orleans and has white protagonists, was a bestseller. It sold over two million copies, was translated into more than ten languages, and was made into a movie starring Maureen O’Hara and Rex Harrison.

Following this were several novels which deal with the South, including Floodtide (1950); A Woman Called Fancy (1951), the first of his books to have a female protagonist; and Benton’s Row (1954). Other novels that followed include An Odor of Sanctity: A Novel of Medieval Moorish Spain (1965), Goat Song: A Novel of Ancient Greece (1967), Judas, My Brother: The Story of the Thirteenth Disciple (1968), The Girl from Storyville: A Victorian Novel (1972), and Western: Saga of the Great Plains (1982).

Yerby attempted to publish The Tents of Shem (1963), a protest novel, and like his first attempt it was not accepted. It was not until 1969, with Speak Now , that Yerby introduced a black protagonist. The novel, which is set in Paris, concerns an interracial relationship. This novel was followed in 1970 with The Dahomean: An Historical Novel , about an African whose story is chronicled from being stolen and sold at a slave auction in Virginia, to becoming a leader of men. As in Yerby’s other works, this novel offers a new way of looking at history. It presents a complex, thriving, and dignified Dahomean culture. Here Yerby seemed to return to his beginning and a more overt exploration of racial injustice.



Born in Augusta, Georgia on September 5


Graduates from Haines Institute


Receives B.A. from Paine College


Receives M.A. from Fisk University


Marries Flora Helen Claire Williams (later divorce)


Wins the O’Henry Memorial Award for “Health Card” published in Harper’s


Publishes first novel, The Foxes of Harrow


Moves to Madrid, Spain


Marries Blanca Calle-Perez


Publishes Speak Now , his first novel with a black protagonist


Dies in Madrid, Spain on November 29

Yerby was criticized for not addressing the issues of race and for his use of a popular form of fiction. Clearly, he was successful at meeting the demands of a popular reading audience while masking his protest

York(c. 1772–?) - Explorer, slave, Chronology, Joins in Expedition [next] [back] Yanofsky, Charles

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