Thursday, February 9, 2017

Black History Month Profile: one of the most successful American writers you've never heard of

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Frank Garvin Yerby (1916-1991)
Recipient, O. Henry Award, 1944

Frank Yerby was one of the most successful American novelists of the latter half of the twentieth century, but since his death his work has become almost entirely forgotten.

Born in Augusta, Georgia to a mixed-race couple, Yerby graduated from Paine College in 1937 and took his MA from Fisk University in 1938. He started a Ph.D at the University of Chicago, then taught briefly at Florida A&M and Southern University. Fed up to his back teeth with the segregated South, he moved to Michigan and became a technician at Ford Motor Company. He moved on to New York, where he worked as an inspector in an aircraft plant.

Yerby’s early short stories reflected the “protest” fiction of Richard Wright and his contemporaries; an early published short story won him the O. Henry Award. Rejection of a novel exploring similar themes is suggested, by many scholars, as the reason for an abrupt change in Yerby’s style and focus. He moved to meticulously researched “costume novels” set in the antebellum South, always featuring white male protagonists working through personal issues in a general swirling storm of adventure and intrigue.

Though his work was set in a popular time and format, they were not the usual, Hollywoodized version of plantation life. There were no happy darkies; rapacious landowners, carpetbaggers and arrivistes abound in his work. But Yerby’s choice proved a Faustian bargain: in his forty-year career, he was the first African-American to  publish a million-copy seller; the first to see a book adapted into an A-list Hollywood film (two more, and a television production, followed), and 33 books sold over 62 million copies.

The downside was that, as the Civil Right and Black Power movements of the 1950s-1970s evolved, Yerby was increasingly faulted for pandering to white readers and the publishing establishment. It probably did not help that, in 1955, he moved to Spain in protest of American racism, and remained there for the next 36 years. Though a remarkably able writer, he never won the critical acclaim contemporaries like James Baldwin enjoyed.

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