Frank Yerby

Augusta, Georgia, native Frank Yerby lived his life and his literary career struggling with racism and became an internationally best-selling author of historical fiction, but the isolation he encountered in his native country forced him to conclude his remarkable career as an American exile in Spain.

Born September 5, 1916, to Rufus Garvin and Wilhelmina Yerby, Frank Yerby's early life was marked by racial conflict, a thread that would run through his fiction. Though he identified as black, Yerby's parents were a racially mixed couple, and the young Yerby had to fight for acceptance from blacks as well as whites.

Late in his career, Yerby told a People magazine interviewer, "When I was young, a bunch of us black kids would get in a fight with white kids and, then, I'd have to fight with a black kid who got on me for being so light."

After obtaining a B.A. in English at Augusta's Paine College in 1937 and an M.A. in English at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1938, Yerby began teaching English at Florida A. & M. College in Tallahassee, Florida. He taught there for one term, and then Yerby moved to Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he taught for another year.

However Yerby wanted to write, not teach, and quickly tired of  academia. Giving up his teaching career, he took a job with Ford Motor Co. in Detroit, Michigan, which gave him the time needed to concentrate on writing fiction.

Yerby worked several years before his first published short story, "Health Card" appeared in Harper's Magazine in 1944, but it was an instant success, winning an O. Henry Memorial Award for best first short story. "Health Card" explored the emotional and psychological impact of racism on a young African-American soldier, whose young wife is assumed to be a prostitute by a group of white Military Policemen.

Yerby dealt with similar issues in two more of his early stories, "White Magnolias" (Phylon, 1944) and "The Homecoming". In each of these three stories, Frank Yerby explores the difficulties faced by African-Americans who want to transcend the negative stereotypes of blacks held by whites. Drawing upon his own youthful experiences, Yerby crafts African-American characters who are strong and intelligent, yet still held at the margins of society by the inability of the white characters they encounter to see beyond the stereotypical views of blacks as illiterates, prostitutes, or servants.

Though his early short fiction was received well critically, Yerby was dismayed by its lack of commercial success. He'd hoped to reach out to the public through his fiction and expose the follies of segregation and racial stereotyping, but the public, he felt, wasn't interested in what he was trying to say. Yerby expressed his frustration thusly in an interview with Harper's Magazine: "The idea dawned on me that to continue to follow the route I had mapped out for myself was roughly analogous to shouting one's head off in Mammoth Cave."

Disillusioned by the public's lack of interest in his work, Yerby took a new direction in his writing career. Instead of dealing with racial problems directly in serious short fiction pieces, he would explore ideas of race and identity in the form of the historical novel, which, he felt, would be more appealing to a wide audience.

Yerby's move to the historical novel format and away from serious short fiction was not without controversy. Some critics felt that he was abandoning the cause of racial equality in order to achieve personal fame and fortune. Yerby, however, felt he was still tackling the same issues he'd dealt with earlier in "Health Card" and "White Magnolias," but in a new, more subtle way. In reply to his critics Yerby said, "People who know the themes I've written about either by reason of having lived through them, or deeply and professionally studied them, find no fault in my novels."

While his first historical novel, The Foxes of the Harrow (1947), did not win the critical praise that his short stories garnered, it did gain a much wider audience: Foxes became one of the best-selling novels of the l950s, selling more than 2 million copies worldwide.

For the next thirty years Yerby would continue to publish -- and sell -- historical novels. He would set some in the Antebellum South, but he also branched out to ancient Greece, Spain, the Near East, and Africa. Although these novels did not deal directly with the racism of American society, he never moved too far away, as he continued to invent characters challenged by their identity, ambition, and marginalization.

Eventually disillusioned by the racial problems in America, Frank Yerby chose to relocate to Spain in 1955. He passed away in Madrid in 1991.

Photo by Jerry Bauer. Copyright Jerry Bauer. Reproduced by permission.


The following titles may be found in the Hall of Fame Library:

Benton's Row. New York: Dial Press, 1954.

Bride of liberty. Melbourne: Heinemann, 1955.

Captain Rebel. London: Heinemann, 1957.

El cielo esta´ muy alto, novella. Barcelona: Editorial Planeta, 1954.

The Dahomean. New York: Dial Press, 1971.

The Dahomean. New York: Dell Book, 1975, c1971.

A Darkness at Ingraham's Crest: a Tale of the Slaveholding South. New York: Dial Press, c1979.

The Devil's Laughter. New York: Dial Press, 1953.

The Devil's Laughter. New York: Dial Press, 1975, c1953.

Devilseed. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1984.

Fairoaks. New York: Dell, 1974.

Floodtide. New York: Dial Press, 1950.

Floodtide. New York: Dial Press, 1972, c1950.

Floodtide. London: Heinemann, 1951, 1973.

The Foxes of Harrow. New York: Dial Press, 1946.

The Foxes of Harrow. New York: Dial Press, 1976, c1946.

The Foxes of Harrow. New York: Dial Press, 1972, c1946.

The Garfield Honour. London: Heinemann, 1962.

Gillian. New York: Dial Press, 1960.

Gillian. London: Heinemann, 1961, c1960.

Gillian. New York: Dell, 1976, c1960.

The Girl From Storyville. London: Heinemann, 1972.

The Girl From Storyville. New York: Dial Press, 1972.

The Girl From Storyville. New York: Dell Pub., 1975.

Goat song: a novel of ancient Greece. New York: Dial Press, 1967.

Goat song: a novel of ancient Greece. New Dell ed: New York: 1974, c1967.

Goat song a novel of Ancient Greece. London: Heinemann, 1979, c1967.

The Golden Hawk. New York: Dial Press, 1948.

The Golden Hawk. New York: Dell, 1975, c1948.

The Golden Hawk. London: Heinemann, 1949.

Griffin's Way. New York: Dial Press, c1962.

Hail the Conquering Hero. New York: Dial Press, c1977.

Hail the Conquering Hero. London: Heinemann, 1978.

Jarrett's Jade. New York: Dial Press, 1959.

Jarrett's Jade. London: Heinemann, 1960, c1959.

Jarrett's Jade. New York: Dell, 1976, c1959.

Jarrett's Jade. New York: Pocket Books, 1960, c1959.

Judas, My Brother; the Story of the Thirteenth Disciple. New York: Dell, 1975.

Judas, my brother; the story of the thirteenth disciple. New York: Dial Press, 1968.

Judas, my brother: the story of the thirteenth disciple. London: Heinemann, 1969, c1968.

The man from Dahomey. London: Heinemann, 1971.

McKenzie's hundred. London: Grafton, 1986, c1985.

McKenzie's Hundred. New York: Doubleday, 1985.

Novelas. Barcelona: Editorial Planeta, 1970s.

An odour of sanctity: A Novel of Moorish Spain. London: Heinemann, 1966, c1965.

An Odor of Sanctity. New York: Dell, 1975, c1965.

The Old Gods Laugh: a Modern Romance. New York: Dial Press, 1964.

Pride's castle. New York: Dial Press, 1949.

Pride's castle. New York: Dell, 1975.

A Rose for Ana Maria. New York: Dial Press, 1976.

A Rose for Ana Maria. London: Heinemann, 1976.

The Saracen Blade. London: Heinemann, 1969, c1953.

The Saracen Blade. New York: Dell, 1974.

The Saracen Blade. New York: Dial Press, 1952.

The Serpent and the Staff. New York: Dial Press, 1958.

The Serpent and the Staff. London: Heinemann, 1959.

The Serpent and the Staff. New Dell ed, New York: Dell, 1976.

Speak now; A Modern Novel. New York: Dial Press, 1969.

Tobias and the Angel. London: Heinemann, 1975.

Tobias and the Angel. New York: Dial Press, 1975.

The Treasure of Pleasant Valley. New York: Dial Press, 1955.

The Treasure of Pleasant Valley. New York: Dell Publishing ; 1976, c1955.

The Vixens. New York: Dell, 1947.

The Vixens. London: Heinemann, 1948.

The Vixens. New York: Dell, 1976, c1947.

The Voyage Unplanned. New York: Dial Press, 1974.

The Voyage Unplanned. London: Heinemann, 1974.

The Voyage Unplanned. New York: Dell, 1975.

Western: a Saga of the Great Plains. New York: Dial Press, c1982.

Western: a Saga of the Great Plains. London: Granada , 1983, c1982.

A Woman Called Fancy. New York: Dial Press, 1951.

A Woman Called Fancy. New York: Dell, 1975.

A Woman Called Fancy. London: Heinemann, 1952.

A Woman Called Fancy. New York: Pocket Books, 1966, c1951.

Manuscript Holdings

A collection of Frank Yerby's manuscripts and some of the author's correspondence is held by the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center of Boston University.