- “For Endless Generations”:Myth, Dynasty, and Frank Yerby's The Foxes of Harrow
In terms of commercial popularity, Frank Garvin Yerby was the most successful African American novelist in the second half of the twentieth century. From The Foxes of Harrow in 1946 to McKenzie's Hundred in 1986, he published thirty-three different novels: three were translated into film, one for television; twelve were bestsellers; almost all were selections of the Book of the Month Club; they have been translated into over thirty languages; and, to date, over sixty million copies of them have been sold around the world. Yet Yerby is generally absent from anthologies of American literature, and even from those of African American literature. Although he died a little over a decade ago, in 1991, still only a handful of studies of him exist, and they are more biographical than critical.1 Granted, Yerby's novels consistently suffered unfavorable reviews, but such harsh criticism—which contemporary literary scholars might be more than willing to reiterate—should not discourage us from speculating on how and why such constrictive aesthetic judgment has persisted around popular fiction and Yerby's novels in particular, leading to his marginal status in African American canon formation and literary criticism.2
What's more, Yerby's historically vexed relationship to race has not necessarily helped his case. Early in his career he had tried to rid himself [End Page 54] of the expectations and responsibilities that came both with writing as an African American and in the wake of the critical and commercial success of Richard Wright's "radical" (proletarian, Marxist, communist) literary writing. In a letter (April 1, 1963) written to Michel Fabre, who was working on a biography of Wright, Yerby explains this attempt: "I knew Dick Wright none too well. I admired him immensely as a man. I visited him in Paris circa 1953 or 4, I don't remember which. I was not at all influenced by him as a writer, except perhaps negatively. . . . I liked, admired, enjoyed his earlier books; but if they influenced me at all, it was to confirm my growing suspicion that the race problem was not a theme for me" (Yerby, Letter to Michel Fabre). By the late 1930s, Yerby was becoming increasingly aware of the racial politics of the U. S. industries of literary criticism and commercialism. He was learning that as an African American writer, he had to contend with the marketing of certain kinds of racialized characters such as Wright's Bigger Thomas at the expense of other types of characterizations, including the uplifting black protagonists that permeated the very first novel Yerby tried to publish at the time, This Is My Own. After several failed attempts to contract this novel to a publisher, Yerby decided that he would never write in a literary market in which his creative options were so constrained by stereotypical representations of his race and conventional discourses on the "race problem." Thus his first published novel, The Foxes of Harrow, resists "race writing" in the Wrightean sense.3
Published in 1946, the novel features a protagonist who possesses red hair, blue eyes, and a freckled face—racial stereotypes of his "whiteness." But the protagonist is not simply white in the monolithic racial sense; his introduction as an Irishman specifies the national origin of his wending road to an ethnic American identity. He is also fluent in French and German, the result of his international travels through such Western epicenters as London, Paris, Vienna, and New York. Thus The Foxes of Harrow is a story that does not envision whiteness as a universal template for humanity, but rather as the composition of several specific identities—racial, ethnic, regional, cultural, gendered, sexual, and political—in one Stephen Fox.
This is the strategy of Frank Yerby's first novel: to write a peculiarly "American" story about "endless generations" of family at Harrow, the plantation where Stephen Fox builds a mansion, settles his family, and cultivates his own notoriety in the eyes of local Louisiana gentry. Stephen forges an individualistic identity as an American by coming from wayward and almost mythic pasts and achieving several goals: namely...