CAROLYN KOLBEarly 19th century New Orleans provided a wealth of material for 20th century writers – including Frank Yerby. His historical romances, which he called “costume” novels, regularly graced bestseller lists throughout many decades, beginning in the 1940s. Yerby wrote of valiant heroes and beautiful heroines, used lush settings and none of his Southern-based works were far from the norm for that genre. Besides, he was a good storyteller and reached a wide audience. Yerby’s uniqueness came from the fact that he was black.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY Marcus Christian Collection, Earl K. Long Library, University of New Orleans
Frank Yerby’s first novel, The Foxes of Harrow, burst onto the publishing world in 1946. It was an immediate hit. The book sold 2 million copies, was translated into 12 languages and in 1947 was made into a movie starring Rex Harrison and Maureen O’Hara. The plot – or the tangle of interlocking plots – concerns a shrewd card-shark named Stephen Fox, who becomes a sugar planter on the Mississippi River north of New Orleans, marries into a local Creole family, has a New Orleans free woman of color as a mistress and is a Confederate sympathizer in the Civil War. There’s also another fascinating character: a slave named “Inch,” who studies law in Paris, tries to escape north but is returned and finally prospers during the occupation of New Orleans in the Civil War. The long family saga stretches over generations and takes in most of the relevant Louisiana history of the early to mid-19th century.
Certainly the complicated lives of Orleanians of all races in the 1800s provided ample story lines. Yerby’s choice of material, however, annoyed another black writer, New Orleans resident Marcus Christian. Christian was apparently convinced that Yerby had derived his story from material Christian himself had collected.
As recounted by poet and playwright Tom Dent in the Spring, 1984, issue of the quarterly Black American Literature Forum, Christian harbored a resentment against Yerby, believing that The Foxes of Harrow plot came from the saga of a Houma family that Christian had discovered. The then teenaged Dent had met Christian while working at the Dillard University library one summer. Dent’s father, Albert W. Dent, was president of Dillard and Christian was an assistant librarian regaling his fellow workers with readings of fables on his lunch hour. Christian had immersed himself in the history of New Orleans blacks and had amassed a large collection of material, now housed at the University of New Orleans Earl K. Long Library.
Born in 1900, Marcus Christian had struggled as a poet and writer. In the late Depression years, he was Director of the black culture section of the New Orleans Federal Writers Project at Dillard. His research included gathering folklore and interviewing former slaves, and those slave narratives are in the files at the University of New Orleans. Christian also gathered the material that would be published in the 1970s as his Negro Iron Workers of Louisiana: 1718-1900. He also completed a thousand pages of a manuscript on the history of blacks in Louisiana, but it never became a book.
During Hurricane Betsy in 1965, Christian’s Ninth Ward home was flooded and as an added insult, he was arrested as a looter when he tried to return home to salvage what he could of his collection.
In his last years, Marcus Christian was made a member of the History Department at the University of New Orleans and was able to teach and tell his stories to young people, including Tom Dent, who remained a friend until Christian’s death in 1976.
Marcus Christian’s resentment of Frank Yerby never lessened over the years.
Yerby was also capable of holding grudges. Born in Augusta, Ga., in 1916, his mother was a former teacher and his father worked in Miami and Detroit as a hotel doorman. Yerby, his sister and two younger brothers attended Haines Institute – a local private grammar and high school for blacks. Yerby, who was a good student and an avid reader, then attended and graduated from Paine College – an all-black Augusta, Ga., institution – where he began to write seriously.
Certainly, growing up in the segregated South was difficult. Yerby’s family was of mixed race and most had light skin, and while the Yerby children in their private schools were sheltered from some harsh realities of racism, they could not escape it. Yerby graduated from Paine and then went to graduate school at Nashville’s Fisk University, another all-black college.
After he earned a Master’s Degree, Yerby was accepted for doctoral studies in English at the University of Chicago. While the economic hardships of the depression kept him from completing his degree, Yerby profited greatly from his Chicago years.
Just as Marcus Christian found kindred writers and interesting topics in the Federal Writers Program, so did Yerby, whose acquaintances included black writers Richard Wright and (Louisiana native) poet Arna Bontemps.
When Yerby left Chicago, he taught for a year at Florida A & M University. Then, from 1939-‘41 he taught in Baton Rouge at Southern University.
Yerby’s time in Louisiana may not have been happy – in his obituary in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he was quoted as saying Southern was “an Uncle Tom factory.” Nevertheless, it was at this point that he met Marcus Christian and learned the stories of Louisiana of which Christian was so proud and eager to record.
Yerby’s entrance onto the scene of American literature came with a short story in 1944, The Health Card, about a black couple encountering prejudice in the military. He won the O. Henry Prize. Then in 1946, The Foxes of Harrow appeared and Yerby’s fortune was made.
He had married and moved to New York with his family, where they apparently encountered prejudice – all of which was suddenly quelled when he began depositing his sizeable royalties in the local bank. However, Yerby was soured on America. The family moved to France, and soon his wife returned back to the U.S. with her children and Yerby moved on to Spain. He married a Spanish woman, raised a family there and – regular as clockwork – turned out best sellers for decades.
Yerby would continue to mine Louisiana for characters and plots in his “costume novels,” even writing The Girl From Storyville, which built a story around the woman who posed as a supine nude in one of photographer Ernest J. Bellocq’s best known Storyville photos.
Although a few of his later works deal with black issues, Yerby never considered himself a writer who took racial topics as his themes. In fact, according to a 2002 dissertation at Brown University by Andrew Jarrett, Yerby’s strength as a writer was his recognition that human frailty and vices in his characters made them universally appealing, and this became his message to the reading public. His contribution to black literature comes from his own existence – as a black writer who found his own voice.
Marcus Christian may not have published as much as Yerby, but his intense devotion to his topic and his innate kindness in sharing his materials with others, coupled with his pride in his heritage, earn him a special place of honor in New Orleans literature.