The Agnostic Musings of African American Popular Novelist Frank Garvin Yerby

By Hill, James L. | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

The Agnostic Musings of African American Popular Novelist Frank Garvin Yerby


Hill, James L., Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


Born and reared in Augusta Georgia, the heart of the Bible Belt in the American South, Frank Garvin Yerby began his literary career writing black protest fiction in the tradition of Richard Wright, and like many of his contemporaries, he demonstrated conventional religious thought in his early fiction. In the 1940s, however, Yerby abruptly switched from protest to popular fiction. In this historic transition, Yerby modified his protest aim and artistic consciousness, becoming one of America's most avid debunkers of history and myth. Concurrently, with the cumulative effects of his personal experiences as an African American, especially in the South, undergirded by his prodigious research of the history of cultures across the world, Yerby began questioning conventional religious beliefs in his anti-heroic popular novels; and in fact, he actually developed philosophical assumptions and beliefs that counter Christian theology.

Through an examination of general references to religion in Yerby's fiction and a close reading of two of his most important novels, An Odor of Sanctity and Judas, My Brother^ this presentation analyzes Yerby's agnosticism and his philosophical assumptions and beliefs. A novel about ancient Spain, Yerby's adopted country, An Odor of Sanctity presents the familiar literary prototype of the Christ figure. The protagonist of the novel, Alaric Teudisson, is a picaresque saint who underscores Yerby's messages that saints are not fanatics who disavow all religions other than their own and that man's godliness is the love he shows for his fellowman and the compassion he develops out of his own suffering. Judas, My Brother, on the other hand, continues the philosophical investigations prevalent in Yerby's earlier novels. Using the fictional technique of contrasting characters, Yerby portrays the lives of two characters, the Prophet Jesus and his counterpart Nathan. Written to demythologize the origins of Christianity, Judas, My Brother documents evens and details of history that Yerby considers contrary to the popular conceptions of Christianity; and included in this novel are twenty-eight pages of footnotes to substantiate Yerby's agnosticism and philosophical claims.

Between Philosophy, Race and Religion: The Agnostic Musings of African American Popular Novelist Frank Garvin Yerby

From his growing up in the Jim Crow section of Augusta, Georgia to his becoming the American King of the Costume Romance, Frank Garvin Yerby did indeed make history both as an African American writer and American writer. Yerby, who published thirty-three novels between 1946 and 1985, was one of the most prolific writers of the Twentieth Century and the first African American to write a best-selling novel and have a book purchased by a Hollywood studio for a film adaptation. Sales of his novels during his career totaled more than 62,000,000 copies hardback and paperback; and three of his early novels, The Foxes of Harrow, The Golden Hawk and Saracen Blade, were made into movies, and a fourth, Bride of Liberty, was adapted as a one-hour television show. According to Russell B. Nye in The Unembarrassed Muse, Yerby ranks as one of the five most popular writers of the second half of the Twentieth Century (Nye, 1970). (1) Despite his unprecedented achievements both as an African American and American writer, however, Yerby never enjoyed the critical acclaim of many of his African American contemporaries, including Richard Wright, Willard Motley, Margaret Walker, William Attaway and Arna Bontemps, to name a few.

The American South in general and the Augusta community in particular greatly influenced some of Yerby's early convictions, shaping him in at least two distinctly different ways. Typical then of the racial climate of most towns of its size in the Deep South, Yerby's hometown Augusta was controlled politically by the Cracker Party, a local reactionary political organization in power; and as in other Southern communities, segregation and social and economic oppression of blacks were the order of the day. …

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