"The Fishes and the Poet's Hands": Frank Yerby, a Black Author in White America
Glasrud, Bruce A., Champion, Laurie, Journal of American & Comparative Cultures
A best-selling, exceptionally popular black American author, albeit one of the most maligned and misunderstood writers of the twentieth century (similar in many respects to his male contemporary Chester Himes)1, Frank Yerby experienced five varied phases in his literary career. The author of historical romances, known as the "King of the Costume Novel,"2 criticized for not exploring race issues, and ignored when he did, Yerby was castigated and condemned by both black and white critics and both affected the directions of his writing. Undoubtedly, the dual nature of these critical reviews elicited alternating responses from Yerby-one moment he emphasized (at least indirectly or covertly) race issues, the next he wrote without a racial bent.
Ironically, as a student at Fisk University in the late 1930s, Yerby foretold his problems as a black author in white America in a poem published in the Fisk University journal, The Fisk Herald. As for all black authors during this time the dilemma was who to address-a white or black audience. Black authors such as Yerby and Himes, who tried to write for both audiences, often received unrelenting negative criticism. Yerby points out this situation, which became a vital aspect of his life, in a poem that alludes to an earlier significant white poet. Yerby's poem "The Fishes and the Poet's Hands" (1938)3 reveals the horrid death of renowned poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose body was burned on the beach after he had drowned. Yerby begins his poem by reminding the reader:
They say that when they burned young Shelley's corpse ...the noise his brains Made as they boiled and seethed within his skull Could well be heard five yards away.
Yerby infers that Shelley was a successful white poet who was already dead when his brains boiled. "No one," Yerby continues, "can hear mine as they boil." Yerby concludes that Shelley "could not feel his bum, so I think/He had the best of it at that. Don't you?" Yerby insinuates that whereas blacks are tortured and burned alive, whites are burned only after death in a sort of celebratory cremation.
Born and raised in the Georgia community of Augusta, of middle class parents, Yerby acquired a first-rate education, culminating with a Master's degree at Fisk University and an additional year of doctoral study at the University of Chicago. He then taught at two colleges in the South and worked in defense industries in the North. While busy with these activities, he also wrote and continued to publish short stories. In 1944, he published "Health Card," which received the distinguished national O' Henry Memorial Short Story Award; in 1946, he published the best-selling novel The Foxes of Harrow; and in 1947, The Vixens. In 1952, no longer willing to tolerate the forbidding racial climate of the United States, Yerby moved to Europe and soon settled in Spain. Arguing that it is the novelist's job to entertain, Yerby successfully accomplished that goal in the minds of over fifty million readers who purchased his books.4
Stories about Frank Yerby and his readers abound. One that we recently were told by the owner of The Book Gallery in El Paso, Texas, concerns a woman who faithfully purchased one of Yerby's books every year. When the Gallery owner informed her that Yerby was black, she looked astonished and refused to buy any more of his books. Perhaps Darwin T. Turner best captures part of the reason for Yerby's success in his observation that Yerby managed to convey in print "the somber hint that man's life is a joke played by a merciless and senile deity" (571)5. Yerby accomplished more though, as a review of the phases/stages of his writing life reveals. Ultimately, Yerby published thirty-three novels, with sales of over fifty-five million books. His last novel, McKenzie's Hundred, was published in 1985, six years before his death in 1991 at the age of seventy-six.
The first phase of Yerby's writing career coincides with the publication of his poem "The Fishes and the Poet's Hands. …