Making Modernism

Frank Yerby in Jack Conroy’s New Anvil

Frank Garvin Yerby was a prolific African American writer who published 33 popular novels during his career. Between 1946 and 1985, Yerby researched and produced historical fiction with often only one or two years between new titles. He received very little critical attention for what he described as formulaic “costume novels.” Despite winning the O. Henry Award for his short story, “Health Card,” published in Harper’s in 1944, he has received even less attention for his early stories protesting racial inequality.

In 1938, Yerby traveled to Chicago. Like many African American writers in Chicago, he briefly participated in the Illinois Writers Project. Yerby first worked with anthropologist and dancer Katherine Dunham and then with the proletarian writer Jack Conroy. Less than a year later, Yerby’s first short story appeared in Conroy’s periodical New Anvil, and looks very different than how it was later republished in Writers in Revolt: The Anvil Anthology, 1933-1940, edited by Jack Conroy and Curt Johnson in 1973. The 1939 issue of The New Anvil featured prominently, “The Thunder of God By Frank G. Yerby,” a story of racial tensions during a historic flood in Yerby’s hometown of Augusta, Georgia. Publication in Conroy's New Anvil meant reaching a much larger audience than the readers of Yerby's stories in the Paineite and Fisk Herald during his time as a student on the campuses of Paine College and Fisk University.

Shortly after Yerby’s departure from Chicago and the Illinois Writers’ Project, Arna Bontemps joined the project and collaborated with Conroy on several publications. In Conroy’s papers, correspondences from Bontemps to Conroy provide some context for how Yerby’s work was discussed by Bontemps—already a seasoned writer, novelist, and reviewer when Yerby published his first novel, The Foxes of Harrow (1946). In a letter to Conroy dated October 28, 1945, Bontemps begins with updates on two collaborations with Conroy: Slappy Hopper, the Wonderful Sign Painter published in 1946 and They Seek a City published in 1945. He also includes thanks for the reviews Conroy sent for We Have Tomorrow published by Bontemps also in 1945. Bontemps expresses some frustration with publication delays and slow distribution of books from publishers. Then Bontemps writes:

Yerbe [sic] may have hit the jackpot, for a send-off like that for a book like his could lead to almost anything. Movies, etc., not excluded, since the theme is historical romance with little if any racial conflict….Before even this was known (the book club consideration), Dial had announced an advance printing of 25,000 copies and an/advertising appropriation of $7,500.

Bontemps contrasts the “send-off” of Yerby’s first novel, which included options for a book club, a movie, and a sizeable advance printing from Dial Press. The letter suggests that Yerby’s impending success with the novel is due to a theme “with little if any racial conflict.” Bontemps was no stranger to literature without racial conflict. Perhaps he viewed Slappy Hooper as a book that might have the same kind of success as Yerby’s Foxes. Bontemps ends the letter with: “Lordy, we ought to hit pay dirt some-time!”

With The Foxes of Harrow, Yerby had indeed hit “pay dirt.” The novel set on the plantation of Irishman Stephen Fox in antebellum Louisiana sold 100,000 copies in the first year of publication. It was also contracted by Twentieth Century Fox to produce a major motion picture for which Yerby was paid $150,000—no small sum for any writer in 1946. Yerby’s initial success would lay the foundation for a career as a novelist published by Dial Press.

Unlike Bontemps who used African American historical accounts from his work with the Illinois Writers’ Project and his work as a librarian at Fisk in many of his publications, Yerby took two decades before inserting a black protagonist into his steady stream of historical novels. However, Chicago is where he met and worked with the writers and supporters of the Black Chicago Renaissance and honed his skills as a field researcher with the Illinois Writers’ Project.

- Catherine L. Adams, Allen University

Link to the finding aid for this collection

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