Saturday Art: Influential Authors: Frank Yerby
I love to read. As far back as I can remember, books were always a part of my life. It probably started with my grandmother and parents reading me various stories by Rudyard Kipling from The Jungle Book to Riki Tiki Tavi to the Just-So Stories. When I was seven and eight, I read a children’s set of encyclopedia. Then at ten, I discovered The Black Stallion and sequels by Walter Farley then at eleven or twelve it was John R. Tunis and all of his juvenile sports fiction. But as much as I loved all these authors (and still love and re-read the Kipling today,) I have to say that probably the most influential author I read growing up was Frank Yerby.
The first book of Yerby’s I read was titled Benton’s Row. This synopsis from the link give a basic overview:
This history of a pioneering Southern family unfolds in this story of triumph and tragedy. In 1842, Tom Benton arrives in the Red River Valley, one jump ahead of a Texas posse bent on hanging him. In 1920 his wife Sarah, aged ninety-seven, dies peacefully in her rocker on the veranda of Tom Benton’s sprawling plantation known as Broad Acres, nestled in the exotic and mysterious Louisiana river country. This is a spellbinding story of four brawling generations of Bentons, a family that comes to a violent end caused by its own illicit Negro branch.
Soon enough, I was reading everything by Yerby that I could get my hands on. The Goat Song, set in ancient Greece; Judas, My Brother, set in the time of Jesus; The Golden Hawk set on the Spanish Main; and a bunch of books set in the antebellum South.
I soon was able to recognize, almost stereotype, Yerby’s heroes and protagonists. In just about every instance, the hero was a rake; womanizer, gambler, ne’er-do-well. Depending on the era the book was set in, he would be proficient with a sword or gun; he would be a leader and able to be a ship’s captain, army commander, business leader or what have you (though rarely an elected official,) purely on the strength of his will. All could be described as “products of their times” in whatever time period it was (and Yerby did significant research and tried to note where he was deviating from the historical record.) But besides being products of their times, Yerby’s heroes always would eventually question the world as they knew it and all of their notions and grow more enlightened (for lack of a better word.) Novels set in the South would have the hero come to recognize the inhumanity of slavery. Judas, My Brother wound up as a questioning of the Christian myth.
It wasn’t until Yerby published the book Speak Now that I became aware that he was a black man. It was not something that I had ever thought about previously and had no bearing on the quality of his writing.
At least three of Yerby’s books were made into movies; The Foxes of Harrow starred Rex Harrison and Maureen O’Hara; The Golden Hawk starred Sterling Hayden and Rhona Fleming; and The Saracen Blade starred Ricardo Montalban and Betta St. John.