|Original 1946 Cover
Frank Yerby’s first novel The Foxes of Harrow originally appeared in 1946. After attempting to publish protest fiction, Yerby turned to historical fiction as his literary avenue. The shift catapulted him to the top of the literary charts, becoming one of the best selling African American authors of all time. Yerby published around 33 novels which sold over 55 million copies. Yerby’s turn towards historical fiction, and his turn to focusing on white protagonists during a period when Richard Wrght, Ralph Ellison, and others used fiction to highlight the differences between African Americans and whites, caused his works to find favor with white audiences. By abandoning protest, some maligned him and pushed him to the side of the African American literary canon; however, some argue that Yerby protested through subversion. James Hill does this in his entry in The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, that Yerby’s work maintains racial protest, a protest that is couched within his chosen genre of historical fiction.
Today, I want to write briefly about how Yerby maintains protest in a novel that ostensibly focuses on a white man from Kentucky who arrives in New Orleans to build his fortune in 1825 and who sees his house fall into decay during the Civil War. In many ways, that I will not discuss here, Stephen Fox mirrors the life of Thomas Sutpen in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!
, and Gene Andrew Jarrett discusses some of these similarities in his work. As well, Stephen can be seen in relation to characters in George Washignton Cable’s The Grandissimes
, characters who struggle with the idea of slavery in relation their own place in relation to the peculiar institution. These are topics that deserve more time and space than I have here, so they will have to wait for a later time.
Yerby maintains a sense of protest in The Foxes of Harrow with the character of Inch, one of Stephen’s slaves born of a forced relationship between Achillie and an “uncivilized” slave known as the Sauvage. Inch lives at Harrow Plantation and accompanies Stephen’s son Etienne to France for his studies. There, he learns that he can live as free man, and upon returning to the United States, he runs away. In New York, while walking with Frederick Douglas, patrollers find him and return him to Harrow. Inch leaves again, and at the end of the novel, he arises in a position of power during the aftermath of the Civil War.
When Sauvage commits suicide by drowning herself in the Mississippi River, Aunt Caleen, Achille’s mother and Inch’s grandmother, names the unnamed infant “Little Inch,” after her husband. As she held the baby, Callen mused to herself that “[h]is body they will enslave, yes, but never his mind and his heart” (157). Caleen knows that in order to survive the brutal oppression of slavery Inch must be mentally strong and capable of outwitting his owner. Being called away to New Orleans to assist with the Yellow Fever epidemic, she ponders that she must return to Harrow to continue her education of Inch who “must outwit his enemies,” and through his “seeming surrender, he must conquer” (162). Through experience, which I will discuss in the next post, Caleen has the tools necessary to teach her grandson how to survive and verbose, unlike her own son Achille who, while physically strong, does not have the mental strength to rebel.
After Etienne beats Inch, Caleen tells her grandson, “We can’t win by fightin’, us. We got to be clever like a swamp fox. . . . Learn to read and write and figger. But keep your mouth shut. Learn everything white man knows” (182). Caleen tells her grandson to increase his knowledge and to placate Etienne and his other masters by obeying. In essence, she tells Inch to live with his head in the lion’s mouth, slowly killing the system with subterfuge. While the Invisible Man’s grandfather does not tell the protagonist how to succeed, Caleen let’s her grandson know that knowledge and literacy are the ways to overcome slavery and oppression. Inch begins to read in the library, until Stephen catches him. Stephen, a “benevolent” master, does not punish Inch; instead, he tells Inch that he can’t read anything unless it gets approved.
Inch uses what he learns in the library at Harrow, in France, and elsewhere, to rebel against the racism that keeps hiss bondage. After the Civil War, Inch becomes the “Commissioner of Police” in New Orleans. Trying to find Stephen, Etienne gains access to the hospital to see his father by Inch’s command. Etienne does not realize this at the time, but as Stephen and Etienne leave, they encounter the former slave and converse with him. Etienne maintains his racist views, but Stephen, as he does throughout the novel, appears to have more democratic ideas.
At one point, Inch offers the two men a drink, and Etienne becomes furious when he realizes that the glass Inch offers him comes from Harrow. Inch tells his former charge, “It’s from Harrow. I have many treasures from our former home” (emphasis added 402). This statement infuriates Etienne who questions the former slave’s use of the pronoun “our.” Inch simply responds, “I didn’t mean to offend you. These things are not mine now. . . not yours. I hold them in trust for the future” (402). Through this act, Inch works to construct a history, a history that for most of the novel pushes him to the sidelines. In the concluding pages, Inch takes a central roll in the action, providing an image of history that includes his story. Here, and earlier, Yerby works to counter Faulkner’s constructions of the South’s past.
When Stephen’s illegitimate son Cyrus appears with Desiree (Stephen’s quadroon mistress), the scene takes on a palatable air as Etienne struggles with the change in his social status. Cyrus tells Etienne about his wife’s affairs with a military officer, and Etienne becomes enraged. Upon leaving, Etienne claims, “For when the headship passes back into the hand of the race who God intended it, ’twill go hard with he [Inch] if ye’ve made enemies” (405). Sadly, Inch responds, “This came too soon. We weren’t ready. White men will rule the South again. . . Perhaps for always” (405). While Inch shows strength, he also perceives that the past will reemerge. In a way, that is why he keeps the treasures from Harrow, to show that he does exist, even if those who construct the historical, fictional or not, try to eliminate him from them.
This post is sort of rambling, I know. I’m working through my thoughts on this dense novel. We need to explore Yerby’s work more, especially in consideration of authors like Faulkner and Cable. What thoughts do you have? Let me know in the comments below.
Yerby, Frank. The Foxes of Harrow. New York: Dial Press, 1946.