I have to admit, when I started reading Frank Yerby’s Griffin’s Way (1962) I was not impressed. Having written 33 novels over the course of his career, I knew I wouldn’t like all of them, but Griffin’s Way struck me, from the beginning, as odd. I didn’t really like the organization of Candace Trevor’s section. It seemed really disjointed and not at all what I had grown accustomed to from Yerby. This style, though, changed as the novel went along. It became more like a historical narrative when the focal point shifts to Paris Griffin in the second section.
Even with this disjointed opening, Griffin’s Way has become, perhaps, one of my favorite Yerby novels. As he does with the majority of his work, he provides readers with historical information and challenges the myths of the past, specifically in his “costume novels” the myths of an idyllic Old South. Griffin’s Way takes place during Reconstruction (basically it runs from the start to the end) in Mississippi, and it focuses on the advances made during the period then how white supremacy undermined those advances. I do not want to focus on these aspects today. Instead, I want to look at the ways that Yerby uses Paris and Laurel Griffin’s and Hector and Roberta Griffin’s houses as symbols of the past and the hope of the future.
Upon first arriving at Griffin’s Way, Candace Trevor, a nurse from Vermont who comes to Griffin’s Way to help Paris with his mental distress, espies the house as Hector drives her up to it. The narrator describes her thoughts:
She sat there looking at the house; and the conviction that you couldn’t do anything really well with slave labor came back to her with renewed force. At a distance, the manor house of Griffin’s Way was lovely. Seen from a few yards, it was a mess, like nearly all the Neo-Grecian monstrosities scattered over the South. Her father’s tart comment that it always took three slaves to come anywhere close to to the productive capacity of one Ohio farmhand, had its counterpoint in this too. You could whip a man to work; but the very element of force precluded the most necessary attributes of any art and craft: love–and pride.
Built with the labor of enslaved individuals before the Civil War, Griffin’s Way looks “lovely” from afar, but up close it shows its messiness. Candace’s initial impressions of Paris and Laurie’s home call to mind the opening section of Yerby’s first novel The Foxes of Harrow where he paints Harrow, in a contemporary setting, as the ghostly shell of what it once was, a gothic reminder of the horrors of the past. This representation, of course, falls in line with the Southern Gothic and authors such as William Faulkner and Ellen Glasgow.
Candace notes that Griffin’s Way exists because of the enslaved labor that the Griffins used to construct it. She notes this when she has the thought about how “you couldn’t do anything really well with slave labor.” This thought exposes what Candace herself exposes later, her own prejudices that have become so ingrained within her own psyche. (I plan to write about this in the next post.) However, she undercuts this initial thought at the end of the paragraph when she notes that “love–and pride” contribute to “art and craft.” What love and pride would those enslaved by the Griffins have in building a house that they could not live within?
The house that Paris’ brother Hector built for him and his wife, Roberta, stands in direct juxtaposition to Griffin’s Way. While Paris is considered progressive in his racial views, Hector married Roberta, a Black woman, and has children with her. We see their house earlier in the novel; however, we do not get a description of it as we do Griffin’s Way. Instead, the description of their house occurs near the end of the novel, right before Dion Cadwallder and the Klan burn it down, killing Hector, Roberta, and the children in the process.
As Rachel, one of Hector and Roberta’s daughters, comes out of the house, we get a description the Briars. Looking out towards the fields, “she came down the stairs of the house her father had built.” From the beginning of the description, we get a direct opposition to Griffin’s Way. Hector, not enslaved labor, built the Briars. We assume he had help, but this linguistic structure points out that he did not rely on individuals he enslaved and forced to construct the house for him.
The description continues by stating that “[i]t was a very beautiful house, bigger than Griffin’s Way. It was of whitewashed brick, with fluted columns supporting the roof. It was the biggest house in Warren County. It was the finest.” Unlike Griffin’s Way, the Briars is not a monstrosity. Distance does not cause deception. It looks marvelous from afar and up close. It does not appear in a state of decay. It appears in a state of magnificence.
The Briars’ appearance is symbolic of Hector and Roberta’s relationship. They love one another. They have a family together. They have constructed a home together. They are the future, bright and magnificent. Yet, white southern society does not view it that way. Instead, they see Hector and Roberta as a threat, as an affront to their way of life. That is why they burn the symbol of the future and murder its inhabitants. They destroy the hope, and they write the history.
At multiple points in Griffin’s Way, characters comment on the construction of history and the past. During the funeral for his murdered daughter, Bruce Randolph, the black educator, tells the congregation, “The Yankee has retired defeated and left them [white southerners] victorious upon the field, left them-and this, my friends, is perhaps most terrible of all-to even write the books. To vilify us before posterity. For no history will ever be so thoroughly revised, rewritten and so completely falsified as the chronicle of our days . . .”
Instead of remembering the Briars, we remember Griffin’s Way. It still stands; the Briars smolders in the dust. The outward facade of Griffin’s Way stares at us from the distance, looking lovely while the scorched earth sits where the Briars once stood. Griffin’s Way becomes the site of memory. The Briars fades into oblivion. The hope that the Briars represented gets subsumed by the pain hidden beneath the facade of Griffin’s Way.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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