Last post, I wrote about three of my favorite Frank Yerby novels. Today, I want to talk about two more of my favorite novels plus mu favorite Yerby short story. Choosing my top three Yerby novels was fairly simple. They are ones I go back to, again and again, for various reasons. However, when I started to think about the last two novels that I wanted to highlight, it became tougher. I thought about Benton’s Row because of generational scope, its exploration of the flattening of whiteness after the Civil War, and my reading of it as a response to Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!. I thought about Griffin’s Way, mainly for Candace Trevor’s discussion of the “visceral feelings” of racism. I thought about The Saracen Blade because of the way that Yerby uses thirteenth century Italy to comment on twentieth century America. I thought about Tobias and the Angel, still a favorite, for its postmodernism and its commentary on religion. Yerby’s work impacts me in different ways at different moments, and that is why I think it was hard for me to choose these final two novels. I chose these two, partly, because they speak to me at this moment.
The Vixens (1947)
Yerby had other plans for the follow up to The Foxes of Harrow; however, his publisher did not accept the initial manuscript, Ignoble Victory. Instead, they told him to edit it and cut into what would eventually become The Vixens. Stephanie Brown talks about the manuscript and how it focuses on Inch, Etienne, and others during Reconstruction. These characters still populate The Vixens, but the narrative now focuses on Laird Fournois who returns to New Orleans after fighting for the Union in the Civil War. Yerby stated that he could not read The Vixens after publication because it made him sick. For me, though, the novel opened the doors for me to learn about the racial violence, voter suppression, and terror that occurred in my hometown region in Northeast Louisiana.
While I do not remember much about Laird’s story, I remember Yerby’s references to the Mechanic’s Institute Massacre in 1866, the Bossier Massacre in 1868, the St. Landry Massacre in 1868, and the Colfax Massacre in 1873. I did not know about these events prior to reading The Vixens, and I did not know much about Reconstruction in Louisiana. Yerby’s novel caused me to dig further into that history, to explore what happened in my own hometown on Bossier in 1868, violence that led to the murders of over 120 Blacks all for the cause of voter suppression and terror. It caused me to learn about the ways that Louisiana could have, again, been an example for America and the South with the 1868 constitution but how that example became squashed under the heel of white supremacy. These are the things that stuck out to me. Things that Yerby, through his meticulous research, laid bare in one of his “costume dramas.”
Goat Song (1967)
As I said earlier, I think my favorite Yerby texts vary from time to time, and I think I chose Goat Song because it was the most recent novel that I read. I found it last fall in an antique store here in NE Georgia, and since then, whenever I do my frequent searches from “Frank Yerby” on Twitter I see people mention Goat Song as the novel they remember the most. That’s a really interesting assertion for me considering it came out in 1967 and that it takes place in ancient Sparta and Athens. It follows Ariston, a Spartan who is taken captive by Athenians and lives his life in Athens. It has Socrates, Euripides, and more classical thinkers, and on some level, I see it as a commentary of classical philosophy. The novel ends with the death of Socrates.
However, for me, what continually caught my attention was the ways that Yerby, as he did in The Saracen Blade and other historical novels, used the setting to comment on the present. In the early parts of the novel, there are numerous moments where I thought, “This passage speaks to 1967.” I see it speaking directly to the Civil Rights Movement and to the Loving v. Virginia decision. I see Speak Now doing the same thing, but since it takes place in 1968, the connections are a little more obvious.
Ariston talks about his parentage. His mother was a Spartan and his father a Helot. He calls himself a Mothone. Speaking to his mother, Ariston asks, “Haven’t you ever seen a Mothone before? Well, maybe not a Mothone. It’s an interesting linguistic problem, isn’t it? If you were my father, and he my mother, I’d be a Mothone. But since it’s the other way around, I’m–a bastard. Bastardly is universal, isn’t it, Mother?” Here, Ariston comments on his parentage, and this discussion correlates to the legal discussions of children in interracial relationships. I’ve written about this before. There are other things too, but these types of moments really stood out to me as I read Goat Song.
“White Magnolias” (1944)
Choosing my favorite short story by Yerby proves just as difficult as choosing my favorite novels. For me, it’s really between “Salute to the Flag” and “White Magnolias.” I chose the latter because of the ways that it deconstructs white southern womanhood and the mythological views of an idyllic Old South that never existed. There are many things that stand out in the story from Beth confronting her parents to Beth’s mother telling Hannah that instead of going to graduate school she should consider working for her as a domestic. However, right now, the tearing down of the white magnolia, a symbol of white southern womanhood and the moonlight and magnolia image of the Old South stands out.
I always think about the end of the story as Beth and Hannah walk away from the house and Beth picks a magnolia flower and envisions balls with women in hoop skirts twirling around a ballroom. This image shifts, though, and she begins to realize the true history. She sees “only the long line of black men and women in their faded rags moving between the stalks of the cotton. And the auctioneer was holding open a black man’s mouth to show his fine teeth. And the slow heartbreaking songs rose up from the little cabins and the stench of black flesh drowned out the jasmine.” At this, she tears the flower to shreds, ripping the false image of the idyllic South asunder.
What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear about your favorite Frank Yerby novel or short story. As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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