The Book: Frank Yerby, THE FOXES OF HARROW. The Dial Press, 1946 (first book club edition). Very good book in fair dust jacket; dust jacket is chipped, torn and shows signs of water damage, but colors are bright. Resale price (25 cents) written in pencil on front flyleaf
First read: 1981 (approximately)
Owned since: 1981 (best guess)
Frank Yerby's not even a JEOPARDY! question any more, but he was the first bestselling African-American novelist, and The Foxes of Harrow was the first bestselling novel written by an African-American author. Before he died in 1991, he wrote 33 historical novels, almost all of them bestsellers. Not one of them is in print today.
I didn't know any of this when I picked up this book. I just thought it sounded interesting, and I'd read another book of his (Goat Song, a novel about Sparta) that was exciting and quite racy, by my sheltered teenage standards. I have no memory of buying the book, but I've had it for a very long time.
If you didn't know the author of The Foxes of Harrow was African-American, nothing in the text would reveal it. It is a sweeping epic of the antebellum South, about an Irish gambler who builds a great Louisiana plantation, a family, and a fortune, and sacrifices them all on the altar of the Civil War. It's a pageturner, with murder and adultery and sibling rivalry and lots of great detail about Creole society and the class systems of pre-war Louisiana. It became an Oscar-nominated movie starring Rex Harrison and Maureen O'Hara.
And have you ever heard of it? I bet not, unless you are at least ten years older than I am.
This is the phenomenon I mentioned yesterday. Frank Yerby sold hundreds of thousands of books. He wrote a book a year for decades, and his life's work would take up multiple shelves in a library. But if you want to read one of his books now -- even The Dahomean, the book considered his masterpiece -- you have to go to the library or a used bookstore, or search online for a used copy. Search for "Frank Yerby" on Amazon and the one book that's readily available is a biographical novel about him, published by a vanity press.
Yerby himself is a fascinating character who deserves a real biography. The son of a black father and a white mother in 1920s Georgia, he worked toward a Ph.D. in English and taught at traditionally black colleges before moving to Detroit during the Second World War -- and taking a job in the Dearborn plant of the Ford Motor Company. He left the United States in 1955 to protest racial discrimination -- but wound up in Franco's Spain, a regime most people would consider even more oppressive. His interests were vast, ranging from ancient Sparta to contemporary Central America.
What am I trying to say here? I'm not sure. Should we hang on to The Foxes of Harrow, rather than read this summer's blockbuster? No, not necessarily. I'm just fascinated by this question of what lasts and what doesn't. Today's book has already sunk into obscurity, even though it's similar in quality and subject matter to tomorrow's selection -- a book you've almost certainly read, and a book your children will probably read. What makes the difference?
Off to Montreal today for the weekend -- Claire is graduating, hurray! -- so I'll be scarce for a few days, but posting should continue as normal.