Set in the antebellum South between 1825 and 1865, The Foxes of Harrow (1946) is a historical romance that chronicles the adventures of Stephen Fox, an Irish immigrant who rises from poverty to wealth in New Orleans society. The novel, which was written by Frank Yerby, opens with Fox being thrown off a steamboat on the Mississippi River and ends with the destruction of his plantation, Harrow. Between 1825 and 1865, however, he wins recognition among aristocrats by amassing a fortune from gambling and selling cotton and marrying into a prominent family. An outcast in an alien culture, Fox lives on the margins, neither accepting nor adhering to its beliefs and traditions.
Unlike many protagonists in antebellum southern fiction, Fox is not magnanimous. He comes from a disreputable background, holds nonsouthern views, and succeeds by less than admirable means. Thus, while The Foxes of Harrow compares favorably to such historical romances as Gone with the Wind (1935) and Anthony Adverse (1933), it is in actuality a throwback to the picaresque tradition. Yerby's skillful adaptation and manipulation of the picaresque genre create a vehicle for him both to write entertaining fiction and debunk southern myths.
With the publication of The Foxes of Harrow, his first novel, Yerby made an abrupt transition from protest to popular fiction. Sales of the novel skyrocketed, magazines reprinted condensed versions of it, Twentieth Century Fox purchased the screen rights, and by the end of 1946, it had sold more than one million copies. Yerby would subsequently produce an impressive list of best-sellers, but in many ways, The Foxes of Harrow remains his most defining novel. It catapulted him to national recognition as a writer, it established the commercially successful formula for all of his succeeding novels, and it charted a course for him to gain distinction as the first African American to become a millionaire writing fiction.
Ann Bontemps, “From Lad of Ireland to Bayou Grandee,” Chicago Sun Book Week 10 Feb. 1946 1.Alice Hackett, “New Novelists of 1946,” Saturday Review of Literature 30 (15 Feb. 1947): 11–13.
James L. Hill