The Foxes of Harrow (1946), a Southern historical romance by Black Irish-American author Frank Yerby (1916–1991), writes back to Margaret Mitchell’s bestselling novel, Gone with the Wind (1936; hereafter GWTW). Although Yerby and Mitchell were both raised in Georgia during segregation by mothers of Irish descent, their socially assigned racial identities created divergent approaches to representing the pre- and post-Civil War South in their respective novels.
GWTW was (and remains) controversial for opening with a vision of an antebellum world of grace and for a plotline that justifies the KKK as needed protection from the sexual predation of white women by formerly enslaved men in the Reconstruction South. A break-out bestseller, Foxes kick-started a historical novel-writing career that made Yerby America’s highest-earning novelist by 1954. As with GWTW, Yerby’s novel covers the rise and fall of white Southern fortunes, but markedly departs from Mitchell in centering three-dimensional African-American characters and in its positive depiction of Reconstruction. Nevertheless, both romances feature penniless, “off-white” planters of Irish birth who transform themselves into the white exploitative landowner class to whom they themselves had once been subject: Gerald O’Hara in GWTW and Stephen Fox in Foxes. Only Yerby’s Irish planter ultimately understands the connections between these contexts, however.
As a young man in Ireland, Mitchell’s Gerald murders an oppressive landlord’s agent in disordered colonial Ireland and subsequently flees. Arriving in the South in the 1820s, O’Hara acquires both his first enslaved man and a neglected plantation in Georgia in games of poker, and further “whitens” by marrying into the local elite. These plot points almost all repeat in Foxes, but in an insightful departure from the easy interpretation of Yerby as merely derivative, Mark C. Jerng calls his novel “a prequel to GWTW that centers on the Gerald O’Hara figure.” (Mitchell moves from an opening emphasis on Gerald to center his daughter, Scarlett, for much of the action.)
Yerby’s negotiation of his dual heritages is apparent in Stephen’s “guttersnipe” Dublin street urchin beginnings, which challenges the certainties of the South’s black-white binary as much as the novel’s many mixed-race and racially ambiguous (“swarthy”) French characters. Yerby writes accessible fiction in the Mitchell mode, but simultaneously debunks what Du Bois had indicted as the “southern white fairytale” of graceful plantation life. In a Foxes scene that anticipates a similar event in Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), the unfree Sauvage attempts to take her baby with her when she commits suicide, exposing the stark reality of the desperation created by enslavement. By contrast, Mitchell propounds the “cherished darky” myth by having Scarlett claim that “house slave” Peter is “‘family,’” though this claim is certainly not meant to suggest interracial ties of the sort depicted by Yerby! (Indeed, the impossibility of Irish-African hybridity in GWTW’s sealed white supremacist universe is mocked by Alice Randall’s 2001 parody, The Wind Done Gone, in which Scarlett turns out to be mixed-race.) Although Yerby had a predominantly white mainstream readership and his marketing in the South evaded the issue of his racial identity, he deviates most from Mitchell in depicting rebellious, articulate, and prominent African-American characters, particularly those on the enslaved Caleen’s matrilineal line.
When read without the blinders of caste, gender, and the patrilineal, Foxes turns out to be a novel of Caleen’s surname-less matrilineal line as much as Stephen’s “legitimate” line. Caleen, the shrewd materfamilias of Harrow’s enslaved cohort, upon whose knowledge of weather and medicine Stephen relies, is everywhere in the action and is its seditious centre: she teaches her grandson, Inch, reading and passwords for the Underground Railroad, and he ultimately makes a bid for freedom. Caleen makes herself indispensable to Stephen, but all the while she strategizes for her family and its future, as protective of bloodline as any white planter. The dynastic lines of Caleen and Stephen converge at the close with Cyrus, Stephen’s son by his mixed-race Creole mistress, Desiree. Young Cyrus becomes Inch’s stepson when the latter marries the boy’s mother in the Reconstruction era, a repudiation of the racially “pure” bloodline that underpins the antebellum logic of Mitchell’s novel.
Mitchell’s planter sees no connection between the sectarian oppression in Ireland that he had fled and the South’s slave system. Fox’s street origins, by contrast, are an implicit source of his ambivalent view of that way of life. Indeed, Yerby puts words in his planter’s mouth of the sort likely never before uttered by “the master” in a Southern plantation romance: “‘slavery is a very convenient and pleasant system – for us…I have my leisure, which I haven’t earned, and my wealth, which I didn’t work for…’” Mitchell’s Gerald justifies his acquisition of plantation and human chattel as the hunger “of an Irishman who has been a tenant on the lands his people once had owned.” Likewise, Stephen flees Ireland to gain “freedom,” but his final words in Foxes—as his plantation is threatened by the war and the hunger of his Dublin street days returns—suggests a reluctant understanding of the costs paid by others for his freedom that is entirely absent from GWTW: “‘For a little while, we lived like gods. I’m not sure that it was good for us.’”