DuBose Heyward Essay - Heyward, DuBose

Heyward, DuBose


DuBose Heyward 1885-1940

(Full name Edwin DuBose Heyward) American novelist, short story writer, poet, playwright, and librettist.

A Southern regionalist writer associated with the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, Heyward is remembered for such novels as Porgy and Mamba's Daughters. His works are particularly esteemed for portraying black Americans in a realistic manner that transcended many long-held stereotypes common in literature by white authors. In addition Heyward has been praised for his sense of cultural history and the psychological insight of his narratives, most of which are set in Charleston, South Carolina.

Biographical Information

Heyward was born and lived his entire life in Charleston. Raised by his mother after his father's death when Heyward was two years old, he received little formal education and was forced to leave the private school he attended in order to work. Heyward was employed for a time on the Charleston docks, where his daily contact with the city's African-American working poor provided much source material for his future writings, but complications from poor health that afflicted him throughout his lifetime required that he find other means of making a living. In 1917, during an extended period of convalescence, he began writing poems and short stories. His first published work, a short story entitled "The Brute," appeared the following year in Pagan: A Magazine for Eudaemonists. National recognition for his writing came in 1922 with the publication of Carolina Chansons: Legends of the Low Country, a collaborative effort with poet Hervey Allen. Heyward's novel Porgy, published three years later, proved to be his biggest success, earning him notoriety as one of the premier writers of the Harlem Renaissance. In 1927 Heyward adapted the novel into a play in collaboration with his wife Dorothy, and later into the opera Porgy and Bess, with music by George Gershwin. The popularity of the play and the opera far surpassed that of Heyward's other works. He died in 1940.

Major Works

Most of Heyward's fiction deals with a small number of interrelated themes, preeminently those involving racial and social conflicts. His early works, such as the poems contained in Carolina Chansons and Skylines and Horizons, are predominately set within the Charleston region and draw upon local history and culture. Heyward's first and best-known novel, Porgy, is set in Catfish Row, a fictional representation of Charleston's Negro quarter at the turn of the century. Structured as a series of vignettes, the novel follows its title character, a crippled African-American beggar, as he struggles against the forces of fate and racial inequity to maintain human dignity. Mamba's Daughters shares its setting in Catfish Row with Porgy and is similarly concerned with the hardships of black Americans. The story focuses on the sacrifices made by its main characters—Mamba, Hagar, and Lissa—to realize Lissa's aspirations to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. As in Porgy, the narrative of Mamba's Daughters is related by a white narrator, but, unlike its predecessor, deals openly with the clash of the black and white races, exploring Heyward's theme of a vigorous African-American culture in conflict with a sterile white social order. The theme of sterility is also an important component of a later work, Peter Ashley. Set in Civil War-era Charleston, the novel is concerned with the position of the artist confronted by the responsibilities of family and tradition. Its protagonist, a young writer who returns to Charleston after having studied at Harvard and Oxford, is confronted with the realities of slavery and secession and forced to choose whether to determine his future by following his own heart or the dictates of his family. In Lost Morning another variation on this theme is played out as Felix Hollister's artistic ambitions are crushed by the exigencies of everyday life in the modern world. Adam Work, the protagonist of Heyward's final novel, Star Spangled Virgin, seeks to escape sterility by leaving the effete world of Western civilization for the primitive purity of the Virgin Islands.

Critical Reception

Heyward's acclaim during the 1920s quickly faded despite the continuing popularity of Porgy and Bess, which is generally associated with George Gershwin rather than Heyward. Critics have since observed that his narrative style, while clear and straightforward, is overly conventional, and his plots have been called sentimental and melodramatic. Nonetheless, he has been praised for being one of the first white writers to portray African-Americans realistically and sympathetically. Langston Hughes summed up this view in 1959 by describing Heyward as a writer who saw "with his white eyes, wonderful, poetic human qualities in the inhabitants of Catfish Row," and Countee Cullen called Porgy the "best novel by a white about Negroes."

Principal Works

Carolina Chansons [with Hervey Allen] (poetry) 1922

Skylines and Horizons (poetry) 1924

Porgy (novel) 1925

Angel (novel) 1926

Porgy [with Dorothy Heyward] (drama) [first publication] 1927

The Half Pint Flask (short stories) 1929

Mamba's Daughters (novel) 1929

Jasbo Brown and Selected Poems (poetry) 1931

Peter Ashley (novel) 1932

Porgy and Bess (libretto) 1935

Lost Morning (novel) 1936

Star Spangled Virgin (novel) 1939


The New York Times Book Review (essay date 1925)

SOURCE: "A Romance of Negro Life," in The New York Times Book Review, September 27, 1925, pp. 10-11.

[In the following review, the critic comments favorably on Porgy, focusing on the quality of Heyward's characterization in the work.]

[In Porgy] Dubose Heyward challenges attention and evokes a mood with his initial daring stroke: "Porgy lived in the Golden Age." It is a timeless, innocently grotesque world that Porgy knows, and the reader through Porgy. It is a Southern seaport, possibly Mr. Heyward's own Charleston, S. C., though the geography is not insisted upon. More specifically, it is Catfish Row, the glamorous retreat of the crippled darky, Porgy, and his friendly neighbors. The white world but vaguely impinges upon their absorptions, their sorrows, their tragedies and their rude but satisfying justice. The interventions of the whites are often meaningless, often disastrous, always impertinent. Mr. Heyward establishes by implication an antithesis in civilization which is not wholly to the glory of the white race. He conveys an intimate and authentic sense of the dignity, the pathos, the unending minor chords of a folk-melancholy, the latent high spirits, the primitive passion, the color, the movement, the intrinsic energy, the superstitions and the religious faith, the very essence of his chosen community. It is a noteworthy achievement in the sympathetic and convincing interpretation of negro life by a member of an "outside" race.

Although it is matter for wonder that Mr. Heyward has seemed to have gotten inside his characters and their surroundings, it is cause for rejoicing that he has communicated these things he has found to the reader. Porgy is at no time an alien being: his author has magically insinuated him into the very quick of attention. He deserves to rank with the fantastic Italian puppet, Pinocchió; such a creation as bankrupts in reality the next-door neighbor. Mr. Heyward's method is diametrically opposed to that of Ronald Firbank in Prancing Nigger, there was a delectable, a charming, a gay spectacle. Porgy...

(The entire section is 872 words.)

Oliver M. Sayler (essay date 1927)

SOURCE: A review of Porgy, in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. 4, No. 14, October 29, 1927, pp. 251-52.

[In the following review, Sayler assesses the stage version of Porgy, lauding the "rhythmic" qualities of the production and declaring it superior to the novel on which it was based.]

None of the expedients which the theatre vouchsafes to drama as oral and visualized literature is more constructive and fecund than rhythm. Without denying the presence of this most richly interpretive esthetic medium in the other arts in varying degree, I do not think it presumptuous to claim for the theatre a wider range of rhythmic opportunity than literature or...

(The entire section is 1193 words.)

Donald Davidson (essay date 1929)

SOURCE: "An Author Divided Against Himself," in The Spyglass: Views and Reviews, 1924-1930, edited by John Tyree Fain, Vanderbilt University Press, 1963, pp. 29-34.

[In the following review, which originally appeared in the Nashville Tennessean on February 3, 1929, Davidson discusses what he considers the artistic failings of Heyward's third novel, Mamba's Daughters.]

DuBose Heyward has enjoyed a considerable popularity in the last few years, and has been looked on as a leader among the new writers who have brought the South forward in literary matters. That the popularity is well deserved, I think no one can deny. But Mr. Heyward's third novel, Mamba's...

(The entire section is 1464 words.)

Anthony Harrigan (essay date 1951)

SOURCE: "DuBose Heyward: Memorialist and Realist," in The Georgia Review, Vol. V, No. 3, Fall, 1951, pp. 335-4.

[In the following essay, Harrigan examines the primary themes in Heyward's writing, while touching on elements of style, tone, and characterization.]

(The entire section is 4361 words.)

Frank Durham (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: "DuBose Heyward's 'Lost' Short Stories," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. II, No. 2, Winter, 1965, pp. 57-63.

[In the following essay, Durham argues that Heyward's early short stories stylistically and thematically foreshadow his later works.]

Now that his and George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess is generally accepted as the outstanding American folk opera, DuBose Heyward is emerging as a figure worthy of consideration in any account of American literature. His story of Porgy, the crippled Negro beggar of Charleston, in its novelistic, dramatic, and operatic forms has become part of American folklore; his Mamba's Daughters is still remembered as both...

(The entire section is 2644 words.)

William H. Slavick (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Going to School to DuBose Heyward," in The Harlem Renaissance Re-examined, edited by Victor A. Kramer, AMS Press, 1987, pp. 65-91.

[In the following essay, Slavick presents an overview of Heyward's works.]

DuBose Heyward's brief ascendancy among Southern regionalists in the middle 1920s—as poet, novelist, and playwright—was quickly eclipsed by the emergence of the Fugitive poets, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, Thomas Wolfe, and William Faulkner by the end of the decade. Today he is little more than mentioned in discussion of important figures in the Southern Renascence, but his social realism, which juxtaposes the sterility of the white Charleston aristocracy...

(The entire section is 10705 words.)

Rosellen Brown (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "On DuBose Heyward's Peter Ashley," in Classics of Civil War Fiction, edited by David Madden and Peggy Bach, University Press of Mississippi, 1991, pp. 17-30.

[In the following essay, Brown examines Peter Ashley, maintaining that the novel, while engaging, fails to explore the significant social and psychological issues it raises.]

The "Old South," like any area that possesses distinctive characteristics and a complex and tragic history, has served many purposes in the world's imagination. Henry James, for one, fell in love with Charleston, whose fabled houses recalled "the fallen pride of provincial palazzini," whose walled and secret gardens...

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Further Reading


Durham, Frank. DuBose Heyward: The Man Who Wrote "Porgy". Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1954, 152 p.

Biographical and critical study.

—. "The Opera That Didn't Get to the Metropolitan." n Essays Today, edited by Richard M. Ludwig, pp. 56-64. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1955.

Recounts the collaboration of Heyward and George Gershwin in producing Porgy and Bess.

Heyward, DuBose. "Porgy and Bess." In Playgoer: A Personal Scrapbook, edited by George Oppenheimer, pp. 476-83. New York: Viking Press, 1958.

Heyward's recollections of his work with...

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