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.
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.
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.
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."