It is important to remember when reading Porgy that DuBose Heyward came from the white aristocracy of Charleston, South Carolina. The Heywards came to America in the late seventeenth century, and Thomas Heyward signed the Declaration of Independence. Although Heyward had the family name, he did not share its wealth. He was two years old when his father died, and his mother took in sewing to meet expenses. At the age of nine, he sold newspapers, at the age of fourteen he worked in a hardware store, and at twenty he became a steamship checker, working among black stevedores. Venturing in insurance and real estate, at twenty-three years of age he reclaimed some black tenements in Charleston and eventually gained financial stability.
Heyward’s hardships were not all economic, however. He contracted polio at the age of eighteen and typhoid at twenty, and he suffered attacks of pleurisy at twenty-one and thirty-two years of age. All of these experiences influenced Porgy. Self-educated to a great degree, Heyward read much of James Fenimore Cooper and Charles Dickens. His first one-act play was produced in 1913. In 1920, he turned to poetry, helped found the Poetry Society of South Carolina, and became involved with writers from across the United States at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, where he met playwright Dorothy Hartzell Kuhns, whom he married in 1923. One of Heyward’s literary goals was to disprove H. L. Mencken’s charge that no good literature was produced south of the Potomac River.
Heyward wrote Porgy, his first novel, after reading about a disabled man who had been pursued in his goat-cart by police. First published in 1925, Porgy received overwhelmingly favorable responses from critics and general readers. Kuhns and Heyward developed the plot into a play in 1927, and Heyward later collaborated with George and Ira Gershwin in creating Porgy and Bess, the first American opera with primarily black characters, which premiered on Broadway on October 10, 1935. The novel, play, and opera share similar plots and characters, but Heyward’s literary skill is best displayed in the novel, Porgy.
Changing fate is the novel’s major theme. Catfish Row illustrates the altered fate of Charleston’s white aristocracy: The once great mansion is now a tenement for poor African American families. In its courtyard, residents wager on dice, outcomes determined by fate,...
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