The Clare Spark Blog

November 13, 2010

The “Porgy” controversy

Filed under: Uncategorized — clarelspark @ 9:46 pm
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DuBose and Dorothy Heyward

On a previous blog, I wrote that white Jewish composers who had gained much of their inspiration from black music have been tarred (especially by the anti-imperialist Left) as exploitative and racist, profiting from the vogue for primitivism, hence stealing from material that should be handled by politically conscious black writers. Since I wrote about Irving Berlin and, more briefly, Leonard Bernstein (, I have been studying biographical treatments of George Gershwin, especially his magnum opus, the “folk opera” Porgy and Bess (1935), adapted from DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy (1925).  Reading Kendra Hamilton’s scholarly critique of both the novel and the opera ( I find that the same pattern obtains, though Heyward was from an old Anglo-Saxon family, and not a Jew. Indeed his two references to a smelly and dishonest Russian Jewish trader are offensive, while Bess, at times, shows characteristics of the archetypal Jewish gonif.

I read the novel twice, the second time after consulting a recent biography of Heyward, and my assessment of the novel is quite different from the first reading, when the discrepancies between the novel and the opera were uppermost in my mind. The ending was transformed in both the Broadway play Porgy (1927, written by both Heyward and his wife Dorothy) and in the ensuing opera, in order, James Hutchisson claims, to give hope for the advancement of the black race, hence Porgy takes off in his goat cart to find Bess, rather than in an apocalyptic loss of his recent rejuvenation and his manly resolve to defend Bess against Crown, as the original novel shows us:

“The keen autumn sun flooded boldly through the entrance and bathed the drooping form of the goat, the ridiculous wagon, and the bent figure of the man in hard, satirical radiance. In its revealing light, Maria [a matriarchal, earth mother figure, and the single most powerful character in the novel] saw that Porgy was an old man. The early tension that had characterized him, the mellow mood that he had known for one eventful summer, both had gone; and in their place she saw a face that sagged wearily, and the eyes of age lit only by a faint reminiscent glow of suns and moons that had looked into them, and had already dropped down the west.

She looked until she could bear the sight no longer; then she stumbled into her shop and closed the door, leaving Porgy and the goat alone in an irony of morning sunlight.”

What makes this ending particularly compelling to me is its resemblance to the end of the first edition of Melville’s Moby-Dick, where an indifferent Nature sweeps over the wreck, mocking the striving of humanity. [The same company (Doran) that published Porgy had released Raymond M. Weaver’s biography of Melville in 1921, the opening move in the twentieth century “Melville Revival.” Both Heyward and the antebellum author Herman Melville could be said to have partaken in the modernism and primitivism that would emerge in “the Harlem Renaissance.”]

It is obvious that Nature is the chief character in Heyward’s novel (and not only in the harrowing hurricane chapter, a rendering of a real hurricane in Charleston history), but although the inhabitants of Catfish Row are primitives, they are not so by nature. For Heyward makes it crystal clear that the white people of Charleston, both upper-class and working class, have socially isolated the blacks among them. The law does not work for them, with its white enforcers seeing the blacks solely as vicious, potentially mobbish animals, useful solely in their remarkable physical strength as haulers of cotton, fishermen, or domestics. Or, in the case of Archdale or elderly “aristocrats”, they may be indulgent paternalists (Archdale) or gawkers at their outlandish dress and music during the yearly parade “The Sons and Daughters of Repent Ye Saith the Lord” (old once-wealthy white women surviving in their decrepit mansions). It is only their tribal solidarity and mutual loyalty that enables the inhabitants of Catfish Row to survive. Hence, Sportin’ Life, the octaroon, is expelled by the matriarchal Maria, for he lusts after white girls and subjects the community to lynching. No 1930s leftist could have painted a more realistic portrait of their economic and legal burdens.

Kendra Hamilton worries that Porgy does not resemble Heyward’s supposed model, a local cripple/beggar with unsavory character. I would argue that the author put something of himself into his characterizations. For instance, Heyward’s obvious creation of the cripple Porgy as an emblem of his polio-stricken self, but with compensatory powers in his upper body strength, powers that the sickly Heyward never had. Indeed, Porgy’s first words in the novel are not in Gullah (or pseudo-Gullah) dialect: Coaxing his dice, Porgy sings “Oh, little stars, roll me some light!…Roll me a sun an’ moon!” Similarly at the end, he alternates between dialect and standard English: [interrogating Maria as to Bess’s whereabouts] “But wuh she now?” Porgy cried. “I ain’t keer ef she wuz drunk. I want she now.” But then as he grabs Maria’s wrist, “Tell me,” he commanded. “Tell me, now.”

There were great transformations as the novel was adapted from novel to play to opera. It is obvious from Gershwin’s biographers that he was not only a progressive, but socialized with artists of the left (e.g. Siqueiros and Rivera). Although he read Porgy the year of its publication and was reportedly transfixed by it, seeing operatic material at once, Gershwin could not have maintained the plot as it originally was, with its horrific Melvillean overtones, that in the end the Universe is indifferent and deceptive in its benignity. So he bowed to Dorothy Heyward’s “improved” ending, where Porgy takes off to find Bess in either Savannah (the play) or in New York (the opera). Given the richness and detail of the original novel, it is tragic that ideology and idealization won out over compelling realism, though many of the social aspects of the original were retained in the hugely successful and popular opera, sent around the world by the government during the Cold War as an emblem of American music and, perhaps, self-criticism.

Finally, it should be noted that Heyward’s novel probably could not be published today. Between the constant use of the “n” word and the dialect, publishers, whether academic or not, would catch hell if they reproduced it, even though the characters are strong, communal, rational and determined to survive as a group despite their miserable material circumstances. But the text can be found online, with surrounding criticism by Kendra Hamilton.

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