Monday, September 19, 2016
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“PORGY” by DuBose Heyward (first published in 1925)
There are very different reasons for reading old books – catching up with the classics; being a “complete-ist” and so reading the more obscure works of well-known authors; finding out what other people have been praising; or seeing, out of simple historical interest, what a past age once admired, even if you know that the book in question hasn’t lasted the distance as a classic. (This last is the main reason I sometimes read yesterday’s bestsellers).
But my reason for reading DuBose Heyward’s Porgy was sheer curiosity. I wanted to know what the source-novel of the Gershwins’ “folk-opera” Porgy and Bess was like. Besides, I’d bought a handsome little hardback “Travellers’ Library” edition of Porgy (printed in 1930, I see) at a second-hand bookshop some years back, and I was sick of seeing it on my shelf, taunting me for not having read it. So recently I sat down and read it. It didn’t take long. Porgy is a very short novel and easily read in a couple of sittings.
But it does have a major difficulty for modern readers.
This is a book about black characters written by a white author, and reading it now, we can’t help being aware of the elements of condescension there are in it, even if on first publication it gained praise from some black intellectuals like Langston Hughes. Edwin DuBose Heyward (1885-1940) was a white Southerner, born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina, where Porgy is set. (The setting is a seaport, with steamers that run to and from New York, but I do not think the novel specifically names the city.)
If you know the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, you will find the general outline of the story familiar.
Porgy is an ageing and crippled beggar “black with the almost purple blackness of unadulterated Congo blood.” (Part One) Porgy, who often travels around on a little cart drawn by a smelly goat, lives on Catfish Row with other poor black folks. Most of the men are stevedores or fishermen. Most of the women are servants or cooks for white folks. In the novel’s opening section, the burly stevedore Crown murders Robbins in a brawl over a gambling game. Crown flees (and hides out on a well-wooded island).
Much later Crown’s woman Bess turns up – raddled, disreputable and with a history of drug abuse, “happy dust” (presumably cocaine) being supplied to her by the light-skinning “octoroon” Sportin’ Life. Possibly she’s lived as a prostitute, though the novel never exactly says this. “She was extremely drunk and unpleasant to look upon”, says the author when she first appears. The tough and matriarchal women who dominate Catfish Row (Maria and Robbins’ widow Serena) don’t think much of Bess, but she begins to cohabit with Porgy. They seem to find happiness together, but their happiness is interrupted when the people of Catfish Row go on a picnic to the island where Crown is still living wildly. Crown manages to grab Bess when she is separated from the crowd and apparently forces himself on her sexually (not depicted explicitly in either novel or “folk-opera”, but the implication is clear).
At heart, Bess is still Crown’s woman. Later, and after a terrific hurricane rocks the city, Crown returns at night to claim Bess. Porgy kills him and (it is implied) the tough women of Catfish Row drag the corpse to another spot. Porgy is now apparently secure in his possession of Bess. The murder of Crown is unsolved by the police. Porgy is not a suspect because the police never consider that an ageing cripple would have been capable of killing the formidable Crown. Porgy goes to jail briefly for a minor misdemeanour (failing to help the coroner identify the corpse). But when he returns to his tenement, he finds that Bess had fled and gone off to live the good life somewhere else. The child they were going to raise together (a baby orphaned when her mother was killed by the hurricane) has been given to Serena. Porgy feels suddenly old.
Nearly all of this you recognise from Porgy and Bess, which is hardly surprising as DuBose Heyward collaborated with the Gershwins when they were putting their musical together in 1935, and Porgy and Bess also drew heavily on Porgy, a stage-play adaptation of the novel which Heywood and his wife Dorothy had written in 1927. In fact, though the words of songs were Ira Gershwin’s work, most of the recitative of Porgy and Bess can be credited to Heyward.
Every so often in reading the novel, I found myself stumbling over passages that clearly inspired the folk-opera’s songs. “Libbin’ will be easy” says Crown to Bess (Part Four) and my head immediately starts playing “Summertime”, though there is nothing else like that song in the novel. Having encountered Crown again, Bess pleads in the novel:
“Oh fuh Gawd sake, Porgy, don’t let dat man come and handle me! Ef yuh is willin’ tuh keep me den let me stay. Ef he jus’ don’t’ put dem hot han’ on me, I kin be good, I kin ‘member, I kin be happy.”(Part Six)
This is quite clearly the origin of the folk-opera’s “I Loves You Porgy”. (And if you are too dull-witted to understand how great a song that is, especially when sung by Nina Simone or Billie Holiday, then that is your loss.)
Yet such moments of recognition are rarer than I expected. The fact is, the novel’s emphases are different from the musicalized version. There is less suggestion that Bess feels any real love for Porgy – we have to take their happiness on trust in the novel, as it is described briefly from the outside only and never really dramatised. Sportin’ Life appears only very briefly in the novel (before being vigorously kicked out by the protective Maria) and he is certainly not the star-part fellow who gets to sing “It Ain’t Necessarily So”. And there is no uplift at the end, such as provides Porgy and Bess with a rousing (if delusional) final curtain when Porgy sings “Lawd, I’m on My Way,” and sets off to find Bess. The novel simply tells us that Porgy suddenly feels old at the loss of Bess and it implies he accepts defeat.
More than anything, this brief novel is weighted with descriptive “local colour” of the sort that can’t figure in any stage version. There are long descriptions, like the one of a black fraternity’s colourful parade that opens Part Four. Heywood’s style often teeters near to purple prose.
Take this account of what Porgy sees on his rounds through the parts of town where white folks live:
“Before the houses and the rose-tellises stretched a broad drive, and beyond its dazzling belt of crushed shell the harbour lay between its tawny islands, like a sapphire upon a sailor’s weathered hand. Sometimes Porgy would steal an hour from the daily rounds, pause there, and watch a great, blunt-nosed steamer heave slowly out of the unknown, to come to rest with a sight of spent team, and a dusty thundering of released anchor chains.” (Part Two)
Or take this description of a fishing fleet:
“Warm sunlight flooded out of the west, touched the old city with transient glory, then cascaded over the tossing surface of the bay to paint the taut, cupped sails salmon pink, as the fleet drove forward directly into the eyes of the sun.” (Part Five)
But the hurricane is an artful piece of descriptive writing, a huge, frightening event over which Heyward takes many pages in Part Five as he notes the different phases of the great storm.
DuBose Heyward, native of Charleston, presumably observed at first hand some of the life he depicted. As is well attested, the character of Porgy is based on a real crippled beggar who did his rounds in the city - Samuel Smalls, nicknamed “Goat Cart Sam”. It is possible too that the “Gullah” dialect Heyward gives his black characters is at least in part authentic, although this is one of the elements of the novel that African-Americans now find most reprehensible. To them, the novel’s characters speak in a white man’s caricature of black dialects. It is well-known that at first sophisticated black actors in New York baulked at performing Porgy and Bess or the play Porgy as written, because the dialogue was not black speech as they knew it. (I remember some years ago going to a production of Porgy and Bess with a black American cast – the programme notes were careful to point out that it was written in “the authentic Gullah dialect”, lest anyone think this was the way the actors and singers habitually talked.)
Even if we accept Heyward’s rendition of black speech as authentic, there are those unnerving moments where his language turns patronising. Women are referred to as “negresses”, Crown is a “buck nigger”, and blacks grow “wool” on their heads. Porgy would in the afternoons “experience a pleasant atavistic calm, and would doze lightly under the terrific heat, as only a full-blooded Negro can.” (Part One) This sounds like the white Southerner’s stereotype of the cheerful, lazy black man, just a mite away from Stepin Fetchit.
And of course the novel’s blacks are credulous and superstitious. After burying the murdered Robbins in the graveyard, the superstitious mourners (including the presiding clergyman) have a race to get out of the graveyard, as they believe the last to leave will be the next to die. Porgy gets a “conjer’ woman” to cast a spell to make Bess well. When a buzzard lands on the roof after Crown is killed, Porgy thinks it’s the soul of Crown coming back to haunt him.
Which brings me to what I think is the most unpalatable aspect of the novel for modern readers. It is clear that DuBose Heyward sees black life in Charleston as quaint and colourful partly because blacks are unsophisticated and “uncorrupted” by education or the influence of Northerners. There is the clear implication that it is better for blacks to live their “simple” lives rather than become part of a complex modern city or civilisation. In short, Heyward really thinks that they should “know their place”. The novel caricatures the one black who has some advanced formal education - the “lawyer” Frasier, who offers cheap (and non-legal) divorces.
Most tellingly there is an exchange between the corrupting Sportin’ Life and the matriarchal Maria in Part Two.
“Yuh sho got good-lookin’ white gals in dis town” says the Sportin’ Life (Part Two) to the scandalisation of Maria, who at once rebukes him and tells him he’s got no business to say that. This plays very much to the white Southerner’s fear (in history the cause of many lynchings) that “uppity” blacks spend their time lustfully eyeing up white women.
“Come now, old lady”, says Sportin’ Life “don’t talk like dese old-fashioned lamp-oil niggers what have had no adwantage. Why, up in New York, where I been waitin’ in a hotel…”
Clearly Sportin’ Life is about to tell of hedonistic New Yorkers being racially mixed. But Maria bursts out:
“Noo Yo’k…. Don’t yuh try any Noo Yo’k aroun’ dis town. Ef I had my way, I’d go down tuh dat Noo Yo’k boat, an’ take ebbery Gawd’s nigger what come up de gang plank wid er Joseph coat in he back an’ a glass headlight on he buzzom and drap un tuh de catfish befo’ he foot hit decent groun’! Yas; my belly fair ache wid dis Noo Yo’k talk. De fus t’ing dat dem nigger fuhgit is dat dem is nigger. Den dem comes tuh dese decent country mens, and fills un full ob talk wut put money in de funeral ondehtakuh pocket.”
“Niggers forget they are niggers” when they should remain “decent country men”. That is the novel’s view of blacks who go to the big modern city and who therefore (like Sportin’ Life) end up as criminals and corrupters. They should really remain simple, picturesque people in settings of intense local colour. And not get “uppity”, even if their passions and losses make for interesting drama.
With regret, then, we can’t read this novel now in anything like the spirit the author intended.
Footnote: I am not an expert in that strange era of the 1920s when white American authors, most of whom regarded themselves as liberals or radicals, were writing about black people, usually with the intention of praising their “natural, carefree, primitive” lives in contrast with stifling white middle-class morality. Apart from DuBose Heyward’s Porgy, the best-known (or, if you prefer, most notorious) examples of this phenomenon were Carl Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven and Sherwood Anderson’s Dark Laughter, both of which were, like Porgy, big bestsellers and won literary prizes. As interpreted nowadays by black (and other) readers and critics, they are seen as dated, patronising examples of “cultural appropriation”, perpetuating white stereotypes of black people regardless of their author’s conscious intentions. The best analysis of Porgy which I have read (much better than my own paltry review here) is Kendra Hamilton’s “Goat Cart Sam a.k.a. Porgy”. It places the novel in the context of such 1920s literary endeavours. You can find it at this link: