The novel Porgy (1925), by the white Charlestonian DuBose Heyward, was the first major southern novel to portray African Americans in an honest, straightforwardway, rather than hew to the nineteenthcentury stereotypes of shiftless darkies or faithful servitors. The novel caused a sensation in the South, where many readers reacted negatively to Heyward’s progressive views, and was uniformly applauded in the North, especially by intellectual circles in Harlem, where Heyward was seen as a leading light in the literary depiction of
African Americans. The novel tells the story of a crippled black beggar, Porgy, and his great love, Bess. It is set in Charleston in the first decade of the twentieth century, in a tenement neighborhood called Catfish Row. Bess is a “weak” woman who is victimized first by the brutal Crown (who kills a companion named Robbins in a dispute over a crap game and then goes into hiding), then by Sportin’ Life, a trickster figure who represents the “city” Negro. He seduces Bess with cocaine, or “happy dust.” In Crown’s absence, Porgy courts Bess, they join together in a common-law union, and they informally adopt a baby girl. Porgy then protects Bess when Crown reappears, eventually killing him. Porgy goes to jail briefly and returns to find Bess gone off to Savannah with Sportin’ Life, there presumably to fall into a life of drugs and prostitution. He takes off after her in his ramshackle cart, pulled by a goat.
Heyward based the novel on a newspaper report he had read, about one Sammy Smalls, a goat-cart beggar of King Street in peninsular Charleston, and Smalls’s alleged shooting of a local woman, Maggie Barnes. The crime was never proved, but Smalls took off down the street in his goat cart when the police pursued him, giving Heyward the idea for a central tragicomic event in the novel—and for two central traits of the inhabitants of Catfish Row: their ingrained distrust of the white world, and the insularity of their own community. Porgy was perhaps the most famous of a string of novels written by white authors at the time that showed the modernist interest in cultural primitivism; examples include Sherwood Anderson’s Dark Laughter and Carl Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven. However, Porgy was more sympathetic than these novels, and it endeared Heyward to many writers of the Harlem Renaissance and propelled him on a course that was to make him famous. The novel was successfully dramatized for the stage in 1927 as Porgy: A Play, cowritten by Heyward and his wife, Dorothy (who was a playwright). Later, it was transformed into the opera Porgy and Bess with music and libretto by George and Ira Gershwin—America’s first native folk opera.