HISTORY: DuBose Heyward, author

S.C. Encyclopedia |  Author DuBose Heyward was born in Charleston on Aug. 31, 1885, the son of Edwin Watkins Heyward and Jane Screven DuBose. Both parents were dispossessed aristocrats from the Upstate who had come to Charleston to better their opportunities. Joining the once powerful families in Charleston that had been reduced to genteel poverty by the Civil War, “Ned” Heyward eked out a living in a rice mill then died in a tragic industrial accident when DuBose was not quite 3.

DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, authors of the play, “Porgy” (1927)

DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, authors of the play, “Porgy” (1927)

Thrown on her own resources, Janie, as she was called, took in sewing, ran a boardinghouse on Sullivan’s Island, and wrote down Gullah folktales she had heard as a little girl and performed them for local arts groups. This immersion in the Gullah world worked its way into Heyward’s imagination as he was growing up, but his hopes for a career in the world of art were forestalled repeatedly by a series of illnesses—the most devastating of which was polio—which left him weakened and directionless.

Without a college education, he took the only honorable route open to him, as a Heyward, and went into the insurance business with a partner. The agency was successful, and once Heyward solidified his financial base, he gave more time to his first love, poetry writing. In 1920, with John Bennett and Hervey Allen, he founded the Poetry Society of South Carolina, an organization that initiated the great Southern literary renaissance of the early twentieth century. Having met such literary luminaries as Carl Sandburg and Amy Lowell, Heyward gained entry to the New Hampshire artists’ retreat, the MacDowell Colony, where he met his future wife, Dorothy Hartzell Kuhns, a playwright.

Shortly after their wedding in New York on Sept.22, 1923, she convinced him to throw over the insurance business for full-time writing. At her instigation, and calling on the encyclopedic knowledge about Gullah culture possessed by his mentor, John Bennett, Heyward threw caution aside and wrote Porgy (1925), a novel about African American life in Charleston. Revolutionary for its time, the book changed literary depictions of blacks in the United States forever, because in it a white Southerner presented African Americans in an honest and realistic way, as opposed to the stereotyped portrayals found in minstrelsy and antebellum narratives. Heyward was mildly ostracized from some quarters of Charleston society for the book, but he took his licks with characteristic grace and self-deprecating humor.

16.0527.porgyAnyway, he was by then enthralled with the New York literary world, who lionized him for his courage in writing Porgy. The artists of the Harlem Renaissance feted him, and with Dorothy’s considerable assistance in stagecraft, brought a nonmusical version of the Porgy to the theater, in the process creating important dramatic roles for African American actors and raising public awareness of their talents. The play forever ended the vaudevillian character of most African American stage works at the time and catapulted Heyward on a trajectory that was to take him up to the highest literary levels.

If to many Charlestonians Porgy presented an unorthodox stand on race relations, then Mamba’s Daughters (1929) must have seemed the work of a lunatic. In it, a white man carried the suitcase of a black girl (albeit in New York), who goes on to perform to a packed house in a hybrid native opera that enfranchises both its black and its white audience. How accurate Heyward’s prophecy turned out to be, for six short years later the innovative opera Porgy and Bess made its debut. Heyward had a large role in the composition and production of the opera: he authored the lyrics (alone or with Ira Gershwin) to half its songs; he collaborated with George Gershwin on the script and wrote the libretto (the sung dialogue) by himself; and he assisted with rehearsals and all manner of production details.

When it opened, however, Porgy and Bess was in relative terms a critical and financial failure. Heyward beat a hasty retreat away from New York and back to Charleston. His works since Mamba had taken a decided turn toward more overt social criticism of the South, but he also spent his remaining years fostering local playwriting talent as resident dramatist of the Dock Street Theatre, newly restored in 1937. Charleston welcomed him home, but largely as a prodigal son. Porgy and Bess, the work that brought him—and his city—unprecedented fame was not performed in Charleston until the South Carolina Tricentennial in June 1970. Heyward died on June 16, 1940, in North Carolina, and was buried in the St. Philip’s Churchyard, Charleston.

– Excerpted from the entry by James M. Hutchisson.  To read more about this or 2,000 other entries about South Carolina, check out The South Carolina Encyclopedia by USC Press. (Information used by permission.)

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  2. Did you know the South Carolina Historical Society holds these papers:

    Title DuBose Heyward papers 1783-ca. 1955 (bulk 1920-1943) including
    Manuscripts and manuscript fragments (typewritten and holograph) of works written or co-authored by Heyward include poems, novels, plays, short stories, film scenarios, and other writings, with related items such as royalty statements, contracts, review clippings, galley proofs, programs, and correspondence, including letters between Heyward and George Gershwin (originals and transcriptions). Titles include the novels and dramatized versions of “Porgy” and “Mamba’s Daughters”; poems, “Carolina Chansons” and “Jasbo Brown and Selected Poems”; novels “Peter Ashley,” “Lost Morning,” and “Angel”; and the opera “Porgy and Bess.”