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Title: Du Bose Heyward: A Critical and Biographical Sketch

Author: Hervey Allen

Release date: August 24, 2021 [eBook #66132]

Language: English

Credits: Al Haines



A Critical
and Biographical Sketch





NEW YORK      Publishers      TORONTO


Du Bose Heyward

(with Hervey Allen), 1922
PORGY, 1925
ANGEL, 1926


"his unforgettable characters move
. . . in a lavish, yet reticent,
magnificence of highly organized prose.


A Critical and Biographical Sketch


There was a fashion amongst a certain school of critics and literati of former years to go about the country with dark lanterns ready to flash their microscopic spot lights upon this or that author, as he emerged for a brief moment from the great North American obscurity, and to proclaim that he had or certainly would or could write the great American novel. It was then the custom to say that in poem or story he had caught the essential verities of the great universal American type. For a while the little spotlights would play hopefully upon someone, and then be turned elsewhere. At last, like the gentleman from Athens who searched with a lantern for another equally mythical person, the critics, who were looking for the great American novelist and his novel, passed away with the hope which animated them, and were seen and heard no more.

Through the 1890's and 1900's the steam-roller of an industrial democracy continued its leveling and standardizing processes which few outstanding literary personalities were able to resist. Then the American writers and critics at large, especially since the World War, may be said to have suddenly realized, indeed to have discovered, two startling but paradoxical facts, i.e., that at last there was a typical and very standard American type, but that he or she was not altogether a desirable person, and secondly and by contrast, that the country was not just one level, usual United States, but in reality a union of many different localities with varying backgrounds, traditions, and philosophies. Out of these provincial cultures might be expected to come the variants from the standardized types, variants whose differences were not only picturesquely or quaintly interesting, but of essential human value.

It is on these two themes, either that of standardization or of sectional difference in character, that the major utterance of creative literature in America during the past decade or so has busied itself both in poetry and prose.

Mr. Sinclair Lewis may be said to have achieved the characterization par excellence of the standardized America in Main Street and Babbit. Of the studies of sectional and provincial types there have been many poor and a few fine ones in prose. In poetry, Robert Frost and Edwin Arlington Robinson have been most distinguished in dealing with New England. In the drama Eugene O'Neil has frequently found his finest métier in the provincial.

Peculiarly tempting, to those artists who have desired to present the more extreme provincial types of character, has been the wide field of the South, "Uncle Sam's Other Country", where the feudal tradition of the plantation, the isolated Mountain Whites, or the realm of the negro have successively, but not always successfully, engaged various pens. A host of names in this connection might be quoted both of authors and of titles, many of which would be familiar.

In the last few years, the negro, owing largely to the fact that his emigration in large numbers northward has suddenly called him to the attention of our metropolitan writers—who now find that he is a reality in their midst instead of a romantic myth or a minstrel character—the negro thus, has become the preoccupation of innumerable writers in prose and poetry, but more especially in music.

It is no exaggeration to say, and not a derogation for the purpose of argument to admit, that in the final analysis most of those who have essayed the task of depicting provincial conditions in the South, involving the essentially differing peculiarities of minor Southern localities where the plantation, industrialism, the negro, and the Mountain White are all factors—it is we repeat, no derogation to say that for the most part those who have attempted to handle these themes in a major literary way have fallen short of the mark.

This situation has largely arisen from the fact that only those who were natives of the South could understand the genuine realities of the conditions they undertook to depict. Yet there was another complication, those who were born in the South by the traditions of their birthright were often inhibited from assuming an attitude toward their own section, one that is necessary to project a work of art. This attitude may be described as that of the "intimately-detached".

Such was very largely the condition of present day American letters in regard to matters "South" when in 1925 Mr. Du Bose Heyward of Charleston, S.C., contributed his comment on the negro. The scene of the story is laid in one of the oldest plantation communities on the continent slowly melting from its former outlines in the crucible of "progress".

The Book Porgy* (the "g" is hard as in "gate") may be said to have combined or expanded the highly wrought technique of the best type of realistic dramatic short story with the more ponderable bulk of the novel, and from the standpoint of diction to have attained with a natural felicity all the dignity and beauty of a highly-wrought style. Its early appearance was greeted with acclaim, and the first glow of enthusiasm was sustained and enhanced by the more judicious and pondered praise of careful critics. Porgy, indeed is the first American novel about the American negro which depicts him faithfully, as he exists in a particular place, and yet presents him as a purely artistic but faithfully realistic study of a phase of human life. Mr. Heyward and his first novel were thus a nice example of a particular environment producing an artist peculiarly capable of exploiting the intriguing differences of his province in universal terms.

* "Porgy", the name given to Mr. Heyward's hero by the colored fishermen who lived in and about Cat-fish Row and plied their trade by sailing out of Charleston harbor to the black-fish banks, is the local name for black-fish, hence the derivation of the nickname.

The author was born and raised in Charleston, S.C. He first saw the light in August, 1885, inheriting from a long line of Revolutionary and Colonial ancestry the essential American traditions and the philosophy of aristocratic planters nurtured upon almost feudal plantations.

In the late 1880's and throughout the 1890's the South as a whole, particularly the "Carolina Low Country" about Charleston, was still in the throes of the aftermath of Reconstruction. Mr. Heyward's family, like thousands of others, had lost their property as a result of the Civil War, and he was from the first forced to confront not only an extreme private poverty but the then all but hopeless economic condition of his section. At an early age he became the sole support of his widowed mother and struggled manfully and hopefully against "a sea of troubles".

Yet there was a fortunate side to all this, one then difficult to see, but present nevertheless. The very difficulties of the place into which he had been born forced the future chronicler of its charms and grotesqueness into an intimate contact with the life of the locality, and permitted him to drink it in through understanding eyes. The aftermath of the Civil War had put a premium upon living for being rather than living for possession. One did not of necessity appear in the latest fashions in Charleston ball rooms, yet the balls and the traditions of the society which they represented went on. The old city continued in her old ways. To a visitor it seemed as if time had been arrested. Mr. Heyward was intimately familiar with it all. The place, indeed, became a part of him, yet it did not too entirely possess him.

Summers were spent in the mountains of North Carolina, where he first came into contact with the "People of the Hills." There was a brief interlude of painting about Tryon, N.C., in a "cove" of the Appalachian ranges that catches the breath of spring before any of the others. The lessons of the brush were afterward remembered by the pen. Then there was a season spent in the far West recuperating from an illness. This was shortly before the World War.

Mr. Heyward's "bit" was done in South Carolina in organizing war work among the negroes of his section in coöperation with certain gentlemen of Charleston who were chosen for their knowledge and tact. It was an interesting, a valuable, and a vital experience. In the meanwhile, there were a few short stones. The pen had been found. It was not quite sure yet what it had to say, but some of the methods of publishing and the way to an audience had at least become plain.

The present writer remembers first meeting Mr. Heyward only a few months after the Armistice. He came into the room one day, naming a mutual literary acquaintance and a common interest in writing as the occasion for the call. He brought with him as his first impression an unusual sense of ease and virile-sensitiveness—an impression that remained.

About the hospitable fire of one who was rich in the lore of the past, literary experience, and living, we continued to meet. The result of the association was an arrangement to collaborate on a book of poems in which it was agreed to treat some of the legends and the landscapes about Charleston from various points of view. Mr. Heyward's literary interest was at that time mainly in verse and the result was the publication the following year of Carolina Chansons.

During the same year while the poems were underway, through the able assistance of many friends, there was organized in Charleston the Poetry Society of South Carolina. This in a certain sense proved to be the spark that kindled the now widely spread interest in modern poetry in the South. Requests for advice and assistance poured into the little "poetry office" at Charleston, and Mr. Heyward in particular, although he was then conducting an active business in the city, found himself called upon for lectures, readings and literary consultations throughout the South. It was in this way, as a poet, that his name first became generally known.

In the meanwhile, he had been dividing his summer vacations between his own studio-cabin in the North Carolina Mountains and the MacDowell Colony at Peterborough, N.H. Under the combined inspiration of North and South Carolina landscapes and the facilities for undisturbed writing provided by the MacDowell Colony, his first book was followed about a year later by another volume of poems dealing most notably with the mountains of North Carolina and the Low Country of South Carolina. It was therefore entitled Skylines and Horizons.

His poems had been appearing here and there in magazines and it was rapidly becoming evident that Mr. Heyward's real life work lay in the realms of literature. The flair toward letters was considerably strengthened in 1923 by his marriage to Dorothy Hartzell Kuhns, a professional playwright, and it was not long afterwards that he definitely severed all active business connections and retired to write Porgy in the vicinity of the Big Smokies in North Carolina, where he owns a small "farm." The manuscript of Porgy was put into its final form at the MacDowell Colony and published in the fall of 1925. Coincident with the appearance of his first novel, Mr. Heyward made a lecture tour through all but the far western states.

Mr. Heyward's third book and first novel, Porgy, which has already been alluded to, is based on some of the actual adventures in the life of a real negro who was, until within a very short time, a familiar figure about the streets of Charleston. Porgy was a beggar. He had lost both legs and drove about in a little cart only a few inches high, behind an olfactorily memorable goat. There was no more grotesque, or picturesque figure in America, and his history, as Mr. Heyward soon learned, did not belie his appearance.

About the story of this colored cripple, who had played an important role in the life of old Cat-Fish Row, a venerable and incredible negro tenement along the Charleston water-front, Mr. Heyward wove his plot. It was more than a fine narrative. It was the actual life of the colored race, seen through clear eyes, and enacted in genuine dialect on a stage magnificently set. As for the setting in which it takes place, only those who have seen for themselves the real background of the book will be able fully to appreciate the fine restraint with which the artist has gained his effects.

Perhaps the most significant thing about the book and its author was the fact that, for the first time, certainly in this generation, a novel had been written about the character of an American negro which was at once true to life and a work of art. Mr. Heyward did not regard his material from any standpoint except that of the literary artist. He did not pity, patronize, suggest, assume the white man's burden, or try to add to or lighten that of the colored man. In other words, in Porgy, the author was Du Bose Heyward, writer, reporting a cross section of human life Ethiopian, in English prose. There was no moral propaganda whatever. Mr. Heyward does not offer his solution of the "negro problem," nor any scheme to do away with hurricanes, of which last, by the way, in Porgy there is the most memorable description of one written by an American since Gertrude Atherton's Conqueror. The storm in Porgy is a synthesis of several which the author witnessed in Charleston, notably the great hurricane of 1911. In Skylines and Horizons he had already treated the theme most successfully in verse.

Porgy will very shortly appear in moving pictures, and a dramatic version upon which the author and his wife have collaborated will also shortly appear in New York on the legitimate stage.

For the past year or so Mr. Heyward has been dividing his time between Charleston and his farm in the North Carolina mountains near Hendersonville while he has been steadily at work upon his second novel, Angel.

Angel also treats of a Southern scene, but this time Mr. Heyward has chosen as the locale of his plot the mountains, and for his heroine one "Angel," a daughter of the "People of the Hills." Through long residence and association, the author is thoroughly familiar with his material, and it is to be expected that in Angel, he will give us a novel of the Poor Whites of the mountains that will complement his fine and nationally significant story of the Negro of the Low Country.