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Dubose Heyward

ISSUE:  Autumn 1930

The Reviewer and the Poetry Society of South Carolina were responsible for a long series of letters between DuBose Heyward and me before we met. I had, however, long heard of DuBose, not only as a dawning poet, but as a part of the Charleston that every properly brought up Virginian knows, quite outside the Poetry Society. I had already seen him, through the eyes of friends, under the Lady Banksia roses on Josephine Pinckney’s porch in King Street, laying, with Josephine and Hervey Allen and Laura Bragg and Beatrice Ravenel and John Bennett, the foundations of a Poetry Society later to become unique among Southern Poetry Societies. But I did not see him with my own eyes until several years later, on a January evening at the Goose Creek Club near Charleston, an evening black enough to serve as a setting for “The Half Pint Flask,” should that story ever follow “Porgy” to Broadway. Lady Banksia roses were now a memory and a hope, and the night was as wet and chill as only a far Southern night can be to a visitor who twenty-four hours earlier has left the North in search of sunshine. The group of young men and women, later organized to preserve the Spirituals, were not then organized, but quite spontaneously, at their own parties, sang them simply for their own entertainment. That night, at supper at the Goose Creek Club, we were lucky. Several Negroes about the place dropped in unpre-meditatedly, soon, with their own tropic voices, to put all the rest of us to shame. For Spirituals are songs of passion, no less because the object of their passion is not to be carnally attained. When white folk sing them, however beautifully, these songs, of necessity, are ever so slightly travestied, since passion is lacking. When the sophisticated Negroes of Manhattan sing them it is not much better. The simple souls of the unmixed black South, more than any people since the Age of Chivalry, regard themselves quite honestly as God’s children, to whom He will be indulgent so long as they acknowledge the direct relationship. God’s children lost in Egypt, it is true, but sturdily confident that He will lead them by the right way, triumphantly, into the Land of Canaan; without bleak and dreary moral responsibilities of their own, merely the single obligation of an unshakable faith in His loving-kindness. Across a firelit cabin, with the voice of the black South in my ears, I first saw DuBose, who was smiling the tired, luminous smile that is his most characteristic expression. He looked as if the introductory verses to “Porgy,” those verses which sufficiently state his position toward the Negroes he knows and loves best, were at that moment in his head. And perhaps they were, for it was the winter he was writing “Porgy,”

A little later in the evening he spoke to me of “Porgy,” in which he was then absorbed, and this was my first intimation that DuBose, like so many poets of our day—Mr. Cabell, Elinor Wylie, Robert Nathan and others—had sagaciously regarded his poetry as a training school for prose. He told me too of the rep] Porgy, the Charleston beggar of whose name and personality and goat cart the principal character of the book was born, who is now buried on one of the sea-islands. And I met Dorothy, who had lately become Dorothy Heyward, as a result of their meeting at the Mac-Dowell Colony in Peterborough. I noticed too, the odd resemblance between the future authors of a spectacularly successful play, a resemblance which caused Charleston to say they seemed more like twin brother and sister than like husband and wife. A resemblance which to me, through their apparent fragility and the not to be ignored appeal of the four very large, very luminous, very brown eyes which together they own, always suggests Hansel and Gretel lost in a wood, perhaps of their own making. When DuBose spoke of “Porgy” I was not surprised. He had written a number of poems when he first began to write for The Reviewer. Some of the verses we published appeared later in “Skylines and Horizons,” the first and only book of verse of which he was sole author. For “Carolina Chansons” was written in collaboration with Hervey Allen. Both of these books appeared during the life of our magazine. I like to remember that DuBose’s first prose appeared in The Reviewer. Its title was “And Once Again—the Negro.” This is why the announcement of “Porgy” did not surprise me. I was, however, doubtful of its future, for “Green Thursday” had appeared, without wide acclamation, the preceding autumn, and “Black April,” Julia Peterkin’s first success, did not appear until more than two years after this winter of 1925. As we drove back into Charleston that night through a live-oak wooc! mournful with grey moss draped in damp festoons, then more black than grey, with none of the smoked-pearliness which, in sunshine or moonlight, bewitches a Carolina forest, I remembered DuBose’s first public meditations upon Negroes, and my correspondence with him, leading gradually to that article in The Reviewer of October, 1923. Since the Poetry Society of South Carolina was born in Charleston in 1921, almost simultaneously with The Reviewer in Richmond, my first letter from DuBose, its first secretary, in 1921, was exclusively concerned with the aims of this society: “The Poetry Society of South Carolina,” it informed me, a bit grandiloquently, “is actively engaged in fostering literary activity, throughout the South. This is not being done from a provincial or sectional spirit, but because, as Miss Harriet Monroe has so well put it: ‘no one can deny that the world’s most precious masterpieces . . . sprang out of local loyalties, and attained to universality because the locale, grandly handled, becomes as wide as the earth.’”

The next year he wrote, after my retaliative demands for The Reviewer: “I read your letter at our last meeting, and gave The Reviewer a good shove, but as we have just concluded a subscription campaign for the poetry magazines, I am afraid that the immediate results in the way of subscriptions will be discouraging.” (They werel) “We are going to do all we can for you in the future, and will give you a good send off in our Year Book. I have been wanting to send something of mine to The Reviewer for some time, but have been unable to give a moment to my own work. However, I am enclosing a sonnet from the negro group of ‘Carolina Chansons,’ which, as you know, will be published in the fall by Hervey, Allen and myself. If you care for this sonnet, please accept it with my blessings, but if it does not appeal to you, do not hesitate to fire it back, and be assured in advance that I will understand and will try you again with something else later.” Unlike many undesired and now forgotten poets on our list, DuBose was unfailingly good-humoured, and sympathetic with our erratic business methods. When, three months later, I notified him that his first contribution was accepted, with an apology for the unconscionable delay, he wrote from the MacDowell Colony: “I understand too well the difficulties of running an organization without the proper facilities to have the least feeling about the delay in acknowledging my poem. I am glad that you now have it, and that you like it. I do not write rapidly, and my output is small, but, if you want my things, I shall send you something now and then. . . . Next fall I shall make an effort to interest some people in The Reviewer, and when we get our year book up this October, I will give all the space I can afford to a boost for you. You certainly deserve all of the backing we can give you. Allen and I would like nothing better than to stop over and meet all of you, but we are so desperately anxious to get the last minute of our working time here, that we usually bolt for home without a second to spend on the way.” Months later: “I am sending you two poems which express extremely different moods. I hope you will like either or both of these well enough to use in The Reviewer. I am wondering whether you received your copy of our ‘Carolina Chansons’. . . . I want you to see what we are doing in our part of the South.” And, when I had, very naturally, accepted them: “I was very glad to hear from you, and to know that you liked my poems well enough to accept them for The Reviewer, You have maintained such a splendid standard that I appreciate the distinction of appearing in your magazine. I can quite understand how you are submerged with all of the work that you are doing; here in the South, we all have the same problem, and must do our creative work only in spare moments. . . . If I can do anything at any time for The Reviewer please call upon me.”

In August, 1923, three months after this note, I received DuBose’s first bit of prose, “And Once Again—The Negro.” To Gerald Johnson belongs part of the credit for this debut in prose, for DuBose wrote: “I read ‘The Congo, Mr. Mencken’ (published by Gerald Johnson in The Reviewer of July, 1923) with an awful joy.” He continued: “Encouraged by the suicidal, but ecstatic, spirit that has entered into our fellow rebel, Gerald Johnson, I enclose, for your consideration, an observation or two upon the Negro, but I am only a poet, not an essayist. Perhaps this is a piece of bad prose art. At any rate, please do not hesitate to fire it back if you do not want it.” And it is a cause for eternal thanksgiving on the part of The Reviewer that we did not “fire it back.” It must also be noted that DuBose in this letter for the first time, contrary to the ancient Southern custom, capitalizes the word “Negro.” This obscure little herald of “Porgy” filled just four pages with the completely successful social and sociological arrangements prevailing among the Charleston Negroes. These arrangements included a system of divorce, companionate marriage, disposal of the children, and a Lucy Stone League, all known to their originators by less depressing names. Since the article has never been printed outside of The Reviewer I repeat here the last three paragraphs. They follow an account of an essay on Negro enlightenment lately read by DuBose in a magazine which took itself seriously.

“During the past summer, I met, in an advanced art circle, a young couple. The wife insisted upon retaining the ‘Miss’ and her maiden name. They were really quite devil-may-care, and advanced about it, and submitted to the embarrassment of explaining themselves to hotel clerks, and others who made bold to inquire, for the good of the cause. My washerwoman announced the other day that she had married. To my inquiry as to her present name, she replied: ‘My Lord, do listen to the gentleman! Yer sure don’t think I goin’ ter be responsible for any nigger’s name. No sir! And he ain’t goin’ ter get my name neither. I is a good washerwoman, an’ I got my reputation to live up to. He can go along with his shoe-carpentering if he wants to, but it is me as brings home the chicken on Saturday night. Me take his name. No suh! Not me!’

“And so I listen to their stories, and let them go, but for them I experience a profound sadness. Ane they an aeon behind, or an aeon ahead of us? Who knows? But one thing is certain: the reformer will have them in the fullness of time. They will surely be cleaned, married, conventionalized. They will be taken from the fields, and given to machines, their instinctive feeling for the way that leads to happiness, saved as it is from selfishness, by humour and genuine kindness of heart, will be supplanted by a stifling moral strait jacket. They will languish, but they will submit, because they will be trained into a habit of thought that makes blind submission a virtue.

“And my stevedore, there out of the window. I look at him again. I cannot see him as a joke. Most certainly I cannot contort him into a menace. I can only be profoundly sorry for him, for there he sits in the sunshine unconsciously awaiting his supreme tragedy. He is about to be saved.” In May, 1924, his last contribution to The Reviewer arrived, “Song at Parting,” soon to appear in “Skylines and Horizons.” A tide of literary celebrities had just receded from Richmond toward New York. Joseph Hergesheimer, alone, had proceeded southward to Charleston. DuBose, who met him there for the first time, wrote me: “I enjoyed Hergesheimer immensely. Lie says that he is coming back another year. I hope so. People like him are splendid for Charlestonians. Elinor Wylie would be wholesome also. She is a remarkable person. Dorothy and I spent an entire summer with her at MacDowell Colony. She was doing Jennifer that year, and would read each week’s work to us on Sunday. She is just about the most brilliant woman that I know. That sounds trite, but I do not mean the word in its usual sense. I mean a sustained hard brightness that glitters and dazzles. . . . I have set myself the task of earning in eight months sufficient to support life for twelve, so that I might write for four. When my off time comes I can only dig into a hole somewhere and get my year’s output done in four months. It shuts out all human intercourse—that is the hell of it.”

It was the next winter, after The Reviewer’s Chapel Hill migration, that I met my correspondent for the first time in the loveliest of American cities, though against a background closer to the setting of his first novel than to his own ancestral setting; the background, I think, of his next novel. DuBose Heyward is genealogically a part of that innermost core of Southern society which includes only portions of Maryland, Virginia, and Charleston, excluding even what is known to Charlestonians as “up-country” South Carolina. With this imposing tradition DuBose possesses the inestimable asset, as he himself recognizes with glee, of a boyhood so beset with poverty as to necessitate a job in a hardware store at the age of fourteen. At eleven, in the best Henty and Alger manner, he was delivering afternoon papers out of school hours. A few months ago we spoke of Thomas Wolfe, one of DuBose’s deep affections, who, belonging to a widely different South, possesses more than one academic degree. DuBose said: “He will be remembered when all the rest of us are utterly dead.” And when someone said that “Look Homeward, Angel,” had been enormously influenced by its author’s Hellenic passion, he replied very simply: “I know nothing about that, because I have never studied Greek.” DuBose is the eldest son of the eldest son in direct line from Judge Thomas Heyward, the Signer, and, according to his Charleston clan, should now live in the home of that ancestor, one of the most perfect eighteenth-century houses in Charleston. He has, to their disapproval since the success of “Porgy,” insisted upon remaining in the house he built for himself in the North Carolina mountains—now occupied by himself and Dorothy and the newest member of the family, Jenifer DuBose Heyward—instead of buying back the home of his ancestors and returning to it like the third son in the fairy-tale. A lack of prosperity is shared by most of DuBose’s breed in the South, and his own immediate and peculiarly exigent situation was the result of a minor Civil War tragedy. His grandfather DuBose and two old maiden ladies jointly inherited a large slave, family, dividing it among themselves. Mr. DuBose later bought the two ladies’ shares for himself. He died, leaving a large debt for slaves already freed by the Civil War, which closely followed his death. Both houses on the several thousand acres left to DuBose’s mother had been burned, but the debt for vanished slaves endured and had to be met. After three years in a hardware store an attack of infantile paralysis kept DuBose completely helpless for three more years. Then, at twenty, he was able to take odd jobs around the waterfront, mainly, clerical work in the warehouses, where he made friends with the Negro stevedores and collected material for “Porgy.” At twenty-two he became, incredibly, an insurance salesman, and in ten years, as he grew gradually stronger, built up—inexplicably enough —a fairly good business. But alas, his business success caused him, in his own words, to become “the world’s most devoted society man,” and a severe breakdown of a year’s duration followed it. That decade, which included almost nightly balls, and membership in all the clubs, is recorded in “Mamba’s Daughters,” lately translated in France.

His first poems sprang from his year of illness, and were published in Poetry, The Atlantic Monthly, Contemporary Verse, and The Reviewer. The Poetry Society, whose home is in South Carolina Hall, older and more beautiful than Hibernian Hall, the home of The St. Cecilia, helped create an audience for both DuBose and Hervey Allen. After 1921, he arranged to use three months of the year for himself in either the North Carolina mountains or Peterborough. In June, 1924, Dorothy, whom he had married in 1923, suggested that he give up his job and write “Porgy.” Tragedy faced them if the book failed, for every bridge had been burned behind them. Dorothy was eager to take the desperate chance, and, as everyone knows, “Porgy” did not fail. Dorothy then suggested and helped to make the dramatization of “Porgy” for the Theatre Guild. The rest of DuBose’s story needs no telling, since it has proceeded as it began, in the approved Henty and Alger fashion. One of its latest chapters was set at a party of mine in New York, in a more or less cosmopolitan group. Rebecca West, who met him then for the first time, was later to meet him in London, where writers descending in age from Max Beerbohm to the author of “Serena Blandish” were gathered for him. On the New York evening when Raimun von Hoffmanns-thai, son of Hugo von Hoffmannsthal, the Viennese novelist, learned that he was talking to the author of “Porgy” he could not contain his excitement. “My father,” he exclaimed, “will be so very pleased when I tell him that I have seen you.” And Miss West was equally satisfactory. At’ slightly exotic parties DuBose is likely to remind me, perhaps half-seriously, not to forget my “Virginia raising.” And I on these occasions invariably reply that my ambition includes manners unmistakably of Virginia and clothes and parties unmistakably of New York. With this he is forced to be content.

His present preoccupation is with the period in the South immediately preceding the War between the States, and he is now submerged in a study of that period, in relation to a future novel, which should give him an opportunity to reach the high-water mark of “Porgy.” I, at least, believe it to be more definitely within his own range than the North Carolina mountain people of “Angel.” My opinion, however, is perhaps unimportant, since, within or without the author’s range, I do not like to read about mountain people. His next play is concerned, in his own words, with that unhappy borderline that exists between the Negro and poor-white classes in the South.

Last winter an argument of immense entertainment to me raged through several days in the literary columns of the New York World. A man wrote to complain that the hypothesis of “Mamba’s Daughters” was in no respect valid. Lissa would not, he stated, have succeeded had she really been the product of sacrifices made by her mother and grandmother. “Heyward himself,” he said, “is a self-made man. He would not be what he is today if he had been made by his family,” He had heard the dramatic tale of the newsboy on the streets of Charleston. Immediately an indignant Charlestonian wrote to protest that DuBose was surely not a self-made man. Selling newspapers, protested the second writer, had nothing whatever to do with the, matter. DuBose could never have learned, according to this writer, the things he plainly knew had he been self-made. I was, as I said, entertained. This nice definition of “self-made” is comprehensible only to the Southern mind. In the North, it is true, a newsboy risen to fame would very certainly be self-made, since only a boy badly in need of making sells papers there. In a small section of the South it has been different. Therefore the second writer, in a frantic effort to explain himself, choked helplessly with rage in the public prints. And I do not know if the delicate adjustment upon which he insisted was ever made in the New York mind. The subject of this diverting argument remains quite hopelessly a Southern gentleman. In justice to him I must explain that I mean this in a strictly social, quite unliterary sense. I mean, too, that he is literally gentle, in every connotation of that word. Frances Newman did him less than justice when, in one of her rare enthusiasms for an American novel, she announced in Books, without exactly defining herself, that among her many reasons for liking “Porgy” was its “Southern gentleman’s viewpoint.” “Porgy” is assuredly no gentleman’s job. It grew out of long hot hours of labour on the waterfront with Porgy’s kind, hours in which the labourer learned the hearts and minds of black people, within those always rigidly fixed limits where, alone, white people can ever learn the hearts and minds of black people. From this hardly come by knowledge he made his beautiful novel. It is, however, completely true that only a gentleman would have been unafraid of all that Porgy’s presentation meant. For fear and suspicion of the African race, rather than affection and sympathy, are a part of the middle and lower class temper of the white South.

Socially, however, his Southern gentlemanly condition is hopeless to a degree which makes him an enigma to some of his newer friends. At a tea for him at Alan Rinehart’s which I left early to catch a train, I protested against his descending with me through numberless floors of a tall apartment building to secure a taxicab in the street outside. He was plainly very tired, and, “In New York,” I explained, “men don’t leave parties given in their honour to go down into a cold street to call taxis for women who take unnecessary trains when taxis are so easily picked up.” Edna Fer-ber, standing near, lifted her hands in a gesture of despair: “He is incurably a Southern gentleman,” she said, “and he doesn’t know it’s not done.”


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