Dubose Heyward's literary imagination was fired by the "exotic" life he saw all around him--the docks swarming with stevedores and fishermen, the downtown neighborhoods where African-American domestics and doctors lived cheek by jowl with the aristocratic families that formerly commanded their lives and their labor. In Heyward's time, the lives of former slaves and their former owners were circumscribed by a dynamic of proximity and distance--separated by an impassable social gulf, linked by a physical proximity, indeed a physical intimacy, that sharply contested the constraints imposed by the social milieu.
Avery Institute, now a research center devoted to the collection and preservation of African-American culture, is located on Bull Street--a tony address only blocks from where Heyward grew up, the ill-educated scion of a family whose hopes and finances had been ruined by war and depression. The brown-skinned "strivers" who attended Avery--the sons and daughters of the pre-war free black elite as well as Reconstruction-era politicians and businessmen--are all but absent from Heyward's Porgy.
Aspiration, whether in the case of the lawyer selling phony divorces or the seductive machinations of the so-called octoroon Sporting Life, is portrayed in ambiguous terms--as a subject for ridicule or the occasion for profound social dis-ease. Instead, Heyward concerns himself with the struggles of the poorest of the poor--or, indeed, the purest of the pure, "unadulterated Congo blood," as Porgy is described (13).
Heyward's novel opens with a profoundly romantic, antimodernist gesture:
Porgy lived in the Golden Age. Not the Golden Age of a remote and legendary past; nor yet the chimerical era treasured by every man past middle life, that never existed except in the heart of youth; but an age when men, not yet old, were boys in an ancient, beautiful city that time had forgotten before it destroyed. (11)
In such lilting prose, time, seasons, love, and murder become elements in a naturalistic disaster tale stitched together by Heyward's poet's imagination and the bits of African-American folklore he had gleaned from his black "Mauma" and the people he observed around him on Charleston's streets and along the wharves where he worked as a youth, a lowly functionary for a city cotton factor.
The novel describes Catfish Row as
...not a row at all, but a great brick structure that lifted its three stories about the three sides of a court. The fourth side was partly closed by a high wall, surmounted by jagged edges of broken glass set firmly in old lime plaster, and pierced in its center by a wide entrance-way. Over the entrance there still remained a massive grill of Italian wrought iron, and a battered capital of marble surmounted each of the lofty gate-posts. The court itself was paved with large flag-stones, which even beneath the accumulated grime of a century, glimmered with faint and varying shades in the sunlight. (21)
Heyward's vision of the Row's denizens, especially the saintly beggar Porgy, sat oddly with the real-life reminiscences of those who remember "Goat Cart Sam" as a drinking, gambling bogeyman whose specter was invoked to frighten youngsters into good behavior. It was to sit even more oddly in contrast to the visions invoked ...
...by the Broadway...
... and Hollywood dream factories.
Heyward never saw the lovely Dorothy Dandridge play Bess. But he often complained that the actresses chosen for the various stage versions never came close to his original conception of the character.
[Maria] was in the act of fastening the window, when the tall, gaunt form of [a] woman lurched through the door into the faint illumination of the smoking lamp...The woman raised her head. An ugly scar marked her left cheek, and the acid of utter degradation had etched hard lines about her mouth; but the eyes into which human consciousness was returning looked fearlessly into the determined face of the big negress... "Who lib in dat room 'cross the way?". "Porgy,", she was informed, "but such as yuh ain't gots no use fuh he..." (52-4)
Indeed, it would require a stretch of the imagination to imagine Dandridge enacting this scene:
One morning while she was doing her marketing on the wharf, one of the river men who had known her in the past, hailed her too familiarly. He was at that moment stepping from the round top of a ladder on to the wharf. "How 'bout ternight?" he asked with a leer. She was holding a string of whiting her her left hand, and was hanging upon the final penny of a bargain with the fishman. She half turned, and delivered a resounding slap with her right hand. The man staggered backward, hung for a moment, then vanished. There was a tremendous splash from the shallow water. (77-8)
Both stage and screen had better luck with Sporting Life, the city slickster whose machinations doom the happiness of Porgy and Bess.
Sportin' Life lifted his elegant trousers, so that the knees would not bag, and squatted on the flags at [Bess's] side. He removed his stiff straw hat, with its bright band, and spun it between his hands. The moonlight was full upon his face, with its sinister, sensuous smile.... He poured a little pile of white powder into [her hand]. There it lay in the moonlight, very clean and white on her dark skin. "Happy dus!" she said, and her voice was like a gasp. (81-3)
Many models for this trickster figure existed already in the American imagination--from the earliest minstrels to Cab Calloway, who also played the role on Broadway, and beyond. But much that was in Heyward's vision defied the conventional codes of portrayals of African-American life of the times--and so had to be invented, in ways that would have astounded the people upon whose lives the inventions were based.
Thus the poignancy of Anna Hamilton's lament: "Goat Cart Sam, Goat Cart Sam, dead and gone and they still making money off him."