DuBose Heyward

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

Edwin DuBose Heyward (August 31, 1885 – June 16, 1940)[1][2] was an American author best known for his 1925 novel Porgy, which was adapted by his wife Dorothy into a 1927 play. The stage Porgy inspired the 1935 opera Porgy and Bess with music by George Gershwin, which was later adapted into a 1959 film. Heyward also wrote poetry and other novels and plays, as well as the children's book The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes (1939).

Childhood, education, and early career[edit]

Heyward was born in 1885 in Charleston, South Carolina. He was a descendant of Judge Thomas Heyward, Jr., a South Carolina signer of the United States Declaration of Independence.

As a child and young man, Heyward was frequently ill. He contracted polio when he was eighteen, then two years later contracted typhoid fever and the following year fell ill with pleurisy. Although he described himself as "a miserable student" who was uninterested in learning, and dropped out of high school in his first year at age fourteen, he had a lifelong and serious interest in literature. He passed the time in his sickbed writing verses and stories.

In 1913 Heyward wrote a one-act play, An Artistic Triumph, which was produced in a local theater. Although a derivative work which reportedly showed little promise, this minor success encouraged him to pursue a literary career. In 1917, while convalescing from his illnesses, he began to work seriously at fiction and poetry. In 1918 his first published short story, "The Brute," appeared in Pagan, a Magazine for Eudaemonists.

The next year he met Hervey Allen, who was then teaching at the nearby Porter Military Academy. They became close friends and formed the Poetry Society of South Carolina, which helped spark a revival of southern literature. Heyward edited the society's yearbooks until 1924 and contributed much of their content. His poetry was well received, earning him a "Contemporary Verse" award in 1921.

In 1922 he and Allen jointly published a collection, Carolina Chansons: Legends of the Low Country, and they jointly edited an issue of Poetry magazine featuring Southern writers. During this period Heyward and a friend, Henry T. O'Neill, had operated a successful insurance and real estate company.

Marriage and family[edit]

Heyward and his wife Dorothy, whom he met at the MacDowell Colony in 1922, spent many years in Charleston. Their only child, Jenifer Dubose Heyward, was born in 1930 in New York and became a sculptor, actress and member of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. She married Judson Wood Jr., and died in 1984.

Career as full-time writer[edit]

By 1924, Heyward had achieved a measure of financial independence, allowing him to give up business and devote himself full-time to literature. That year he published his first poetry collection, Jasbo Brown and Other Poems (1924). Between stints of writing, he supplemented his income by lecturing on southern literature at colleges and the Porter Military Academy.[3]

Opening on Broadway in 1927, the non-musical play Porgy was a considerable success, more so than the Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess (1935) produced eight years later.[4] The plot line of the opera follows the play almost exactly, while both differ greatly from the novel, particularly in the ending. Large sections of dialogue from the play were set to music for the recitatives in the opera.

Describing Heyward's achievement in Porgy, the African-American poet and playwright Langston Hughes said Heyward was one who saw "with his white eyes, wonderful, poetic qualities in the inhabitants of Catfish Row that makes them come alive."[5] Heyward's biographer James M. Hutchisson characterizes Porgy as "the first major southern novel to portray blacks without condescension" and states that the libretto to Porgy and Bess was largely Heyward's work.[citation needed] Many critics have believed that Heyward was sympathetic in his portrayal of the Southern black. Others, however, have noted that the characters in Porgy, though viewed sympathetically, are still viewed for the most part as stereotypes.[citation needed]

In his introduction to the section on DuBose Heyward in Invisible Giants: Fifty Americans Who Shaped the Nation But Missed the History Books, Stephen Sondheim wrote:

"DuBose Heyward has gone largely unrecognized as the author of the finest set of lyrics in the history of the American musical theater - namely, those of Porgy and Bess. There are two reasons for this, and they are connected. First, he was primarily a poet and novelist, and his only song lyrics were those that he wrote for Porgy. Second, some of them were written in collaboration with Ira Gershwin, a full-time lyricist, whose reputation in the musical theater was firmly established before the opera was written. But most of the lyrics in Porgy - and all of the distinguished ones - are by Heyward. I admire his theater songs for their deeply felt poetic style and their insight into character. It's a pity he didn't write any others. His work is sung, but he is unsung."

Heyward continued to explore black Charleston with another novel set in Catfish Row, Mamba's Daughters (1929), which he and Dorothy also adapted as a play.

Heyward wrote the play Brass Ankle, produced in 1931 in New York, which dealt with issues of mixed-race ancestry and its effects on an ostensibly white couple in a small southern town. Reviewers treated his play favorably as a version of the "tragic mulatto" genre, but it was not a commercial success.

He wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones (1933). His children's book, The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes (1939) was quite popular.

His novella Star Spangled Virgin (1939) was set in Saint Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands and dealt with the domestic life of Adam Work and his woman Rhoda. It was described as "singularly charming and very original", covering their and friends' interpretations of "the relations of men and women".[6][6]

Heyward died from a heart attack in June 1940,[7] at the age of 54, in Tryon, North Carolina.[1] He was identified by The My Hero Project as a poet hero.[3]

Representation in other media[edit]

  • Porgy and Bess was adapted as a film, released in 1959.


  1. ^ a b Flora, Joseph M. (2006). "DuBose Heyward". In Flora, Joseph M. Southern Writers: A New Biographical Dictionary. Vogel, Amber; Giemza, Bryan. Louisiana State University Press. p. 198. ISBN 0-8071-3123-7. Retrieved June 15, 2010. 
  2. ^ Hutchisson, James M. (2000). DuBose Heyward: A Charleston Gentleman and the World of Porgy and Bess. University Press of Mississippi. p. 5. ISBN 1-57806-250-0. Retrieved June 15, 2010. 
  3. ^ a b MY Hero Project - Poet Heroes - DuBose Heyward
  4. ^ The original play ran on Broadway for 367 performances, compared to the opera's 124.
  5. ^ Killens, John O., ed. (1960). ""Writers: Black and White"". The American Negro Writer and His Roots: Selected Papers from the First Conference of Negro Writers, March, 1959. New York: American Society of African Culture. 
  6. ^ a b "Star Spangled Virgin", Kirkus Reviews, 14 August 1939, accessed 4 June 2012
  7. ^ SCIWAY: South Carolina's Information Highway - Dubose Heyward: An Unknown Children'S Treasure Archived June 17, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.


  • Hollis, Alpert (1990). The Life and Times of Porgy and Bess. Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 0-394-58339-6. 

External links[edit]