Harlem Renaissance Re-Examined

By Victor A. Kramer; Robert A. Russ | Go to book overview

GOING TO SCHOOL TO DU BOSE HEYWARD

WILLIAM H. SLAVICK

DuBose Heyward's brief ascendancy among Southern regionalists in the middle 1920s--as poet, novelist, and playwright--was quickly eclipsed by the emergence of the Fugitive poets, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, Thomas Wolfe, and William Faulkner by the end of the decade. Today he is little more than mentioned in discussion of important figures in the Southern Renaissance, but his social realism, which juxtaposes the sterility of the white Charleston aristocracy and the possibility of life in the Negro community, deserves recognition.

It is within the framework of the Harlem Renaissance--black writers from Kansas to the Indies and from New Orleans to New York as well as Eugene O'Neill, Sherwood Anderson, Carl Van Vechten, and Waldo Frank--that Heyward remains significant. His novel Porgy, with its human treatment of Catfish Row; the 1927 Broadway staging of the DuBose and Dorothy Heyward version; and Mamba's Daughters, a second Charleston novel concerned with the relationship of black primitivism and folk culture to high art and changing times, all qualify Heyward for such consideration. Heyward has been mistakenly introduced as a "member of Harlem's intellectual colony" and "a Southern Negro of the old tradition," but he was of the Charleston white aristocracy (an ancestor signed the Declaration of Independence) and apparently did not meet any members of the Harlem "intellectual colony" until late 1926. 1 His identification with the Harlem Renaissance has continued in second-hand booksellers' catalogs and occasional identification of him as a black writer. But in assessments of the Harlem Renaissance, Heyward is given a relatively small place. This is mistaken.

Heyward's keenness of observation of the black man in Charleston and its surrounding environs--in his own community--is marked by an authority and

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