Book Review: Porgy – Part III

Porgy the Man

Recall that Heyward’s novel is called simply “Porgy”, not “Porgy and Bess”.  There is a reason for that, and also a reason why the operatic version changed the title, in reworking the source material to be more “operatic”, i.e., stressing the romantic side of Porgy’s nature and the all-important relationship of his life.  But that is to come later.  Before Bess ever enters the picture, Heyward is to unpeel Porgy, layer by layer, until we know the man like we know ourselves.

“Porgy lived in the Golden Age.”  That is how the author begins his story.  The very first word as we enter this world is “Porgy“.

When we first meet the man, we know only one thing about him:  He is a street beggar.  Instantly we have a negative attitude towards him.  Heyward goes on to explain his assertion about the Golden Age:  This is the golden age of beggary, in the great city of Charleston, South Carolina.  And it’s not the same as, say, beggary in Dickensian London.  Here, in this genteel Southern city, street beggary is more of an art form, and Porgy is an artist of this medium:  “For, as the artist is born with the vision of beauty, and the tradesman with an eye for barter, so was Porgy equipped by a beneficent providence for a career of mendicancy.”  We dislike the man more and more…

Until we learn, in the very next sentence, that his handicap is legit:  He was born with shrivelled legs.  He is a genuine cripple.  Recall that the author himself suffered from polio and we start to feel some empathy.

Porgy’s “workplace” – the streets of downtown Charleston

A conscientious “worker” in his own way, Porgy shows up to his “job” every morning promptly.  His usual patch is the financial district, at the corner of King Charles Street and The Meeting House Road.

Aside from his useless legs, Porgy is strong as a bull.  We shall learn later, just around the time we need to know it, that he has tremendous upper-arm strength.  As one might expect from a man who has to push himself around with his arms a lot.

Next we learn something about Porgy’s personality:  There is a certain je ne sais quoi about him which attracts attention and even sympathy, though he himself is neither gregarious nor particularly likable:  “Either by birth, or through the application of a philosophy of life, he had acquired a personality that could not be ignored, one which at the same time interested and subtly disturbed.”  While the other beggars “bid for attention”, curry favor with the passers-by and offer obsequious gratitude, Porgy just sits silent, “rapt”, and barely even expresses appreciation for the donations:  “He never smiled, and he acknowledged gifts only by a low lifting of the eyes that had odd shadows in them.”   There is something “Eastern and mystic” about him that sets him apart from the usual street negroes, and this is the secret of his success.  The donor who drops a coin in this man’s cup “carried away in return a very definite, yet somewhat disquieting, impression:  a sense of infinite patience, and beneath it the vibration of unrealized, but terrific, energy.”

Sidney Poitier portrayed Porgy in the movie version.

In other words, Porgy is an example of the “Magical Negro” of American lore!  (According to some literary experts, Heyward based Porgy’s character on a real person that he had encountered, a well-known denizen of the Charleston streets.)

At this point we, the readers, don’t even know what to think:  We want to like Porgy, but we find him just a little bit scary.  Heyward describes Porgy physically as very black:  “the almost purple blackness of unadulterated Congo blood.”  He has large muscular hands [Chekhov Rifle Alert!]  Nobody knows how old he is, although there are people who remember him sitting in that exact same spot 20 years ago.  He is essentially ageless.  (Until the end of the story.)

Next:  We delve into Porgy’s living arrangements.  For starters, how does he transport himself to and from his workplace?  The answer is:  His friend, Peter.  Always referred to as “Old Peter”.  Old Peter owns (or rather, leases, as we shall learn) a rickety wagon and old horse attached.  With these, he acts as Porgy’s handcap van of that era.

Porgy’s Room

Porgy’s “job” provides him with enough money to pay rent, buy food, and other necessities.  Both Porgy and his friend Old Peter are residents of the block of flats known as Catfish Row.  Which, as we saw, is not such a bad place after all, being a retired old mansion, and certainly much nicer than the disgusting shanty town as was portrayed in the movie version.

As one enters Catfish Row from the street side, one quickly encounters the “cook shop”, ruled by the cook Maria, a formidable woman whom we shall come to know much better, later in the story.  A stock type of the big, strong black woman, Maria is the de facto leader of Catfish Row:  She both makes and enforces the rules.  In her other job, as cook, Maria provides grub to all the residents of the tenement.  Day and night, she chops up and fries any and all kinds of fish, and displays her wares in the window.  (And charges very reasonable prices, too.)

Funny Sidebar:  Just by chance, yesterday, as I was driving to work, I happened to hear on my car radio an interview with one of the stars of the Metropolitan Opera staging of this new production.  Apparently the opera is such a success that the Met has been forced to add on additional performances for all those seeking tickets.  Fortunately, I already have my ticket, but it’s for the February 1 Live in HD transmission.  Anyhow, the interview was with Denyce Graves, the mezzo-soprano who sings Maria.  Denyce told the interviewer that during rehearsals she would take “orders” from members of the cast, while preparing her cook-shop.  They would laughingly order exotic dishes like shrimp and beluga caviar!  The interview ended with a clip of Graves singing her duet with Sportin’ Life, in which she “explains” to the drug dealer why they can never be friends, so he can “take his slinky ass” out of her cook-shop.  If you read the novel, you’ll see later what Maria actually says to Sportin’ Life, and the words she actually uses, which are WAY stronger than what is in the song – LOL!

But back to Porgy, and we find that he has a really great room, possibly the best one in the tenement:  It’s on the first floor, close to the entrance and conveniently just opposite Maria’s shop.  His room has a front window with a great view of the street and harbour; AND also an inner door that opens onto the courtyard.  Here, in this courtyard doorway, he can sit and participate in the social life of the community.  “To him, the front window signified adventure, the door – home.”

This being 1927, Heyward makes no mention of human bodily functions.  It’s clear the tenement has no electricity or running water (the residents bring their water in buckets), and I think we can assume there are no indoor toilets.  Where the residents go to “go” is left a mystery.  Also a mystery is where the animals are sheltered:  We know that Old Peter has a horse, and later on Porgy will purchase a goat.  Presumably there is some type of stable on the grounds.

This, then, is the foundation of Porgy’s social support system:  Old Peter is his transportation to and from work.  From Maria he can purchase his daily grub.  Within his cozy room he can look out the window and see the “adventurous” life of the harbour.  Or, he can sit in his doorway and participate in the social life of Catfish Row.  These are his people:  Here he is loved and appreciated.

Porgy has but one vice:  He is a gambler….

[to be continued]

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