Book Review: Porgy – Part VII

Where we left off in our recap:  Porgy has become more independent, now he has his goat cart to get around by himself:  “Porgy drove his chariot out through the wide entrance into a land of romance and adventure.”  His “chariot” drawn, not by a mythological steed, but by a smelly, flatulent old goat.

More independent now, more mobile, Porgy can pick and choose where to position himself in the big city; and nor does he have to just stay in one spot any more, waiting for Old Peter to come and collect him at the end of the day.  “It is impossible to conceive of a more radical change than that brought about in Porgy’s life by his new emancipation.”  The white folks laugh at him, passers-by hold their noses and point to the goat; and yet they toss more money into Porgy’s cup.  He and his goat have become a character in this tolerant old city.  Porgy can even take a break every now and then from his “job” and enjoy an hour or so just staring out at the harbor and watching the steamers dock.  Always a dreamer, Porgy dreams of the larger life out there, beyond his reach, and marvels at God’s “long arm”.

Phosphate miners in the Deep South

It’s June now, and the cotton season is over.  The last of the stevedores had departed, some to the plantations, others to the phosphate mines, and still others to the river barges.

Porgy is sitting in his doorway feeling lonely and depressed.  A large, matronly woman carrying a pail of water, pauses to chat with him.  “What de matter wid dis man, he ain’t gots nuttin’ to say?” she asked him kindly.  Porgy rudely (showing a new side of him) brushes her off:  “Lemme be, yuh done gots yuh own man.  Ain’t yuh?”

She responds to his rebuke with a cruel rebuke of her own:  “Oh, Lawd, yuh ain’t t’ink I wantin’ yuh, is yuh?”

Rubbing in the point that lonely Porgy (a) has no woman of his own, and (b) can’t get a woman, being a cripple and all…

And this scene sets the stage for what happens next.  We are 22% into the story (I know, ’cause I’m reading it on my Kindle), and we are about to meet Bess for the first time.  Those who know the story only from the operatic version need to understand that we have not, up to this point, seen Bess, nor even heard her name.  We know that Bess is destined to become Porgy’s woman, but we don’t yet know how, or why, this comes about.

Enter Bess

For those who were expecting a black glamor queen or a dazzling beauty like Dorothy Dandridge, please look again:

A Hollywood-glamorized version…

Through the early night a woman had lain in the dust against the outer wall of Maria’s cook-shop.  She was extremely drunk and unpleasant to look upon.  Exactly when she had dropped, or been dropped there, no one knew.  Porgy had not seen her when he had driven in at sunset.  But he had heard some talk of her among those who had entered later.  One of the men had come in laughing.  “I seen Crown’s Bess outside,” he said.  “Must be she come aroun’ tuh look for um.”

From an epistemological POV, this is extremely important information.  We learn that (a) Bess is Crown’s woman; and (b) she doesn’t know where her man is.  Recall that it’s been a couple of months since Crown went on the lam.  We see now that Bess has not been hiding out with him and doesn’t even know where he is, since she is searching for him (drunkenly) at Catfish Row.

Lit Crit Homework Assignment

In the phylogeny of African-American characters, especially as depicted by white authors, I might place Bess in the genealogical line of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Cassy:  a broken but still proud, even haughty, black woman, one who has suffered gross sexual abuse at the hands of men.  There is a difference, though, as we shall see later:  Cassy never consented to her own abuse.

Cassy as the strong but sexy black woman

I would say that Cassy is the model that Bess should have aspired to, had she been a stronger person.

Another difference, obviously, is that Cassy was the victim of her white slave-owner; whereas Bess finds abusers within her own race.  When we first meet her, Bess is drunk and high and beat up, we don’t know who did this to her and dumped her at the entrace to Catfish Row.  It obviously wasn’t Crown this time, but most likely somebody just as heinous.  American Lit majors, here is your homework:  Describe the similarities and differences between Cassy and Bess.

So, what does Bess look like?  Is she beautiful and glamorous, like Dorothy Dandrige?  It’s 10 o’clock at night, and Maria is getting ready to close her cook shop “when the tall, gaunt form of the woman lurched through the door into the faint illumination of the smoking lamp.  The visitor measured the distance to the nearest bench with wandering and vacant eyes, plunged for it, and collapsed, with head and arms thrown across a table.”

The woman is emaciated and has an ugly scar across her left cheek.  “The acid of utter degradation had etched hard lines about her mouth.”

Maria “went over, lifted the woman’s head, and looked into eyes in the far depths of which a human soul was flickering feebly.”  Readers, this is great writing!  For a second I thought I was reading Victor Hugo.

“Somethin’ tuh eat,” the woman whispered.  “Lemme hab somethin’ tuh eat, an’ I’ll go.”

What could possibly drive a human being to this depth?  The good-hearted Maria prepares a dinner and feeds the stranger, who gulps it down like a wolf.

Maria always lays down the law in Catfish Row

To prepare ourselves for what happens next, recall that Porgy is considered the least attractive, least desirable man, of all the men in Catfish Row.  In the previous scene, we just witnessed him being rudely dissed by one of the womenfolk:  “Who would want you?”  In other words, a woman would give herself to the likes of Porgy only if she was completely desperate and at the very end of her rope.  A woman who is drowning and reaches out for the last possible straw…

What follows next is some of the greatest writing I have ever read, and climaxes in a resolution so simple and perfect, that a person who didn’t already know the story, might never have guessed:

After wolfing down her food, Bess suddenly turns to her benefactress and asks:  “Who lib in dat room ‘cross de way?” [“Who lives in that room across the way?”]

“Porgy,” Maria replies.  “But such as yuh ain’t gots no use fuh he.  He a cripple, an’ a beggar.”  [“Such as you have no use for him.  He’s a cripple and a beggar.”]

“He de man wid goat?” [“He’s the man with the goat?”]

“Yes, he gots goat.” [“Yes, he has a goat.”]

The woman’s eyes narrowed to dark, unfathomable slits.  “I hyuh say he gits good money fum d w’ite folks.” [“I hear say he gets good money from the white folks.”]

In silence the meal was finished.  Then the woman steadied herself a moment with hands against a table, and, without a word to Maria, walked quickly, with an almost haughty carriage, from the room.  She crossed the narrow drive with a decisive tread, opened the door of Porgy’s room, entered, and closed the door behind her.

And, this my friends, is some of the greatest writing ever, not to mention a rather odd start to a classic love story!

Author Heyward is not a kiss-and-tell kind of guy:  He is silent and discreet as to what transpired that first night between Porgy and his new roommate.  All we know is that the following morning (at least, in the operatic version of the story) Porgy burst out of his room with a song on his lips.  The politically correct among us deride this song as a racist “Happy-go-lucky [n-word]” ballad, but it’s actually not.  It’s the song of a man who just got laid for the first time, and found that he really enjoyed it!

[to be continued]

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