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  • The Most Contradictory Cultural Symbol Ever
  • Kathy Peiss (bio)
Ellen Noonan. The Strange Career of Porgy and Bess: Race, Culture, and America’s Most Famous Opera. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. xiii + 423 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index. $39.95.

At the height of the Black Power movement in the 1960s, social critic Harold Cruse denounced George Gershwin’s renowned opera Porgy and Bess, calling it “surely the most contradictory cultural symbol ever created in the Western world.”1 It was not only Porgy’s content—its minstrel stereotypes and white paternalism—that was the problem. Rather, it was the way the opera worked to exclude African Americans as cultural producers and to deny their ability to represent their own collective identity. For Cruse, Gershwin’s work was a museum piece, representing a Jim Crow world in the process of being overthrown.

While rejecting Cruse’s racial essentialism, Peggy Noonan’s new book reveals the extent and depth of the cultural contradictions in Porgy and Bess by tracing its history through the thickets of American racial politics and popular culture in the twentieth century. Its “strange career” began in 1925, when DuBose Heyward, a white South Carolinian writer, published his novel Porgy to wide acclaim. Porgy told the story of two African Americans, a disabled beggar and a drug-addicted prostitute, their love and tragic lives in Catfish Row, a once grand but now dilapidated street of Charleston. Heyward had an ethnographic eye, and he was drawn to the black dockworkers, lodge parades, church services, spirituals, and work songs he witnessed and heard. He sketched his protagonists with an unusual degree of sympathy. In its marketing, publisher George H. Doran Company stressed Heyward’s knowledge and truthful rendering of Southern black life. Yet as Noonan shows, his powers of observation were blunted by the racial paternalism of his era, his imagination constrained by an antimodern nostalgia for an imagined plantation past.

Two years after the novel appeared, Porgy had been adapted for the stage, in a Theatre Guild production that featured an African American cast. Director Rouben Mamoulian, who launched his career on Broadway with Porgy, created a dynamic spectacle amidst the ramshackle houses of Catfish Row, establishing a look and performance style for the play and later the opera. The [End Page 127] play’s producers emphasized the supposed authenticity of the story, and the African American performers, given a rare opportunity to appear in leading roles, deepened the humanity of the characters. There were several attempts to create a musical version of Porgy, including Al Jolson’s interest in a blackface version, but it was George Gershwin who would prevail, imagining not a typical Broadway production but rather a serious work, a folk opera sung only by African Americans. Collaborating with Heyward and his brother Ira Gershwin, he realized this vision with the opening of the opera Porgy and Bess in 1935.

Noonan captures a period in the 1920s and 1930s of a discernible yet agonizingly slow shift in attitudes toward race and representation. Blackface minstrelsy was on the decline as an entertainment form, yet it still continued on stage and screen—most famously in Jolson’s performance in the 1927 film The Jazz Singer—and in amateur theatricals. Blackface minstrelsy had emerged in the nineteenth century as a white appropriation of African American performances, and numerous scholars have explored how minstrel routines honed racist stereotypes and fostered white working-class solidarity. Even as the era of Jim Crow congealed, however, African American performers had begun to challenge the terms of their representations by whites. While the Fisk Jubilee Singers began to elevate spirituals to the realm of ‘high culture,’ the team of Bert Williams and George Walker became a popular variety act, dexterously working with and against the minstrelsy required of them. The cultural exchanges between people of African and European descent remained unequal and would continue to be so long into the twentieth century: during Porgy’s heyday, segregated concert halls, nightclubs, and theaters were the norm, for both performers and audiences. By the 1920s, though, the expanding market for entertainment and culture and the migration of Southern blacks to the urban...


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