Places: Porgy

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1925

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Regional

Time of work: Early twentieth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedCatfish Row

Catfish PorgyRow. Fictitious section of Charleston in which a disabled beggar, Porgy, and other black characters in the novel live. Most of the time, Catfish Row is full of life and energy, but whenever a white person enters the neighborhood, every resident leaves its central square for the indoors. Porgy himself usually sits in the square in front of his room and watches what happens, except when he gambles. Aside from one brief summer, when Bess joins him in his dwelling, Porgy participates in the life of the Row and enjoys living.

Opposite Porgy’s room is the cookshop run by Clara, who constantly struggles to impose order on Catfish Row. The Row is near the wharf and the bay. When a hurricane comes, its residents flee to upper stories of their buildings to escape the rising waters.

*Charleston

*Charleston. South Carolina port city. Some critics have said that one of the central ideas behind Porgy involves the conflict between the recently emancipated black residents of Catfish Row and the modern city in which they live. When members of the African American organization called “Sons and Daughters of Repent Ye Saith the Lord” parade through the “reticent, old Anglo-Saxon town” on their way to greet a steamer, the white residents of Charleston laugh at them. The African Americans appear sadly out of place in the city. Porgy does his begging in the white section of the city, on the corner of King Charles Street and Meeting House Road. When he is presented with a summons to appear in Coroner’s Court to identify Crown–whom he has killed when the latter tried to break into his room–he flees up Meeting House Road toward the forests, in which he hopes to hide. A police patrol wagon catches him after he gets beyond the big buildings to where the bungalows stand.

Wharf

Wharf. Pier adjacent to Catfish Row where stevedores, including Crown, find work and the base for the “Mosquito Fleet”–a flotilla of small fishing boats owned and manned by African Americans. During the hurricane, the entire fleet is destroyed. During a lull in the storm, when Clara sees her husband Jake’s half-submerged boat approaching the wharf, she runs into the water and drowns, leaving Bess behind to care for her baby. When the full fury of the storm returns, a lumber schooner breaks loose and destroys the wharf itself.

Jail

Jail. Charleston jail in which both Bess and Porgy spend time. It is has a small exercise yard where prisoners spend their days trying to keep in the shade. At night, prisoners are locked in what appears to be a steel cage. The jail is damp; moisture clings to its ceilings, runs down its walls, and forms small streams that run across its floor. The jail smells terrible and breeds disease.

Kittiwar Island

Kittiwar Island. Fictional island off Charleston on which Crown is hiding out and to which a steamer transports members of the Sons and Daughters of Repent Ye Saith the Lord for a picnic. When Bess wanders into the island’s jungle, Crown finds her and takes her deeper into the interior, where he has his way with her.

*Savannah

*Savannah. Georgia coastal city to which Crown promises to take Bess when he leaves Kittiwar Island and the place to which Bess goes while Porgy is in jail.

BibliographyAlpert, Hollis. The Life and Times of Porgy and Bess: The Story of an American Classic. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990. Traces the history of Porgy from Heyward’s novel to the October 10, 1935, Broadway premiere of Porgy and Bess. Includes illustrations from several productions of the opera.Durham, Frank. DuBose Heyward: The Man Who Wrote Porgy. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1965. Focuses primarily on the novel Porgy and its stage versions. Greatly ignores the author’s other works, but offers valuable background to the story’s creation and reception.Durham, Frank. “The Reputed Demises of Uncle Tom: Or, The Treatment of the Negro in Fiction by White Southern Authors in the 1920’s.” Southern Literary Review 2, no. 2 (Spring, 1970): 26-50. Discusses Porgy in relation to types of African Americans in literary history: from primitive portrayals in abolition literature, to the plantation myth of black man as folk figure type during Reconstruction, to the “New Negro” after World War I.Rhodes, Chip. “Writing Up the New Negro: The Construction of Consumer Desire in the Twenties.” Journal of American Studies 28, no. 2 (August, 1994): 191-207. Discusses desire in Porgy in context with other works of Southern literature. Describes Catfish Row as being in limbo between slavery and freedom.Slavick, William H. DuBose Heyward. Boston: Twayne, 1981. Critical biography provides extensive discussion of the novel Porgy, as well as Heyward’s other fiction, poetry, and drama.
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