The Strange Career of Porgy and Bess

Race, Culture, and America’s Most Famous Opera

By Ellen Noonan

440 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 17 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-1753-4
    Published: August 2014
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-0-8078-3733-7
    Published: December 2012
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-7886-1
    Published: December 2012

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Awards & distinctions

2012 George C. Rogers Jr. Book Award, South Carolina Historical Society

Created by George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward and sung by generations of black performers, Porgy and Bess has been both embraced and reviled since its debut in 1935. In this comprehensive account, Ellen Noonan examines the opera's long history of invention and reinvention as a barometer of twentieth-century American expectations about race, culture, and the struggle for equality. In its surprising endurance lies a myriad of local, national, and international stories.

For black performers and commentators, Porgy and Bess was a nexus for debates about cultural representation and racial uplift. White producers, critics, and even audiences spun revealing racial narratives around the show, initially in an attempt to demonstrate its authenticity and later to keep it from becoming discredited or irrelevant. Expertly weaving together the wide-ranging debates over the original novel, Porgy, and its adaptations on stage and film with a history of its intimate ties to Charleston, The Strange Career of "Porgy and Bess" uncovers the complexities behind one of our nation’s most long-lived cultural touchstones.

About the Author

Ellen Noonan is a historian, educator, and media producer at the American Social History Project, the Graduate Center, City University of New York.
For more information about Ellen Noonan, visit the Author Page.


"This captivating read is an important contribution to the scholarship surrounding Heyward’s and Gershwin’s work."--Library Journal

"[An] exceptionally cogent and intelligent book. . . . Highly recommended."--Choice

"Well researched, thoughtful, and as appealing and satisfying as the opera itself."--North Carolina Historical Review

"Ellen Noonan has written a provocative, imaginative study chronicling the complicated artistic and racial politics surrounding the American classic Porgy and Bess."--Journal of American History

“A valuable case study of the ways in which racial attitudes manifested themselves in and influenced the discussion and presentation of art in America.”--American Historical Review

"[A] thorough history. . . . Intriguing."--Southern Register