In 1920 Thomas Wolfe left the South with the strong desire to become a dramatist. To pursue his chosen craft, he enrolled in the Harvard 47 Workshop, at that time the most renowned in the nation. At first he wrote plays about Appalachian society and the Civil War. But it was not until Wolfe turned to the modern South—inspired by a disturbing return to his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina—that his genius awoke. There he found the material he would work into the best of his three full-length plays written at Harvard, the material that in the next decade would be recast into the novels that would make him famous. This is the first book publication of Welcome to Our City, Thomas Wolfe’s play in ten scenes of a modern South ruled by liars and real estate agents, overrun with boosterism, and dedicated to greed. This sprawling, fiery work has lain dormant among Wolfe’s papers for over fifty years, abandoned by its author after an unsuccessful attempt to revise and shorten it for a New York Theatre Guild production. For this edition, Richard S. Kennedy has reassembled a full performance text of the workshop version presented at Harvard in 1923—a production that involved forty-five cast members, including over thirty speaking parts, required seven stage changes, and lasted over three and a half hours in performance.
The action of Welcome to Our City centers on a scheme of the town fathers and real estate promoters of Altamont, a small southern city, to snatch up all the property in a centrally located black district, evict the tenants, tear down their houses and shops, and build a new white residential section in its place. When the blacks, under the angry leadership of a strong-willed doctor, resist eviction, a race riot breaks out—shattering both the precarious social balance of the city and the “progressive” dreams of Altamont’s boosters. Building on this plot, Wolfe guides his audience through the back rooms, stately homes, ans shanty towns of Altamont, contrasting tradition-bound southern characters with a new breed of life drawn from the vast menagerie of 1920s Main Street America: fact-spouting yes-men, hypocritical religious leaders, anti-intellectual professors, provincial country club matrons, and politicians inauthentic from their heads to their feet.
Welcome to Our City is not merely an exhibit in the artistic development of a future novelist. Wolfe used the dramatic form inventively and with considerable inspiration to expose the culture of greed that he saw spreading around him and to caricature the men who, he feared, would usher in an age of mediocrity across America. Emotionally gripping and mockingly satiric, Welcome to Our City captures the festering social climate of the 1920s in a vision of life that is uncomfortably relevant to our own times.
Richard S. Kennedy (1920-2003) was a professor emeritus of English at Temple University, the biographer of Thomas Wolfe and E. E. Cummings, and the author or editor of numerous other literary works, including Welcome to Our City and The Starwick Episodes, by Thomas Wolfe.
Richard S. Kennedy (1920–2002) was the author of Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E. E. Cummings and The Window of Memory: A Literary Biography of Thomas Wolfe. He also edited the collection Literary New Orleans: Essays and Meditations. He was a professor emeritus of English at Temple University in Philadelphia.
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