Review: Thomas Wolfe’s “Welcome to Our City”

Asheville seems to get obsessed with particular things… Beer, farm-to-table food, music and art festivals, growth and progress, and of course our most beloved native son, Thomas Wolfe. We cling to these things and flaunt them to visitors as evidence of our unique character and artsy vibe. As for Tom, well, I think he would hate it, or at the very least make fun of us. That’s okay, though. That is probably part of the reason we like him so much; he uses satirical humor to help us take a step back and reexamine ourselves as we play out our lives in our pool of progress.

 

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Birds Eye View of Asheville, NC from New Reservoir, 1915, S.H Kress Co, Pack Memorial Library NC Collection

Tom was born in Asheville in an exciting time for the city; only a few years after the railroads were established right in the middle of a “boom.” In the ten years before he was born Buncombe County saw a massive population increase. George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate was completed just five years before Tom was born, and Vanderbilt brought along with him a cohort of rich and famous friends to build and work on his English manor in the Appalachian hills including Gifford Pinchot, Frederick Law Olmsted, Rafael Guastavino, Richard Sharp Smith, and others. Asheville and the surrounding area became famous for its healthy climate, particularly beneficial to those suffering from respiratory ailments, and it wasn’t long before other wealthy visitors followed Vanderbilt’s lead. Investors like George W. Pack and E.W Grove invested in major real-estate projects and built impressive manors and mansions of their own.  They established charity funds and invested in major real-estate projects; forever stamping their name into the landscape of the city of Asheville.

By the time Tom was 23 and was off to participate in the Harvard 47 workshop, the Pack Memorial Library had been around for all his life, his mother had probably given him Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic, and he had watched downtown Asheville transform as art deco buildings sprung up all over the central square; rebuilding from a devastating fire in 1885. Coming of age in this context, it is no wonder that one of Tom’s earliest works, a play, Welcome to Our City, captured the essence of the paradoxical nature of New South progressivism that had taken over the State of Buncombe.

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Asheville, City Square, Ca. 1920, Pack Memorial Library NC Collection.

Welcome to Our City is set in the mountain town of Altamont, a pseudonym Wolfe used for Asheville throughout his career, and chronicles the story of the displacement of the African American community by wealthy real-estate moguls and a subsequent riot. The plot centers mostly around three characters, Sorrell, a young, local real-estate agent, Rutledge, an older gentleman who grew up in a slave-owning family in the city, and Johnson, a mixed-race physician a former slave on the Rutledge estate who now occupies the old Rutledge “big house.” Throughout the work Wolfe tackles major themes and questions of the “New South,” and as much of the rest of Wolfe’s works, it is one for the ages.

While Welcome to Our City is totally fictional, the themes Wolfe addresses were certainly not, and like almost all of his work are heavily drawn from experience. Some historians have written that Asheville was during Tom’s life a marvelous example of what it meant to be a New South town, and Wolfe captures and examines many of these ideas, some unique to Altamont, in his work.  Race, class, religion, gender and sexuality and even ableism all meet in this play to give readers an intersectional view of the social and political strife bubbling beneath the surface of a seemingly progressive Southern town.

The most apparent theme throughout the work is progress, and in several scenes, the audience is meant to question, what is progress? To the real-estate developers of Altamont, it is often “cleaning up the city,” but at the cost of displacing the African American community. Wolfe continuously draws the audience’s attention to the color line, racial stratification, and the complicated nature of race relations in a southern town but a single generation removed from slavery by exploring the ideology of racial uplift charity, and the language that surrounded the relationships between the Johnson and Rutledge families. He also does not shy away from discussions of the intersections of race, class, gender sexuality as they relate to tourism, real-estate, and the New South economy.

Though Welcome To Our City was written almost 100 years ago, the town Wolfe drew so much inspiration from while writing it is suffering many of the same problems it was then. While none of the events of the play actually happened the way Wolfe described, there were race riots in Asheville, there were people turned away from housing due to sickness, and there was indeed a black Newspaper editor who encouraged Civic Activism. One of my favorite Wolfe quotes comes from the forward to Look Homeward, Angel and can certainly be applied here, “Fiction is not fact, but fiction is fact selected and understood, fiction is fact arranged and charged with purpose.” Welcome to Our City, then, provides us now with a multitude of rearranged facts charged with purpose not only for Wolfe’s time, but for our own.

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Birds Eye View of Asheville Map, 1912, Pack Memorial Library NC Collection

Although Asheville is certainly not dealing with these issues in the same way we were 100 years ago, Asheville now faces similar problems. As 9.5 million people make their way into “Nature’s Wonderland” each year and we find ourselves in the midst of a population and hotel building boom, not to mention in the heart of a national debate on race, class, and gender it may do us well to allow the people of Altamont to welcome us into their “mountain town of 30,000 souls” to reexamine how we have handled these problems before, so that we may have more grace this time around.


Want to know more about turn of the century progressivism and Asheville as a New South Town? Read up here:

  • Butcher, Jamie. “Religion, Race, Gender and Education: The Allen School, Asheville, North Carolina, 1885 to 1974.” Appalachian Journal, 33, no. 1, (2005): 78-109.
  • Christensen, Rob. The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.
  • McKinney, Gordon, Zeb Vance: North Carolina’s Civil War Governor and Gilded Age Leader. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.
  • Starnes, Richard D. “‘A Conspicuous Example of What is Termed the New South’: Tourism and Urban Development in Asheville, North Carolina, 1880-1925.” The North Carolina   Historical Review, 80, no. 1, (2003): 52-80.
  • Waters, Darin J. “Life Beneath the Veneer: The Black Community in Asheville, North Carolina from 1793-1900.” University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 2012.

 

 

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