Rising from the ashes

Far from casting a pall over the ninth annual Thomas Wolfe Festival, the July 24 fire that severely damaged Wolfe’s boyhood home on Market Street has sparked a surge in attendance, says festival Director Ted Mitchell.

“Right now, we’re accommodating an overflow at hotels,” he reports.

With the acclaimed novelist’s Old Kentucky Home off limits for now, event organizers are packing the void with a grand assemblage of scholarly events, including lectures and readings in the newly renovated Pack Memorial Library’s Lord Auditorium; in-concert renditions of songs from Wolfe’s work; and walking tours led by staffers from the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Visitor Center.

Also scheduled this year are a Thomas Wolfe birthday celebration, the awarding of the Thomas Wolfe Festival Student Writing Contest prizes, and an exhibit of “flapper” clothing at the Smith-McDowell House (see box for a listing of selected festival events).

“Ten years ago, a number of people from the library, the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, and other civic-minded individuals met at the Wolfe House to [organize] an annual celebration that would celebrate the life and work of Thomas Wolfe,” Mitchell recalls, “and it was such a success that we’ve always continued it.”

In large part, the festival has been kept alive by the author’s legion of finicky fans.

“Every year, we give the tour [of Wolfe-relevant landmarks, such as the site of his birth — now the YMCA parking lot]; last year, I dropped one of the sites, and people complained,” he says with a chuckle.

Wolfe’s supporters, he continues, come in some unexpected forms.

“Of course, there are those who prefer the scholarly events, but there’s something for everyone” (consider the Thomas Wolfe 8K Road Race, sponsored by the Asheville Track Club).

“There’s an incredible range [of festivalgoers],” says Mitchell, “everyone from die-hard Wolfe fans, who attend every event, to high-school students who may have just read something of Wolfe’s and want to learn more.”

What is it that still draws people to the poignant extravagance of Wolfe’s prose? Part of the lure, Mitchell admits, lies not in the work itself but in the romance surrounding the author.

“There is a tragic mystique, that incredible allure of glamour and loss that attracts readers to Thomas Wolfe,” he says.

Wolfe was ostracized in his hometown for writing Look Homeward, Angel, which offered scarcely veiled portraits of family, friends and other Asheville residents — many of them less than flattering. In fact, the book was banned in Asheville until fellow author F. Scott Fitzgerald (best known for The Great Gatsby) presented several copies to the town library (then at Pack Square), back in 1936.

It’s appropriate, then, that Wolfe will share the limelight at this year’s festival with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (the fact that Scott’s birthday is Sept. 24, three days before Wolfe’s, also helped sell event organizers on the combined tribute). And the inauguration of the concurrently running International F. Scott Fitzgerald Conference ensures that there’ll be plenty to keep visitors busy.

Both Fitzgeralds came to Asheville in the ’30s for their health — Scott for a mountain-air tuberculosis cure, and Zelda for reasons that were snuffed out forever in yet another controversial Asheville fire: the 1948 blaze that destroyed the original Highland Hospital, and claimed her life. (Zelda, herself a gifted painter and writer, hasposthumously emerged from her husband’s considerable shadow.)

“Zelda had never been in a worse psychological state,” explains Mitchell, describing her suicidal depression and treatment by a distinguished local doctor during the Fitzgeralds’ time in Asheville. To acknowledge the tragedy that claimed this complex, misunderstood woman, the Fitzgeralds’ granddaughter, Eleanor Lanahan, will unveil a plaque honoring her grandmother at the hospital site (now the Highland Park office complex).

Another memorial to Zelda will take place at the Diana Wortham Theatre. Two performances of Clothes for a Summer Hotel: A Ghost Play — a later work by Tennessee Williams — will be presented during the festival weekend, under the watchful eye of seasoned Southern Appalachian Repertory Threatre Director Ron McIntyre-Fender.

“I’ve been wanting to do this play for a long time,” he says. “We’ve done a terrible disservice to Tennessee Williams by not exploring his lesser-known works.”

Billed as a “memory play,” the dreamlike tribute — told from Zelda’s point of view — explores the Fitzgeralds’ relationships with other celebrities of the day. Most of the scenes take place either in the Grove Park Inn or at Highland Hospital.

“The time frame in the story is not absolute,” explains McIntyre-Fender about the intentionally plot-thin script — which is why he and Producer Deborah Austin felt comfortable adding Wolfe to the cast of characters in one scene.

Although tragic, the violent demise of Scott and Zelda — the so-called “original flappers” — does have a certain artistic fitness.

“The Fitzgeralds lived very much on the edge,” notes the director. “Zelda once described their life as a ‘roller-coaster ride that crashes at its highest point.’ They were such bon vivants, but there was a huge well of tragedy under that.”

That tragic aura, as well as the creative legacy of this gifted but self-destructive couple, continues to fascinate their fans. And, like Wolfe’s own story, the saga of these blazing romantics offers fascinating insights into the turbulent literary history of our rapidly departing century.

Festival highlights

The Thomas Wolfe Festival and International F. Scott Fitzgerald Conference runs Sept. 24-27 in Asheville. Here are some notable events.

Thursday, Sept. 24: 4 p.m., dedication of Zelda Fitzgerald memorial plaque at Highland Park; 6:30 p.m., F. Scott Fitzgerald birthday reception featuring speaker Allan Gurganus, the author of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, Grove Park Inn ($50 — call 253-8304).

Friday, Sept. 25: 10:30 a.m.-noon, F. Scott Fitzgerald sessions in Pack Library’s Lord Auditorium, featuring speakers Milton R. Stern, Scott Donaldson and James L. West III; 1:30-4 p.m., Thomas Wolfe sessions in Lord Auditorium, featuring speakers Robert T. Ensign, Elizabeth Evans, Steven B. Rogers and Beverly Amendola; 4-6 p.m., festival reception at The Captain’s Bookshelf (31 Page Ave.); 8 p.m., concert featuring songs taken from Look Homeward, Angel at Jubilee! (35 Wall St. — $6 adults, $5 students).

Saturday, Sept. 26::2:30-3:30 p.m., walking tour, “Thomas Wolfe’s Asheville,” leaving from the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Visitor Center (52 N. Market St.); 5 p.m., flapper clothing exhibit reception at Smith-McDowell House (283 Victoria Road — $4.50 adults, $2.50 children); 8 p.m., Clothes for a Summer Hotel at Diana Wortham Theatre ($10 adults, $8 students — call 253-8304 or 257-4500).

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