Philadelphia was once the publishing center of America, producing anthologies of poetry, novels, literary magazines, and a vast array of political, medical, and religious writings. Since the writing of the nation's defining documents—the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—at the corner of Market and Seventh Streets, Philadelphia has been home to such luminaries as Louisa May Alcott, Edgar Allan Poe, and the father of the American novel, Charles Brockden Brown. It was a destination for Thomas Moore and Charles Dickens. A frequent visitor, Walt Whitman would ferry over from Camden to sit at the foot of Market Street or socialize at a local tavern.
In "A Celebration of Philadelphia Writers" in March 1999, the Penn Humanities Forum of the University of Pennsylvania and Philadelphia's historical and cultural institutions offered free readings, performances, and exhibitions to celebrate Philadelphia's rich literary past and the city's continued proliferation of extraordinary novelists, poets, journalists, playwrights, and screenwriters.
The Celebration included literary walking tours of Philadelphia designed and led by Penn graduate students, as well as author book signings, café readings, a program on the interaction of African-American poetry and popular music, and a citywide high school competition of writing about Philadelphia. A special program examined the image of the city created in films with appearances by Jane C. Wagner, Tina DeFeliciantonio, and Eugene Martin. Exhibitions of past and present Philadelphia writers were on view at many of the city's major libraries and bookstores.
The opening ceremony on Friday, March 26, "Communities and Writers," featured readings and addresses that explored the cultural, political, and religious variety of Philadelphia writing. A luncheon celebrating Philadelphia in song and art began at noon with a panel discussion by Murray Dubin, Signe Wilkinson, and Charlotte Pierce-Baker on how Philadelphia shaped their work. Following the lunch, "Philadelphia in Film" featured lectures on the image of the city in film and documentaries. A late afternoon reception, exhibition, and book signing in the Rosenwald Gallery of Penn's Library gave visitors a chance to meet over thirty area authors in person. Small area publishers and the public met at Kelly Writers House for a discussion and free buffet dinner.
Philadelphia's Clef Club was the venue for a program exploring the interplay of Philadelphia jazz and poetry. It featured Sonia Sanchez and Ntozake Shange, jazz by the internationally acclaimed trio Odean Pope, and a poetry jam hosted by Kelly Writers House. Chaim Potok's stage presentation of The Chosen, co-written with Aaron Posner, was performed at Philadelphia's Arden Theatre.
On Saturday, March 27, the city came alive with the written and spoken word. The Celebration flooded the city with readings, exhibitions, and walking tours of literary Philadelphia. Over fifty award-winning authors participated in the Celebration, reading from historical documents as well as their own works. Free trolleys transported visitors to each of the reading sites throughout Center City. From early Quaker writings to contemporary works, the vibrant literary life of Philadelphia present and past was in evidence, culminating in an afternoon program at the Free Library of Philadelphia with readings by John Edgar Wideman, C. K. Williams, David Bradley, Eleanor Wilner, Lorene Cary, and Edward Hirsch.
Participating institutions instrumental in the production of the Celebration included the Free Library of Philadelphia, the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Rosenbach Museum & Library, the Library of the American Philosophical Soceity, the Franklin Inn Club, the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site, Philadelphia's Office of Arts and Culture, Penn's Van Pelt Library and Kelly Writers House, and the University of Pennsylvania Bookstore. In addition, the Maurice English Foundation for Poetry sponsored the citywide high school reading contest.