Penn Humanities Forum on Philadelphia Writers

March 26–27, 1999

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.

Celebration Participants
George Anastasia, Michael Awkward, Margaret Hope Bacon, Herman Beavers, Nancy Bentley, Stephen Berg, Carole Bernstein, Buzz Bissinger, Charles Blockson, Janice L. Booker, David Bradley, Rebecca Bushnell, Lorene Cary, Diana Cavallo, Eric Cheyfitz, Peter Conn, Albert DiBartolomeo, Tina DiFeliciantonio, Greg Djanikian, Murray Dubin, Rachel Blau Duplessis, James English, Al Filreis, Paul Fussell, Farah Griffin, Paul Hendrickson, Edward Hirsch, Daniel Hoffman, John Katz, Kristin Hunter Lattany, Christopher Looby, Millicent Marcus, Eugene Martin, Diane McKinney-Whetstone, Joan Mellen, Elisa New, Toby Olson, Charlotte Pierce-Baker, Aaron Posner, Chaim Potok, John Prendergast, John Richetti, Karen Rile, Sonia Sanchez, Ntozake Shange, Alan Singer, Elmer Smith, Wendy Steiner, Susan Stewart, William F. Van Wert, Michael Vitez, Jane C. Wagner, Lawrence Warner, Judy Wicks, John Edgar Wideman, Signe Wilkinson, C. K. Williams, Eleanor Wilner, Ben Yagoda

"A Celebration of Philadelphia Writers" was organized with the guidance of Penn's English Department under the auspices of the Penn Humanities Forum, plans for the creation of which began as the Celebration was taking shape. The Forum gratefully acknowledges the following people and organizations for their generous help with this event: Associate Dean Rebecca Bushnell at Penn; Diane Dalto of Arts and Culture in City Hall; the Maurice English Foundation for Poetry and Helen W. Drutt English; Elliot Shelkrot of the Free Library of Philadelphia; Professors Peter Conn, James English, Al Filreis, Farah Griffin, John Katz, Christopher Looby, Elisa New, Susan Stewart, and the staff of Penn's English Department; Michael Ryan of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Penn's Van Pelt Library; the directors, curators, and librarians of the many archives and historical sites participating in this program; Judy Wicks of the White Dog Cafe; Kerry Sherin of Kelly Writers House; Dwyane Carter of Penn Bookstore; English teachers at the Philadelphia public schools; and Wendy Steinberg and her staff of the Penn Humanities Forum. Above all, we thank the more than 75 writers who so generously and enthusiastically agreed to celebrate with us.