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Race, Truth, & Fiction in Thomas Wolfe’s The Child by Tiger

Tuesday, November 27 @ 6:30 p.m.
YMI Cultural Center
39 S. Market Street

Thursday November 29 @ 6:30 p.m.
Thomas Wolfe Memorial
52 N. Market Street

Buncombe County Public Libraries and The Thomas Wolfe Memorial are sponsoring a two part reading and discussion series based on Thomas Wolfe’s short story, The Child by Tiger.  This story is based on a real event which took place in Asheville in 1906.

That November, an African American newcomer of unknown past and uncertain name, possibly “Will Harris,” embarked on a killing spree in the heart of town that resulted in five deaths, black and white. Both races rallied to find the shooter. Within two days he was hunted down and killed, his body displayed in a storefront window.  City officials quickly broadcast the claim that “there was no mob, no lynching, and no lawlessness.”  African American leaders equally quickly commended “the absence of any and everything that could suggest in the least degree feelings against us as a race.”

The event is largely forgotten now, but Thomas Wolfe, who was 6 at the time, never forgot it. References in his notebooks show that the event stayed with him for over 30 years.  The Child by Tiger, his fictionalized version of the event, is considered by many to be his best work.  It is particularly significant for its sympathetic and engaging portrayal of Dick Prosser, the Will Harris character.  Wolfe raises questions about how a man like Will Harris/Dick Prosser is created, and where ultimate responsibility for such a life lies.

  • On November 27 at 6:30 p.m., Dr. Darin Waters of the History Department at UNCA will present “African-American Survival Strategies in Asheville.” Dr. Waters will provide background and lead a discussion of African American survival mechanisms that came into play during the Harris event, and characterized the local African American /White dynamic before the Civil Rights era.  Waters will explore whether such mechanisms endure and influence race relations in Asheville today.
  • On November 29 at 6:30 p.m., Wolfe scholar Ms. Joanne Mauldin will present “Thomas Wolfe and Race:  An Unfound Door?”  Ms. Mauldin will lead a discussion of factors that shaped Wolfe’s attitudes toward race, including childhood contacts with African Americans, and racist attitudes and experiences in his environment.  She will share scholarly perspectives on experiences late in Wolfe’s life that influenced the development of The Child by Tiger and may have prompted moderation of his racial and ethnic prejudices.

Free copies of The Child by Tiger will be available at Buncombe County Public Libraries and at The Thomas Wolfe Memorial beginning November 1.  Additional sponsors of the programs include The YMI, The Friends of Mountain History, The Urban News, and The Read On WNC. 

The program is funded by a grant from the North Carolina Humanities Council, a statewide non-profit and affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

For more information on this free series, call the library at 250-4740.