Web posted Tuesday, June 26, 2001

C-SPAN gives world audience look at America's Hometown

Courier-Post Regional Editor

Millions of viewers across the world had the opportunity to see a discussion of one of America's greatest authors as C-SPAN came to Hannibal to featuring its most famous resident, Mark Twain.

Monday's show was one of 38 focusing on writers that influenced the course of the nation's history, beginning with William Bradford and ending on Dec. 17 with David Halbertson and Neil Sheehan. Other authors included in the "American Writers: A Journey Through History" include James Fenimore Cooper, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Booker T. Washington and William F. Buckley.

The show's panelists, along with millions of readers worldwide, still find Twain's works fascinating, and discussed the uniqueness of his works during the show, broadcast from the Mark Twain Boyhood Home grounds.

"His willingness to grapple with the complexity of his world, which is also still our world, is remarkable and always enlightening," said Shelly Fisher Fishkin, editor of "The Oxford Mark Twain" and author of "Lighting Out For the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture."

"He also faces squarely the kinds of issues that all of us would prefer not to face squarely, which is our complexity in a society that has great aspirations, but hasn't lived up to them yet, and this is what he's addressing all his life and we're still addressing them."

Writer and humorist Roy Blount Jr. pointed out that besides being a humorist, Twain created a new language that still plays an important role in literature.

"He's still funny," Blount said. "And he combined vernacular English with standard written English to create a whole new written language in the way of telling stories that hadn't really been put together in print before Huckleberry Finn."

"Mark Twain had a writing style that gets at the root of the human motivations and human actions," said Henry Sweets, director of the Mark Twain Museum. "So that when you read a book of Mark Twain's, you're caught up in the characters and that's a lot different way than for many writers."

Although Mark Twain moved from Hannibal, much of his work has roots to the river town, which attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors.

"I find it fascinating to go look at the scenes that inspired him and also to try to understand what he saw, what he thought," said Fishkin. "I love standing on Hill Street and looking out at the Mississippi and realizing that that's the same view that he saw."

Sweets showed viewers various Mark Twain attractions, such as the Mark Twain Boyhood Home, Mark Twain's Father's Law Office, Grant's Drug Store and Becky Thatcher's Home, as well as the Mark Twain Museum Annex. He also answered several callers' questions throughout the show.

Sweets said the museum's phone number and address was shown during the program and the museum received several calls during the live broadcast.

With a live broadcast, anything can happen, but planning and luck were on Hannibal's side.

Executive Director of the Hannibal Convention and Visitors Bureau Faye Bleigh served in a behind-the-scenes role to ensure a smooth show.

For the shots from Lovers Leap, the camera crew needed a generator since there's no electricity on top of the hill. Bleigh also secured a key to unlock the gate to allow them up the hill before the normal 6 a.m. gate unlocking.

Back in the downtown area, Bleigh contacted the railroads and Burlington Northern-Santa Fe delayed their trains until the show was over.

Perhaps the biggest stroke of luck was the demolition of a bridge span that occurred when the broadcast was on a break.

Bleigh said the demolition crew had told them earlier that the blast would happen at 9:30 a.m. The show was originally scheduled for a break at about 9:15 a.m., but decided to delay that for 15 minutes.

The demolition blast came during the break.

In advance of the show, C-SPAN had brought one of its two 45-foot school buses that serve as a mobile classroom and production studio. The bus had visited area schools and the Hannibal library last week.

Bleigh feels the work paid off for Hannibal.

"The whole thing was real positive," she said. "Hannibal was reflected as a very historic city and it looked good."

For those unable to see Monday morning's broadcast, C-SPAN will repeat the show Friday at 7 p.m.

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