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C-Span's literary road trip

Exploration of the lives of American writers links locales with their history 11/01/2008 08:00:00 PM Eastern

If you tuned into C-Span on Monday morning, March 19, you probably saw footage of a pilgrim strolling a chilly knoll replete with tiny wooden homes. Though not as glossy as a PBS documentary, the exploration of the life and times of Mayflower Compact author, William Bradford, was the first program for American Writers: A Journey Through History, the live 10-month series C-Span has launched.

The series, sometimes hosted by Susan Swain, C-Span's executive vice president and co-chief operating officer, will eventually feature 40 American writers whose works continue to be relevant to the nation's history. Viewers are encouraged to call and quiz two guests who are knowledgeable about the author.

Conjuring America's past via live feeds from landmark towns and costumed actors is becoming a habit of the 22-year-old network.

Beginning with 1995's The Lincoln-Douglas Debates, C-Span has been supplementing its coverage of Capitol Hill events with special history projects, including The Alexis de Tocqueville Tour and American Presidents: Life Portraits.

"There was this moment, about midway through the Lincoln-Douglas series, as hundreds of people came out in period costume to re-create the debates, when I think we all knew we were hooked," Swain said. "We were watching communities become engaged with their history before our cameras and listening to our audience respond through phone calls, and it was, frankly, exciting. It just became clear to us that C-Span could have its own role to play in history programming."

Swain, in collaboration with executive producer Mark Farkas, staff and expert guests, whittled down a list of 350 writers to reach the featured 40, a virtual cultural mosaic of politicians, essayists, poets and activists. In the coming weeks, profiled writers will include James Fenimore Cooper (The Last of the Mohicans, April 23), Mary Chesnut (A Diary of Dixie, June 11), Langston Hughes (The Weary Blues, Sept. 24) and Jack Kerouac (On the Road, Nov. 19).

With a two-week window to prepare for each episode and an overall budget of $4.5 million, the re-creation of each author depends on available resources, including museums, artifacts and preserved locales—such as the Plimouth Plantation featured in the Bradford episode. The pace and scope is daunting, Swain admits, with C-Span in the midst of 38 straight weeks of on-location production in 20 states.

The series has already sparked some communities to reclaim their literary past. In Plymouth, Mass., the day before the show, a marathon reading of William Bradford's diary, Of Plimouth Plantation, was staged at the town's library. And in New Rochelle, N.Y., residents under the umbrella of the Citizen Paine Restoration Initiative are working to obtain the scattered bones of Common Sense author Thomas Paine. When C-Span came to town, the kids invented a game show: "Who Wants to Be a Revolutionary?"

Most significant is the series' accessibility and value to classrooms. With schools and educators a stated audience target, C-Span will post portions of each of the authors' works on the Web and make available downloadable curriculum tools for teachers. In partnership with Merriam-Webster, it has published Dictionary of American Writers, containing 1,600 entries including the biographies of featured writers.

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