Friday, March 16, 2001
New York Call me Ishmael. Call "Moby Dick" a masterpiece.
Call C-SPAN if you're miffed that Herman Melville isn't part of its ambitious new project, "American Writers: A Journey Through History." (Sorry, "Moby" fans: After heated discussion, Melville was harpooned.)
C-SPAN, which mainly fulfills its public affairs mission with nonstop coverage of Beltway business, is busting loose for this "Journey."
Every week through December, 46 American writers ï¿½ some famous, some obscure ï¿½ will serve as the jumping-off point for a look at American history, from the pilgrim experience through the Vietnam War.
This journey is more than metaphorical. "American Writers" will roam the nation, with each program airing live from a historic site somehow tied to that week's featured scribe.
On Monday, the tour begins at Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Mass., where the 1620 Mayflower Compact of Gov. William Bradford is the focus. (This and subsequent two-hour programs begin at 8 a.m. CST, repeated the following Friday at 7 p.m.)
"It's a way to look at American history through the lens of writers who either shaped the course of our nation, influenced it, chronicled it, or reflected upon it," executive producer Mark Farkas said.
This makes "A Journey Through History" a natural extension of C-SPAN's day-to-day fare, adds Susan Swain, the network's executive vice president.
"We have a basic belief that people who study history with us (on this series) will gain some more context for the day-to-day events in the political world," she says.
Each of the 38 broadcasts, many of them moderated by Swain or C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb, will gather scholars and other guests to help place the work and writer in historical context. Providing physical context will be the on-location site ï¿½ be it founding father Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate or Marina Del Rey, Calif., home of 20th century objectivist Ayn Rand's institute.
As a Melville devotee, she was among those on C-SPAN's selection committee who fought to have him and "Moby Dick" included. But the collective will of this group and of C-SPAN's outside consultants decided otherwise: However distinguished as a storyteller, Melville wasn't a major player in the American narrative.
Was Ernest Hemingway? Or was he done in by his expatriate leanings? C-SPAN gave Poppa the nod. He and his novel "The Sun Also Rises" will share the bill October 1 with F. Scott Fitzgerald and "The Great Gatsby."
Who to represent World War II triggered another round of give-and-take. Was Joseph Heller the signal voice, lampooning war in "Catch-22"? Or fellow novelist Norman Mailer, author of the gritty "The Naked and Dead"?
No, the choice was war correspondent Ernie Pyle, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columns were collected in the 1943 volume "Here Is Your War."
Unlike Hemingway or Benjamin Franklin or Mark Twain, not all of C-SPAN's writers are household names.
On July 9, the chosen writer isn't technically even a writer. Black Elk, a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe who fought in the Battle of Little Big Horn, recounted his life story to the man who wrote the 1932 book "Black Elk Speaks."
"There are people here, including Black Elk, who I know nothing about," says Swain, who looks forward to a lot of reading in the next 10 months.
She hopes the audience will join her as she hits the books that chart C-SPAN's journey ï¿½ and will argue with her about them. "We're trying to encourage a healthy debate in this country," she says, "so we're kind of happy if there's an aspect of controversy."