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A man of letters returns to city, courtesy of C-SPAN


Union Square might not have looked that good in decades: The parked cars were gone, the decorative fountain sent up a spray of water, stragglers were few and the trash - well, what trash?

It was 35 minutes before C-SPAN's cameras were scheduled to send live images of the historic Baltimore neighborhood across the nation, in a program on the cable network focusing on the neighborhood's most famous resident, the late scribe H.L. Mencken, and Union Square was transformed.

"It looks like a ghost town right now," said Brett Betsill, a director for C-SPAN, as he glanced at a bank of monitors in the network's production van.

It was a city block as restrained as the program on the cable channel better known for its views of Congressional debate - a detailed look at the life, writings and influences of Mencken, the Evening Sun writer and editor who died in 1956.

For two hours yesterday, Mencken scholars walked the streets in front of the home where the 20th-century author, magazine editor and critic lived and wrote. They answered questions and criticism of his writings and philosophies from C-SPAN viewers as far away as California. They expounded on the influence Mencken had and continues to have, their comments interspersed with audiotape of an interview Mencken gave in 1948 and photographs of the writer.

"It's a remarkable story of a self-taught man here in Baltimore who ended up being one of the most distinguished stylists this country ever had," Vince Fitzpatrick, curator of the Mencken Room at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, said a few hours before the broadcast.

The Mencken broadcast, the latest segment in a weekly, C-SPAN-produced historical series on American writers from the Mayflower to Vietnam, originally was scheduled to air live from Union Square on Sept. 17. But after Sept. 11, the program, which had aired its look at humorist Will Rogers the day before, was put on hold.

C-SPAN officials reintroduced the series March 31, but decided to flop Mencken with Harlem Renaissance authors Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes as a gesture to New York City.

"It was sort of a symbolic thing on our part," said Maura Pierce, who produced the Mencken program for C-SPAN.

By yesterday, the C-SPAN staff of more than a dozen people had set up a ministage for the program and wired the park. Police blocked off both ends of the 1500 block of Hollins St. and shooed away stragglers. Residents moved their cars and cleaned up trash, and a neighborhood association official turned on the park's Mencken fountain.

Neighbors, some of whom are working with Friends of the H.L. Mencken House to create a plan to reopen the idle home, were hoping that the show would bring notice to their cause. Mencken wrote from a room overlooking the park.

"It's really neat to see them devote such time and effort to American writers. What network does that?" said Phil Hildebrandt, group president and Union Square resident.

C-SPAN officials say they took time winnowing a vast list of American writers and authors to create a series that would reflect influences and observations on society rather than just great literature.

"What we're trying to do is learn something about the history of our nation through the prism of these writers," Pierce said.

Mencken, with his observations about life and the society around him, fit right in.

If you missed it, the program will be rebroadcast at 8 p.m. Friday.

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