Stars Come Out to Celebrate Mark Twains 100th Anniversary Saturday at SMCM

ST. MARY’S CITY, Md. (April 23, 2010) — Biographer Ron Powers calls Mark Twain “without question, the most recognizable American author, our nation’s first rock star.” April 2010 marks Twain’s centennial with a celebration at 7 p.m. Saturday, April 24, at the Michael P. O’Brien Athletics and Recreation Center at St. Mary’s College of Maryland (SMCM). Peter Sagal, star of National Public Radio’s (NPR) “Wait, Wait...Don’t Tell Me!”; Mo Rocca, former humorist from “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”; America’s Morning News political analyst Amy Holmes; and Dr. John Bird, noted Twain scholar; will take part in a dynamic panel discussion on Twain’s relevance today. Sagal will moderate the discussion using Twain’s words to address questions about race, religion, politics, and the “damned human race.” Prior to the panel discussion, there is a 5 p.m. fundraising dinner on the State House Lawn. The panel discussion is free and open to the public.

“I read Twain’s Huckleberry Finn as a young girl and fell in love with the story,” said Holmes. “As an African American and a woman, I feel very grateful for Mark Twain’s enlightened point of view regarding civil and women’s rights during the late 19th century. Twain’s interest in the emotions and struggles of people has always struck a chord with me. His open mindedness helped lead the way for leaders like President Obama, a person who, like myself, was raised with one American parent, one African parent. Often this dichotomy leaves one feeling marginalized, and Twain speaks to that feeling.”

According to Dr. Ben Click, director of the Mark Twain Lecture Series and chair of the SMCM English department, nearly 100 high school students from St. Mary’s County Public Schools will attend the 7 p.m. panel discussion. Many will be part of the Academy of Global and International Studies (GIS), which allows students to participate in an international education at home, learning about world cultures, history, languages, and current news. The students will have dinner before the event in the J. Frank Raley Great Room on campus.

Sagal said he was “thrilled” to participate in the event. Though he generally accepts about half a dozen speaking engagements each year, Sagal, who started as a playwright and studied literature at Harvard University, said he only rarely receives a chance to participate in a literary event. “The thing I love about Twain at his best is that he’s a storyteller over a novelist,” he said. “I think of him as someone who could tell these great stories.”

Before the lecture, there will be a fundraising dinner for the Twain Lecture Series. A tented waterfront dinner will be served at 5 p.m. on the lawn of Maryland’s first statehouse at Historic St. Mary’s City. The event will be highlighted byremarks from Rocca. Special reserved seating for the dinner and the night’s lecture is available for $100.

“Humor,” Mark Twain said, “must not professedly teach, and it must not profess­edly preach, but it must do both if it would live forever.” With these words, Twain has given the charge: “We must live forever” through humor. The function of the SMCM Mark Twain Lecture Series on American Humor and Culture is to present the wide range of topics that face all humans, specifically Americans, through humor, with the guiding presence of America’s greatest humorist.

It is little known that Twain had a strong connection to the state of Maryland. According to Click, “One of his earliest public speeches took place in Washington, D.C. in 1868. His last lecture was in Baltimore, Maryland, at the Misses Tewksbury’s School Graduation, June 9, 1909. And just two years before that, he spoke at the Government House in Annapolis and was caught smoking in a “no smoking” sector of the Naval Academy.” He died on April 21, 1910.

Public speaking wasn’t Twain’s only connection to Maryland. His smoking habit and love of tobacco also connects him to Southern Maryland. He described it thusly: “It is loose and dry and black, and looks like tea grounds. When the fire is applied it expands, and climbs up and towers above the pipe, and presently tumbles off inside of one's vest. The tobacco itself is cheap, but it raises the insurance.” Click continued, “Twain smoked up to 40 cigars a day, but said he made it a rule to never smoke when sleeping, and the cheaper the cigar the better.”

But Twain wasn’t cheap in all his tastes. His love of Maryland seafood reveals his penchant for finer things and connects him to another Southern Maryland tradition, oysters. On his list of favorite American foods, he lists fried oysters, stewed oysters, blue points on the half shell, oyster soup, oysters roasted in the shell, soft shell crabs, Baltimore perch, and canvas back duck from Maryland. Food from Maryland dominates the list. Click added, “Given this predominance, it’s safe to say that Twain digested more of Maryland than any other state.”

But was Twain ever in Southern Maryland? Perhaps St. Mary’s County? There’s no factual record of it, but that does not matter. For a man who could tell a “stretcher” as he called them, he was familiar with how facts work. “I never saw an author who was aware that there is any dimensional difference between a fact and a surmise.” Click continued, “That being the case, it’s not hard to surmise that Twain ventured south of Annapolis for a meal of Maryland oysters and soft shell crabs and an after-dinner cigar, rolled from Southern Maryland tobacco.”

Sagal is the author of numerous plays that have been performed in large and small theaters around the country and abroad. Sagal joined the panel of a new news quiz show on NPR that made its debut on-air in January of 1998. In May of that year, he became the host of the show. Since then, Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me has become one of the most popular shows on public radio, heard by 2.5 million listeners a week on 450 public radio stations nationwide and via a popular podcast.

Humorist, actor, and writer Rocca is best known for his off-beat news reports and satirical commentary. Currently a contributor to the CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood and host of The Tomorrow Show with Mo Rocca on, he’s also a panelist on NPR’s hit weekly quiz show Wait, Wait...Don’t Tell Me! Rocca spent four seasons as a correspondent on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and four seasons as a correspondent on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

Born in Lusaka, Zambia, and raised in Seattle, Washington, Holmes began her career in television as a Fox News Channel contributor. From there, she went to MSNBC for the 2000 presidential race. In 2002, she hosted Lead Story on Black Entertainment Television where she interviewed administration officials, journalists and top newsmakers. She has appeared on NBC Nightly News, Dateline, CBS Early Morning Show, and PBS’s To the Contrary. Holmes provided political analysis for CNN, and appeared as a member of HBO’s Real Time Real Reporters team providing stories and commentary on the 2008 presidential election. She is currently co-host of National Talk Radio’s America’s Morning News, which has a following of eight million viewers.

Bird's teaching interests include 19th and 20th century American literature, Mark Twain and American humor, critical theory, critical thinking, and composition. His main scholarly interest is Twain, about whom he has written critical articles and a book on Twain and metaphor. He has also written articles and given conference papers on Thoreau, Annie Dillard, Elizabeth Barstow Stoddard, other American humorists, and the Andy Griffith Show, among others. He is the original editor of The Mark Twain Annual, a publication of the Mark Twain Circle of America, and former president of the American Humor Studies Association.

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