What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Ideas

What Do Readers Want From the Lives of American Women?

Over the Decades, the Expectations of Female Biography Subjects Have Changed, but Not as Much as We Might Think

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By Elaine Showalter
June 21, 2016

A hundred years ago, in March 1916, the first biography of Julia Ward Howe was published to general acclaim. Written by Howe’s three daughters, Julia Ward Howe, 1819-1910 was the first major biography of an American woman, and set a high standard. In 1917, it received the first Pulitzer Prize for biography; not until 1986 would another biography of an American woman by a woman (Louise Bogan by Elizabeth Frank) win the award. Writing my own study of Howe’s life, …

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Herbert Hoover’s Hidden Economic Acumen

What an Awful President's Secret Strength Could Teach Today's Financial Leaders About Capitalism

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By Charles Rappleye
May 31, 2016

From our nation’s inception, Americans have been a forward-looking people— youthful, optimistic, even revolutionary. Progress has been our byword, and the past has often been dismissed as stodgy, if not rudimentary. Few phrases are so thoroughly dismissive as to pronounce, of a person, a trend, or an idea, as, that, or they, are “history.”

This inclination is rooted in a sense of optimism, and the confidence that we learn as we go. But it can also reflect a degree of hubris, …

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The Surprisingly Modest Start to McMansion Sprawl

Builders Like the Campanelli Brothers Helped Fuel Midcentury Suburban Desire, from Massachusetts to Moscow

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By Barbara Miller Lane
May 24, 2016

After V-J Day—August 14, 1945—millions of World War II veterans came home and began to look for a place to live. New highways, cars, and government-sponsored mortgages encouraged them to dream big. Up until that point, Americans, especially immigrant Americans, had thought of the Land of Opportunity as the place where discipline and hard work would guarantee prosperity and upward social mobility. After the War, they believed they could have more. The American Dream now meant home ownership and spatial …

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How Ronald Reagan Peddled Laundry Detergent

Borax Promised Americans a Ticket to the Middle Class and a Mythic Piece of the Western Frontier

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By Kim Stringfellow
May 16, 2016

One fall evening in 1881, a prospector named Henry Spiller knocked on the door of Aaron and Rosie Winters’ modest stone cabin about 40 miles due east of Death Valley and asked to stay the night.

After dinner Spiller exuberantly showed off a sample of “cotton ball,” a weird, semi-translucent rock formation containing borax. Spiller suggested to his hosts that fortunes awaited those lucky enough to find a generous deposit of the stuff. He showed them how to test for …

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What Does ‘Natural-Born’ American Even Mean?

The Seemingly Rigid Requirement for the Presidency Didn't Disqualify the Nation's British-Born Founders

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By Don H. Doyle
May 10, 2016

When choosing among presidential candidates, Americans find plenty to debate about their fitness for office, experience, and economic and foreign policies. But the framers of the Constitution made no mention of such qualifications; they were primarily concerned that the president be truly American. And one of the ways that a president counted as truly American was to be, in the Constitution’s phrase, a “natural-born citizen.”

In the modern era, this phrase has been particularly contentious. There was the clamor over whether …

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The Chicago Physician Who Understood the Paradox of Radiation

Emil Herman Grubbe Discovered That X-Rays Could Cure, but He Was Right for the Wrong Reasons

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By Timothy J. Jorgensen
May 4, 2016

Radiation is a paradox. On the one hand, it’s a lifesaving tool. As powerful energy that can pass through solid matter, it’s often used in medicine for everything from diagnostic X-rays to cancer therapy. But radiation also can be deadly. If handled carelessly, it causes cancer.

No one was better witness to the split personality of radiation than Chicago physician Emil Herman Grubbe, who lived from 1875 to 1960. He was the first to recognize that radiation might cure cancer. …

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How ‘Bambi’ Hoodwinked American Environmentalists

The Sentimental Disney Cartoon Cemented the Myth That Man and Nature Can’t Coexist

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By Robin L. Murray and Joseph K. Heumann
April 19, 2016

Perking up her ears, the dog was the first to notice them, just a few blocks from our homes in east-central Illinois. One-by-one the does strolled from the woods into the meadow. They eyed us without lifting their tails, seemingly habituated to this neighborhood. Their appearance awed us but also prompted different responses. Joseph recalled long past hunting trips four miles south in a tree stand overlooking a soybean field and tried to pick out the fattest doe in the …

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The Mad Men Who Invented the Modern Political Attack Ad

Since 1964, Advertising Agencies Have Sold Presidential Candidates As If They Were Cars or Soap

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By Robert Mann
April 12, 2016

On September 7, 1964, a 60-second TV ad changed American politics forever. A 3-year-old girl in a simple dress counted as she plucked daisy petals in a sun-dappled field. Her words were supplanted by a mission-control countdown followed by a massive nuclear blast in a classic mushroom shape. The message was clear if only implicit: Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater was a genocidal maniac who threatened the world’s future. Two months later, President Lyndon Johnson won easily, and the emotional political …

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Donald and Bernie, Meet Andrew Jackson

The Seventh President Stoked the Anti-Elitist Rancor That Is Now Engulfing the 2016 Election

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By Harry Watson
March 28, 2016

We hear a lot about populism these days. Throughout this primary season, headlines across the country have proclaimed the successes of the “populist” contenders, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Without embracing the populist label, moreover, candidates in both parties had already adopted populist tactics by branding their opponents as tools of the “establishment.”

But what is populism, anyway? There is no easy answer, for “populism” describes a political style more than a specific set of ideas or policies, and most …

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Let’s Not Pretend That ‘Hamilton’ Is History

America's Founders Have Never Enjoyed More Sex Appeal, but the Hit Musical Cheats Audiences by Making Democracy Look Easy

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By Nancy Isenberg
March 17, 2016

Hamilton is the hottest show on Broadway, filled with hip-hop songs, R&B rhythms, and tri-cornered hats. Its multi-racial cast portrays the pantheon of Revolutionary greats, and for many a starry-eyed critic this sing-along with the founders offers “a factually rigorous historical drama.” Those are the words of Jody Rosen in The New York Times, and he is not alone. As an academic who spent years studying Aaron Burr before producing a scholarly biography, I can say emphatically that rules of …

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