What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Ideas

The Christian Roots of Modern Environmentalism

Presbyterianism Inspired Teddy Roosevelt’s Conservationist Zeal

By Mark Stoll
June 26, 2015

Like only a handful of presidents, Theodore Roosevelt lives in our memory and popular culture. He is the bespectacled face gazing from Mount Rushmore, the namesake for the teddy bear, and the advice-giving Rough Rider, played by Robin Williams in the movie Night at the Museum. We remember him, too, as the trust buster who broke up monopolies, the avid outdoorsman and conservationist who preserved parks, forests, and wildlife, and the politician who crusaded for a “fair deal,” a just …

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Have We Turned the Last Page in America’s Songbook?

Tracing the Great Songwriting Tradition, From Cole Porter to Joni Mitchell

By Ben Yagoda
June 12, 2015

The Great American Songbook isn’t really a book. Rather, it’s a notional collection of several hundred pop songs. The precise identity of the songs varies according to who is doing the collecting, but in almost all versions the bulk of them were composed, starting in the 1920s, by a small (almost all male) group of composers and lyricists including George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers (teaming first with Lorenz Hart and later with Oscar Hammerstein, II), …

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The Biggest Forgotten American Indian Victory

While We Remember Little Bighorn, That Wasn't the Battle That Led to the First Congressional Investigation in U.S. History.

By Colin G. Calloway
June 9, 2015

In less than three hours on November 4, 1791, American Indians destroyed the United States Army, inflicting more than 900 casualties on a force of some 1,400 men. Proportionately it was the biggest military disaster the United States ever suffered. It was also the biggest victory American Indians ever won. Yet it was quickly consigned to the footnotes of history.

Unlike the much more famous Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, when American Indians annihilated George Armstrong Custer’s command, …

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Movies’ Most Memorable Mexican-American Moments

From Stand and Deliver to Giant, These Are Hollywood's Strongest Cinematic Depictions of America’s Third Largest Ethnic Group

May 26, 2015

For better or for worse, when many Americans think about Italian-Americans, they think of The Godfather. When it comes to Irish-Americans, it’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. And for Chinese-Americans, it’s The Joy Luck Club. The way people talk. The clothes they wear. The houses they live in. What makes them cry. Film has a way of making abstract identities vivid and tangible.

So what has the silver screen been communicating to Americans about the Mexican-American experience? Mexican-Americans make up one …

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Noah Webster Would Have Loved Urban Dictionary

The Founding Father of American English Was a Radical Who Wanted Us to Write the Language the Way We Spoke It

By Rosemarie Ostler
May 12, 2015

In the late 18th century, as the recently independent states were working to define what America was—after fighting with England about what it wasn’t—grammar books were still teaching American children to speak like proper Englishmen and women. The books taught such formal, outdated usages as the correct verb forms for thou (thou goest, thou wilt) and proper uses of shall (used with I and we for simple future, with you, he, she, and they to imply insistence or a threat). …

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The Tenacious Woman Who Helped Deliver Mother’s Day to the U.S.

For Anna Jarvis, a Holiday Devoted to Moms Was Not Sentimental Fluff, But a Practical Exercise in Patriotism

Anna Jarvis, Mother's Day founder

By Katharine Lane Antolini
May 8, 2015

One hundred years ago last May, President Woodrow Wilson signed the first congressional resolution and presidential proclamation calling upon all citizens to display the national flag in honor of American mothers on the second Sunday in May. But the credit for Mother’s Day’s popularity belongs to Anna Jarvis, who organized the first official Mother’s Day services on the morning of May 10, 1908, in her hometown of Grafton, West Virginia, and later in the afternoon in her adopted hometown of …

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Did the End of the Civil War Mean the End of Slavery?

April 1865 Marked the Beginning of a New Battle for American Abolitionists

By Matthew Pinsker
April 14, 2015

On the same morning that Abraham Lincoln died from an assassin’s bullet, noted abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was quietly gloating by the Charleston, South Carolina graveside of John C. Calhoun. Garrison, approaching his 60th birthday, had traveled down to secession’s birthplace with a delegation led by the former Union commander at Fort Sumter, now Major General Robert Anderson, in order to help mark the end of the Civil War with a symbolic flag-raising ceremony at the heavily damaged harbor fortifications …

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The Serious Business of Pulp Fiction

How Paperbacks Helped Forge Our Modern Ideas about Sex, Race, and War

By Paula Rabinowitz
April 7, 2015

Cheap paperback books are like sex: They claim attention, elicit memories good and bad, and get talked about endlessly. The mid-20th century was the era of pulp, which landed in America in 1939.

You could pick up these paper-bound books at the corner drugstore or bus station for a quarter. They had juicy covers featuring original (and sometimes provocative) art, blurring the lines between canonical literature (Emily Brontë and Honoré de Balzac) and the low genres of crime, romance, and Westerns. …

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Is America Still the Home of the Brave?

Tracing a National Tradition from the American Revolutionaries and Amelia Earhart to Graffiti Artists and Venture Capitalists

March 27, 2015

On January 14, 2015, the world waited with bated breath as Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson came over the rim of a notoriously steep section of the rock known as El Capitan, the largest single block of granite in the world. Over the course of 19 days, the pair had climbed the Dawn Wall, the most difficult part of the famous rock formation at Yosemite National Park, with just their hands and feet; rope and harnesses were used only to …

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The Civil War Overwhelmed the Senses Like No Other

Americans Thought They Could Control Noise and Odor Until Fort Sumter Introduced the Loudest Booms They’d Ever Heard and the Powerful Stench of Death on a Staggering Scale

By Mark M. Smith
March 3, 2015

In rhetoric and substance, wars are generally fought for ideals that are noble, dignified, and lofty. Leaders justify waging war—and endeavor to inspire those who fight them—by appealing to powerful abstractions: liberty, self-determination, and national identity. In turn, these ideals become sepia-toned memories veining the national consciousness of future generations.

This was certainly true of the American Civil War. At various times, noble ideals were used to frame the war, ideals that soldiers and heads of state alike could embrace. Depending …

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