What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Ideas

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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What Lincoln Was Thinking When He Freed the Slaves

The President Grappled for Months Over Whether Signing the Emancipation Proclamation Was ‘American’

Abraham Lincoln, Emancipation Proclamation

By Todd Brewster
February 16, 2015

The American Civil War was, among other things, an epic inheritance quarrel, with both sides claiming to be the legitimate heirs to the nation’s founding principles as articulated in the Declaration of Independence. The Confederacy, of course, saw itself beating back the forces of tyranny much as Washington and Jefferson had asserted the sovereignty of the individual states from that of an “undemocratic” distant power. The Union, meanwhile, sought to preserve the republic forged by independence and fulfill the Declaration’s …

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Was Rock ’n’ Roll America’s Greatest Revolution?

How Rock Music Has Been Raising Hell Since It Was Born

February 6, 2015

At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Bob Dylan plugged in his electric guitar live for the first time—and an audience expecting acoustic folk songs booed through “Like a Rolling Stone.” Rock already had changed Dylan, and Dylan would go on to change rock ’n’ roll. But Dylan’s break from tradition was neither the first nor the last in rock history. In fact, Dylan’s musical revolution drew on an already long-established history of trailblazers and innovations in rock, which have made …

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My Country ’Tis a Book

Are We Still Searching for ‘The Great American Novel’?

By Lawrence Buell
February 3, 2015

Most credentialed literary critics disdain it as a grandiose hyperbole, and creative writers tend to speak of it in jest. But for almost 150 years, all of us—writers, readers, cultural trend-watchers—have been obsessed with the idea of “The Great American Novel,” a piece of literature that somehow captures the gestalt of the whirling multitudes that make up our ambitious country at a crucial or defining moment.

Why this unkillable mantra about the preeminent American novel? The Russians, the French, and …

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The Marquis de Lafayette’s Great American Love Affair

Why a 19-Year-old Frenchman Traded Versailles for Valley Forge

By Laura Auricchio
January 16, 2015

The 19-year-old Marquis de Lafayette had met only a handful of Americans when he signed up to join General George Washington’s army, but he felt certain that the people of the United States were as honorable as the cause of freedom for which they fought. Their idealism was intoxicating, and its hold on Lafayette reminds us of a time when the young United States seemed to promise a brighter future for all mankind.

Lafayette was hardly the only Frenchman of his …

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Women and the Myth of the American West

The Frontier Offered Opportunities for Land Ownership and Artistic Inspiration—But Life There Wasn’t Without Struggle

Montana, cowgirl, American West

January 9, 2015

In the American imagination, the rugged, vast landscapes of the West are dotted with solitary men on horseback—cowboys, outlaws, sheriffs. But the frontier was also home to women whose stories don’t match the standard Hollywood Western script. What brought women to places like California and Wyoming, and what lives could they lead there? Did Western women experience the same freedoms and adventures as their male counterparts?

In advance of the “What It Means to Be American” launch event “The Women of the …

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