What It Means to Be American
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Identities

What Grandaddy Taught Me About Race in America

From Little Rock to L.A., Learning to See Colors Beyond Black and White

From left to right: The author's grandfather; sister, Faith, age 15; mother, Karen; the author, age 14; and grandmother, Lucy. Photo courtesy of Myah Genung.

By Myah Genung
July 13, 2017

I lived most of my childhood convinced that my grandfather, Calvin Muldrow, was Superman. On summer evenings, I’d perch atop his knee as we sat on the creaky back porch of his red brick house in North Little Rock. He’d weave elaborate tall tales about his magical excursions gliding over the jungle canopies of Sierra Leone, or wrestling boa constrictors, or floating aloft past my bedroom window at night to check up on me.

Grandaddy had a way of blending …

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Places

The Circus Spectacular That Spawned American Giantism

How the “Greatest Show on Earth” Enthralled Small-Town Crowds and Inspired Shopping Malls

A promotional poster for the Barnum and Bailey circus, dating to around 1895, offered audiences a sneak peek of the menagerie tent.

By Janet M. Davis
March 17, 2017

When Barnum and Bailey’s “Greatest Show on Earth” rolled into American towns in the 1880s, daily life abruptly stopped. Months before the show arrived, an advance team saturated the surrounding region with brilliantly colored lithographs of the extraordinary: elephants, bearded ladies, clowns, tigers, acrobats, and trick riders.

On “Circus Day” (as it was known), huge crowds gathered to observe the predawn arrival of “herds and droves” of camels, zebras, and other exotic animals—the spoils of European colonialism. Families witnessed the …

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Identities

The Man Who Explained the Soviets to America

How George F. Kennan's Passion for Russia Colored Our Cold War Strategy

George Kennan

By David Milne
September 27, 2016

The enduring irony of George F. Kennan’s life was just how much the architect of America’s Cold War “containment” strategy—aimed at stopping Soviet expansionism—loved Russia.

Kennan arguably played a larger role in shaping the U.S.’s view of a major foreign power, and thus our relations with that power, than any other American in modern history. That the power in question was the Soviet Union, and the time in question the crucial period after World War II, made his outsized …

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Places

The Quebec Battle That Opened the Door to America

By Beating Back the French in 1759, British Colonials Defeated a Big Obstacle to Their Own Independence

MacLeod LEAD

By D. Peter MacLeod
August 2, 2016

You can go to Quebec City, about 100 miles from the nearest U.S. border crossing, for the spectacular scenery, fine dining, great museums, and strolls through neighborhoods that date to the beginning of the 17th century.

Or you can go for the American history. Those who know of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham—fought September 13, 1759 on a plain named for the early French settler Abraham Martin—often remember it as a fight between a French army commanded by Lieutenant …

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Places

To Understand America’s Small Towns, Ask About Their Swimming Holes

Whether at the Base of a Majestic Waterfall or the Site of an Old Quarry, These DIY Pools Are a Refreshing Way to Connect With Simple Pleasures of the Past

Hajdasz on swimming holes LEAD

By Dave Hajdasz
July 14, 2016

Consider the swimming hole. It lacks the majesty of an ocean or the pedigree of a lake—forget about boating or surfing. A swimming hole is by its very nature utilitarian. It’s a hole. Filled with water. To swim in. Unlike its grander cousins, a swimming hole doesn’t exist on its own and doesn’t fulfill swimming hole-ness until someone actually gets in there and swims.

Swimming holes were born of necessity at a time when fabricated pools didn’t exist in most of …

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Ideas

How Fashion Overcame the Transatlantic Divide

Celebrities Erased National Differences in Women's Style, but American Men Still Refuse to Dress With British Sophistication

Crowe on fashion LEAD

By Lauren Goldstein Crowe
March 11, 2016

An American woman I know in London recently posted on Facebook about being grateful to be out of the country during the current presidential election. That prompted a feisty response about American exceptionalism from a friend of a friend in Texas: “Sorry, I refuse to buy into your anti American socialist/communist rhetoric. We ARE better than everybody else, by far… If you believe otherwise, you are delusional. The entire world DOES revolve around us, from our economy… to our culture, …

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Ideas

Would Brits Really Rather Watch Fussy Old Lord Grantham Than a Dashing Winston Churchill?

The Producers of 'Downton Abbey’ Want to Tell the Wartime Prime Minister's Riveting Backstory, but a Half Century of Disparagement May Have Taken Its Toll

Shelden on Churchill LEAD

By Michael Shelden
March 11, 2016

If you were disappointed to see Downton Abbey come to an end on PBS this past weekend, the good news is that the producers of this sensation on both sides of the Atlantic have optioned the rights to another series featuring an even more dazzling cast of Edwardian English aristocrats.

In this one, the characters are all drawn from real life. There is a fabulously wealthy heiress, a beautiful actress, a boyish cad married to a woman almost twice his …

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Ideas

Welcome to the Utopian States of America

Experimenting With More Perfect Unions Is Part of Our National Character

Jennings LEAD

By Chris Jennings
February 25, 2016

No place on the globe has been more crowded with utopian longing and utopian experimentation than the United States in the middle of the 19th century. Countless people on both sides of the Atlantic believed that a new and wondrous society was about to take form in the American wilderness. It was a time when the imminence of paradise seemed reasonable to reasonable people.

Between the American Revolution and the Civil War, nearly one hundred utopian colonies were founded in …

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Ideas

Why Americans Eat Like Animals

The Industrial Revolution Changed the Nature of Work and the Way Workers Took Their Meals

Carrol american fast eating

By Abigail Carroll
October 5, 2015

American eaters, they’re like a pack of animals, hustling dinner in 10 minutes or less. It sounds like a recent complaint, but in fact it comes from 1864, when the Englishman John Francis Campbell was startled at the rapidity with which fellow steamboat passengers consumed their meals as they floated down the Ohio River. They were quick as foxhounds over their food, he marveled. Because service was family style, you risked leaving the table hungry if you failed to keep …

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