What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Explore : culture

Encounters

Recovering the Stolen Histories of American Slaves

The Tragedy of Treating People as Property Has Left Only Scattered Scraps to Hint at Their Cultures and Communities

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By Sean Kelley
August 18, 2016

For the past eight years I’ve been living with 72 people. These 28 men, 25 women, 12 girls, and seven boys are long dead—they were Africans sold into captivity and shipped to America in the mid-1700s. It’s generally accepted that a factual account of their experience—like almost all Africans enslaved in America—is beyond recovery. Even Roots blended fact and fiction into something its author referred to as “faction.”

But thanks to laborious archival research and the linking of two rare and …

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Identities

Daniel Boone’s Legend Defines the American Mystique

Why a Contemporary Canadian Author Fell in Love With the Tall Tales of the Famous Frontiersman

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By Alix Hawley
August 9, 2016

I’m not American. My childhood social studies curriculum covered Canada’s geography and indigenous peoples, in French (le Saskatchewan, les Iroquois).

So I didn’t grow up learning about Daniel Boone and his exploration of the frontier around the time of the American Revolution. If I’d heard of him at all, I probably thought, like many people, he was fictional. But go back to my British Columbia elementary school and there he is, in a 1985 copy of National Geographic on the …

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Ideas

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

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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 The books taught such formal, outdated usages as the correct verb forms for thou (thou goest, thou wilt) and proper uses of shall (used with I and we for simple future, with you, he, she, and they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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Ideas

The Serious Business of Pulp Fiction

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

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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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Artifacts

The Electric Guitar’s Long, Strange Trip

From Its Gentle 16th-Century Acoustic Origins to the Souped-Up ‘Frankenstein’

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By Monica M. Smith
February 10, 2015

I remember the first time I saw Eddie Van Halen on MTV, the way he played two hands on the fingerboard during his short “Jump” guitar solo. I loved his cool “Frankenstein” guitar, so named because he cobbled together a variety of guitar parts and decorated his creation with colored tape and paint. Even as a 13-year-old who grew up primarily listening to, and playing, classical music, I felt compelled to run out and buy his band’s “1984” LP at …

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Ideas

My Country ’Tis a Book

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

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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