What It Means to Be American
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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

How Alpine Yodeling Mutated Into American Blackface Minstrelry

Vestiges of the Racist Entertainment Persist in Art and Politics

foster-figure-1

By Daniel H. Foster and Anne Bramley
December 27, 2016

In 1822 the Austrian emperor Franz I and his ally Tsar Alexander I of Russia held a meeting in a remote valley of the war-torn Tyrolese Alps. They were entertained by the Rainers, a locally renowned family of singing farmers. When the visiting dignitaries heard the improvisational simplicity of the family’s performance of native Alpine songs, they encouraged the four Rainer brothers and their sister to leave the war behind and take their homegrown mountain show on the road.  …

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Identities

America’s First ‘Indian’ TV Star Was a Black Man from Missouri

Stymied by Hollywood Racism, Korla Pandit Reinvented Himself as a Mystical Brahmin Pianist

Korla piano and organ WIMTBA

By John Turner
April 26, 2016

Turning on the TV in Los Angeles in 1949, you might have come face-to-face with a young man in a jeweled turban with a dreamy gaze accentuated by dark eye shadow. Dressed in a fashionable coat and tie, Korla Pandit played the piano and the organ—sometimes both at once—creating music that was both familiar and exotic.

According to press releases from the time, Pandit was born in New Delhi, India, the son of a Brahmin government worker and a French …

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Artifacts

The Electric Guitar’s Long, Strange Trip

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

Frankenstein, Van Halen, electric guitar, Frank 2

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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Artifacts

American Indians, Playing Themselves

As Buffalo Bill’s Performers, They Were Walking Stereotypes. But a New York Photographer Showed the Humans Beneath the Headdresses.

Chief Iron Tail original portrait

By Michelle Delaney
January 27, 2015

Chief Iron Tail, photographed by Gertrude Käsebier

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Encounters

Inside the Coney Island ‘Freak Show’

Why Were Early-20th-Century Americans So Enthralled by Human Zoos?

Igorrotes, Claire Prentice, freak show, Coney Island

By Claire Prentice
December 19, 2014

A day trip to Coney Island, once the largest amusement park in the United States, led me to the photograph. In the black-and-white image, a group of tribesmen, women, and children squats around a campfire. They’re barefoot and dressed in G-strings and tribal blankets. Several are looking at the camera and laughing. One man is pointing. Another is holding up a rock, as if he is about to throw it.

The photo could have been torn straight from the pages of …

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Encounters

My 1930s Education at the Movies

The Golden Age of Hollywood Taught Me About War, Crime, Natural Disasters—and What Was Funny About America

My 1930s Education at the Movies

By Manuel H. Rodriguez
September 22, 2014

I’d long wanted to see the two movies on the double bill at our neighborhood movie house, the Princess at 61st and Main streets in Los Angeles, that week in 1939. Brother Raul and friend Ernie wanted to see the films too, even though they had been made eight years earlier. Mother was not enthusiastic. “Those are very scary movies,” she warned. We were not dissuaded and found ourselves sitting in the darkened theater on Sunday afternoon as the curtains parted.

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