What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

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Can a Corrupt Politician Become a Good President?

A Mysterious Woman’s Letters Made Chester Arthur Fit for the White House

A Puck magazine cartoon expresses the fear that with Chester Arthur as president, U.S. Senator Roscoe Conkling, the all-powerful boss of the New York Republican machine, would be running the country. Art courtesy of Library of Congress.

By Scott S. Greenberger
November 16, 2017

“Who you are, what you are, it doesn’t change after you occupy the Oval Office,” President Barack Obama said during the 2016 election campaign. “It magnifies who you are. It shines a spotlight on who you are.”

But at least one man was transformed by the presidency: Chester Alan Arthur. Arthur’s redemption is all the more remarkable because it was spurred, at least in part, by a mysterious young woman who implored him to rediscover his better self.

Arthur, the country’s …

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Identities

The “Crying Indian” Ad That Fooled the Environmental Movement

Behind the '70s Anti-Pollution Icon Was an Italian-American Actor—and the Beverage Industry

Iron Eyes Cody presents President Jimmy Carter with a Native American headdress in the Oval Office in Washington on April 21, 1978. Cody also gave Carter a Native American name, Wamblee Ska, which he said means “great white eagle.” Photo courtesy of Peter Bregg/Associated Press.

By Finis Dunaway
November 9, 2017

It’s probably the most famous tear in American history: Iron Eyes Cody, an actor in Native American garb, paddles a birch bark canoe on water that seems, at first, tranquil and pristine, but that becomes increasingly polluted along his journey. He pulls his boat ashore and walks toward a bustling freeway. As the lone Indian ponders the polluted landscape, a passenger hurls a paper bag out a car window. The bag bursts on the ground, scattering fast-food wrappers all over …

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Identities

When Black Texans Gathered Under “Thursday Night Lights”

Why the Lone Star State Has Forgotten Its Proud Tradition of African-American High School Football

Austin Anderson's football team finished its 1961 season with a 20-13 state championship win at Jeppesen Stadium. Photo by Leroy Bookman.

By Michael Hurd
October 19, 2017

I had only been in and out of Houston since leaving our Sunnyside neighborhood on the city’s southeast side, in 1968, to begin eight years of Air Force service. Whenever I returned, I made only casual note of neighborhood and city changes, such as the sad state of the mom-and-pop “candy store” where we used to hang out after school, now boarded up, or a new skyscraper for a Houston skyline dotted with cranes, or another congested freeway opened to …

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Ideas

A Short History of the Idea of ‘Main Street’ in America

From Nathaniel Hawthorne to Disneyland, the Concept Has Represented Both the Experimental and the Conventional

Disneyland exported its own Main Street USA to its Hong Kong theme park. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Miles Orvell
October 16, 2017

In the United States, Main Street has always been two things—a place and an idea. As both, Main Street has embodied the contradictions of the country itself.

It is the self-consciousness of the idea of Main Street—from its origins in a Nathaniel Hawthorne sketch of New England, to Walt Disney’s construction of a Main Street USA, to the establishment of ersatz Main Streets in today’s urban malls—that makes it so essentially American. Main Street has been used in myriad …

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Encounters

The Religious Roots of America’s Love for Camping

How a Minister's Accidental Bestseller Launched the Country's First Outdoor Craze

The Rush" lampooned in an 1870 issue of Harper's Magazine.  Image courtesy of Terence Young.

By Terence Young
October 12, 2017

Summer 1868 passed as an unremarkable season at Saranac Lake in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. The weather was fine, the scenery delightful, and the usual array of 200 to 300 recreational hunters and anglers passed through the small settlement on their way into the wild lands beyond. The summers of 1869 and 1870, however, were an altogether different story. The weather was more or less the same, and the scenery continued to entrance, but instead of a handful of sportsmen …

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Places

Every October, on Martha’s Vineyard, We Celebrate Cranberry Day

For as Long as Anyone Knows, the Wampanoag Have Connected to Their History Through the Fruit and the Bogs Where It Grows

Just-picked cranberries drying on newspaper, the day after a hard rain.  Photo by Beverly Wright.

By Beverly Wright
October 9, 2017

Many know the place I live, an island off the southern coast of Massachusetts, as Martha’s Vineyard, a vacation spot for celebrities including Presidents Clinton and Obama. But those of us in the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe know it as Noepe, our home for at least 13,000 years. Though the whole island used to be our traditional homelands, today, our homelands form the westernmost part of the island, centered on the Town of Aquinnah and including many cranberry bogs. It’s there—on …

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Identities

Why Sheep Started So Many Wars in the American West

Each Year, an Idaho Festival Honors the Shepherds Who Sought to Keep the Peace

Tending sheep on the Navajo Reservation, May 1972. Photo by Terry Eiler/Wikimedia Commons.

By Adam M. Sowards
October 5, 2017

In early October, when the leaves turn golden and the shadows of the Sawtooth Mountains lengthen, the annual Trailing of the Sheep Festival moves through south central Idaho. The festival, complete with a sheep parade, sheepdog trials, and a wool fest, celebrates the long relationship between sheep and their human companions. 

Sun Valley, Idaho, is synonymous with New West wealth, but it sits in the Wood River Valley, where more humble ranchers and farmers have long made their living. In the …

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Ideas

How the South Recast Defeat as Victory with an Army of Stone Soldiers

Confederate Monuments to Nameless Infantrymen Were Less About Celebrating History Than Reestablishing Social Order

In Monticello, Georgia, a 1910 stone obelisk is flanked by statues of two Confederate soldiers: an officer with a saber (left), and a young private holding a rifle.  Photo by Gregory Rodriguez.

By Gaines M. Foster
September 28, 2017

Monuments to Robert E. Lee and other Confederate leaders have long been controversial, but monuments to nameless Confederate soldiers, those lone stone figures in public places, are far more common and have long served as an iconic symbol of the South. Understanding the origins of these stone soldiers who still loom over present-day towns and cities may help us better understand current controversies over them.

The white South began to erect soldiers’ monuments soon after the Confederacy’s defeat. In the first …

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Places

The 1938 Hurricane That Revived New England’s Fall Colors

An Epic Natural Disaster Restored the Forest of an Earlier America

A southern New Hampshire pine forest was entirely blown down in the hurricane of 1938. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service.

By Stephen Long
September 21, 2017

This morning, while driving in central Vermont, listening to the latest news about hurricanes in Florida and Texas, I caught up with my first leaf peeper of the season. Poking along at about 20 mph in his rental car, the tourist was peering at our hills of orange and crimson and gold leaves while simultaneously looking for a place to pull over to snap a photo.

Fall foliage and hurricane season go hand in hand in New England. But what …

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Identities

How Recipe Cards and Cookbooks Fed a Mobile, Modernizing America

Scientific Methods and Rising Literacy Were Key Ingredients for a Culinary Revolution

The recipes in late 19th-century American cookbooks—precise and detailed—met the needs of cooks in a highly mobile and modern country. Image from "Recipes: cards with text; depicting a woman in a kitchen reading, a server, meat, fish and a scale." Courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections.

By Helen Zoe Veit
September 18, 2017

The first edition of The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book—now known as The Fannie Farmer Cookbook—reads like a road map for 20th-century American cuisine. Published in 1896, it was filled with recipes for such familiar 19th-century dishes as potted pigeons, creamed vegetables, and mock turtle soup. But it added a forward-looking bent to older kitchen wisdom, casting ingredients such as cheese, chocolate, and ground beef—all bit players in 19th-century U.S. kitchens—in starring roles. It introduced cooks to recipes like hamburg steaks …

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