What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

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Identities

How Attending Elite Universities Helped Mormons Enter the Mainstream

Through Higher Education, Latter-day Saints Joined the U.S. Meritocracy and Transformed Their Own Identity

By Thomas W. Simpson
July 9, 2018

The history of Mormon “Americanization” has long puzzled those who try to understand it.

In the last quarter of the 19th century, Mormons, under immense pressure from local and federal authorities, jettisoned their utopian separatism in favor of monogamy, market capitalism, public schools, national political parties, and military service. The question is, how can any human institution—much less a religion that historian Martin Marty has called the 19th century’s “most despised large group”—change so much so quickly?

The answer lies in understanding …

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Identities

How the Townshend Brothers Accidentally Sparked the American Revolution

The British Chancellor of the Exchequer and His Soldier Sibling Pushed the Interests of the Empire at the Expense of Loyal Colonialists

By Patrick Griffin
May 31, 2018

Americans normally see our Revolution as the culmination of a long period of gestation during which a free people finally threw off their colonial shackles and became what they were destined to be. On the Fourth of July, we commemorate a moment in 1776 that encapsulates all that we as Americans were, are, and hope to be. We consider ourselves a nation bound together by God-given rights and a pact with each other and with our government that we will …

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Identities

The German-American Family Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

In Creating an Icon, Washington Roebling and His Kin Realized Dreams That Europe Never Could Fulfill

By Erica Wagner
April 5, 2018

The Brooklyn Bridge was truly an American project embodying a certain American ideal. And people celebrated that fact from the start.

On May 24, 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge—after 14 years of construction—was opened at last. The mayor of Brooklyn, Seth Low, had declared the day a public holiday in his city; on the New York side, there was a “strong expression of sentiment” in favor of closing the Stock Exchange early. The president of the United States, Chester A. Arthur, along …

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Identities

The Runner Who Helped Irish Americans Lose Their Hyphen

My Ancestor, "Bricklayer Bill" Kennedy, Won the 1917 Boston Marathon Wrapped in the U.S. Flag

By Patrick L. Kennedy
March 26, 2018

When I was a kid, my Dad would take me to Heartbreak Hill, rain or shine, to watch the Boston Marathon. For our family, the race held special meaning, because our “Uncle Bill”—William J. Kennedy, my paternal grandfather’s uncle—had won the event in 1917.

Though he had been dead for eight years by the time I was born, we still cherished the legend of “Bricklayer Bill,” as he was known. The Kennedys had plied the mason’s trade since at least …

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Identities

Why We French Canadians Are Neither French nor Canadian

An Intimate Family History of New England's Franco-Americans

By Robert B. Perreault
December 7, 2017

Whenever my family visits Québec, people other than our relatives are surprised to hear Americans—even our grandchildren, ages five and six—speak fluent French. They’re amazed to learn that French is our mother tongue and that we also speak English without a French accent. Likewise, if we leave our native New Hampshire to travel elsewhere in the United States, we get blank stares upon mentioning that we’re Franco-Americans from New England.

“Franco-American, as in canned spaghetti?” some ask.

I roll my eyes and …

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Identities

How Norway Taught Me to Balance My Hyphenated-Americanness

A Minnesotan Grapples With Identity in His Scandinavian "Homeland"

By Eric Dregni
November 20, 2017

During the year I spent studying at the university in Trondheim, Norway, I sometimes learned more about my own country than Norway. One day, in my immigration studies class, my professor David Mauk, who hailed from Ohio, asked, “What does it mean to be American?”

I braced myself to hear the usual stereotypes from the news from the Norwegian students in my class. Then the professor clarified, “What to you is truly good about America?”

Even though I’m an American, I …

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Identities

When the Idea of Home Was Key to American Identity

From Log Cabins to Gilded Age Mansions, How You Lived Determined Whether You Belonged

By Richard White
September 11, 2017

Like viewers using an old-fashioned stereoscope, historians look at the past from two slightly different angles—then and now. The past is its own country, different from today. But we can only see that past world from our own present. And, as in a stereoscope, the two views merge.

I have been living in America’s second Gilded Age—our current era that began in the 1980s and took off in the 1990s—while writing about the first, which began in the 1870s and continued …

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Journeys

In Hawaii, an Immigrant Family that Bridged Japanese and American Worlds

How Siblings Torn Between Two Sides of the Pacific Forged Identities in the Aftermath of War

By Bernice Kiyo Glenn
October 6, 2016

I still remember them at the dining table after dinner each night in our Honolulu home. Three elegant sisters, styled out of Vogue magazine, their jet black hair in neat chignons and pixie haircuts, each savoring a cigarette and lingering over a glass of bourbon. Their laughter rang, but did not always conceal the dark ironies and black humor of memories they laced together of our Japanese-American Hawaii family torn apart by war.

“Do you remember when we left Hawaii after …

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Places

Manifest Destiny, That Atrocious Ideal

A Wintertime Visit to a Onetime Nuclear Test Site Reveals the Lengths Americans Go to Own Whatever They Please

By Matthew Gavin Frank
March 31, 2016

On the outskirts of Tularosa, New Mexico, I drove among sacred mountains. It was three days before Christmas, 2014, and it was over 70 degrees. With the A/C cranked, I passed the cookfires of shantytowns, children with strings of meat hanging from the ends of sticks, their parents drinking Coca-Cola from cool glass bottles, mezcal from plastic washtubs. Sheep grazed at the road shoulders. Skeletal motorcycles sashayed around buses laboring up the slopes.

My mouth was numbed with spice from pulverized …

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Places

Tater Tot Hotdish, Minnesota Soul Food

My Home State’s Favorite No-Fuss Meal Is a Tribute to Its No-Nonsense Spirit

By Lori Ostlund
February 29, 2016

I am a Minnesota writer. I realized this only after my first book was published in 2009. One reader called it “a crash course in being Minnesotan.” Reviewers noted that my characters were oddly formal, obsessed with grammar, wanting to connect with others but unsure how to do so—all traits that I had grown up surrounded by and passed on to my characters. A friend said that she would never want to break up with one of my characters because …

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