What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Identities

What Our Gargantuan Appetite for Meat Says About America

It Symbolizes Affluence and Social Status, Showcases Regional Differences, and Reveals Shifting Attitudes Toward Health

By Wilson J. Warren
August 9, 2018

Americans have always been distinguished by their love of meat. Where does that love come from?

One short answer: our ethnic heritage. Among whites, the English and Germans were two of the greatest meat-eating cultures in Europe.

But that answer is about as satisfying as an overcooked steak. So there is a longer and tastier explanation: Americans’ relationship to meat production and consumption is long-standing, and built on core beliefs that meat is not only tasty but essential to good …

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The Sarcastic Civil War Diarist Who Chronicled the Confederacy’s Fall

Raised in Plantation Privilege, Mary Boykin Chesnut Was Unprepared for the Trauma of War and Defeat

By Mary DeCredico
August 6, 2018

“February 18, 1861…. I do not allow myself vain regrets or sad foreboding. This Southern Confederacy must be supported now by calm determination and cool brains. We have risked all, and we must play our best, for the stake is life or death.”

With that entry, Mary Boykin Chesnut began her diary, chronicling the momentous four years that encompassed the American Civil War. Chesnut’s diary is one of the most significant and intimate sources for understanding the Southern Confederacy. Chesnut …

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The Wondrous Life of America’s First Male Impersonator

Annie Hindle Scandalized and Titillated Audiences, But Her Talent Won Them Over

By Gillian Rodger
July 30, 2018

On June 6, 1886, Kerr B. Tupper, a Baptist minister in Grand Rapids, Michigan, presided over the marriage of a young couple. The groom gave his name as Charles E. Hindle and listed his profession as “actor” on the marriage license. The bride’s name was Anna Ryan. The marriage was not the first for the groom, although there was no indication on the license that he had been married before. There was also no indication that Charles Hindle was, in …

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The Enslaved Chefs Who Invented Southern Hospitality

Black Cooks Created the Feasts that Gave the South Its Reputation for Gracious Living 

By Kelley Fanto Deetz
July 19, 2018

“We need to forget about this so we can heal,” said an elderly white woman, as she left my lecture on the history of enslaved cooks and their influence on American cuisine.  Something I said, or perhaps everything I said, upset her.

My presentation covered 300 years of American history that started with the forced enslavement of millions of Africans, and which still echoes in our culture today, from the myth of the “happy servant” (think Aunt Jemima on the syrup …

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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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How the NFL and American Politicians Politicized (and Helped Merchandise) Pro Football

In the '60s and '70s, Gridiron Fans Like Richard Nixon and Bobby Kennedy Embraced the Sport That Wanted Their Attention

By Jesse Berrett
July 5, 2018

In January 1942, as the United States committed itself fully to World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt decided that baseball, then the national pastime, should sustain civilian morale during the lengthy struggle ahead. He implored its commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, to make sure the games went on, despite worldwide armed conflict. And so they did. Professional baseball players, Roosevelt argued, “are a definite recreational asset.”

Roosevelt did not extend that consideration to professional football players, whose sport did not register …

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How the Pickup Truck Carried the American South Into the Future

From 'Rusty Rattletraps' to 'Big Black Jacked-Up' Rides, the Iconic Vehicles Symbolize Blue-Collar Identity While Flaunting Bourgeois Prosperity

By James C. Cobb
July 2, 2018

The pickup truck’s rise from its crude, makeshift origins to the almost luxury-item status it enjoys today amounts to a Horatio Alger tale with a technological twist, providing a striking allegory of cherished national legends of progress and upward mobility.

In the early 20th century, a number of Americans, seeking a more expeditious means of hauling material that could not be crammed into or strapped atop the traditional motorcar, took their tinsnips to the family flivver, affixing a large box …

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The Real-Life Adventuress Who Turned Nancy Drew Into a Modern Heroine

Mildred Wirt Benson Helped Invent the Fictional Teen Sleuth Who Became a Generational Role Model

By Jennifer Fisher
June 25, 2018

Nancy Drew struggled this way and that. She twisted and squirmed. She kicked and clawed. But she was powerless in the grip of the man.

‘Little wildcat! You won’t do any more scratching when I get through with you!’

‘Let me go!’ Nancy cried, struggling harder. The man half-carried, half-dragged her across the room. Opening the closet door, he flung her roughly inside. Nancy heard a key turn in the lock. The sliding of a bolt into place followed.

‘Now …

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How Anti-Spanish Bias Justified 19th-Century American Expansionism

Poet-Politician Joel Barlow Personified an Ideology Borne of Religious Antipathy and Economic Rivalry

By John C. Havard
June 22, 2018

No sooner had the U.S. Revolution ended than U.S. expansionists began looking south and southwest toward lands controlled by Spain.

The personification of this complicated project was the American poet-politician Joel Barlow. As a poet, he worked on creating public sentiment to annex Spanish lands, and, wearing his political hat, he pursued that agenda. Barlow is largely a forgotten figure today, but the myths he helped create remain with us.

Barlow was the likely author of the 1792 manuscript “Plan …

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The ‘Ambassador of Aloha’ Who Showcased Hawai‘i’s Splendors to the World

Duke Kahanamoku Broke Records, Integrated Swimming Pools and Beaches, and Personified the Islands' Gracious Spirit

By David Davis
June 18, 2018

On the morning of June 14, 1925, Duke Kahanamoku was camping out on the beach in the seaside village of Corona del Mar, about 50 miles south of Los Angeles, getting ready to do some surfing with friends, when he noticed a fishing boat named The Thelma heading out to sea.

Kahanamoku was at a crossroads in his life. He was about to turn 35 years old and his days of winning Olympic gold medals for swimming were over. …

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