What It Means to Be American »

For Generations of Chicagoans, Marshall Field’s Transformed Commerce Into Holiday Wonder

By | December 20, 2016

Christmas has not been celebrated at Chicago’s Marshall Field’s department stores since 2005, but mention the name to just about any Windy City native, and it will plunge them back into the childhood wonder of the flagship downtown shopping emporium during the holiday season. Gazing up at the towering evergreen of the Walnut Room, glittering ornaments weighing on its boughs. Winding through lines for Cozy …

What It Means to Be American »

When the Lone Ranger Died the Radio Helped Me Feel Connected

By | December 13, 2016

The digital age, we are told, has made media more immediate, more democratic, more visceral than what came before.
I have my doubts. Was there ever anything more visceral than the radio of the early 20th century?
When I was a child in the Los Angeles of the 1930s, our family never missed a broadcast of The Lone Ranger, and the introduction, always accompanied by Rossini’s …

What It Means to Be American »

The American Revolution Story Has a Hole the Size of Spain

By | November 29, 2016

Americans like to think of our nation as exceptional in nature, a dramatic break from all that came before it. Being exceptional, it’s inconvenient to acknowledge that two European powers provided invaluable assistance in our struggle for independence from Britain. So we usually don’t. The American origin story thus has scrappy colonists fighting the British alone, with little outside help except for France’s Lafayette, and …

What It Means to Be American »

Thanksgiving Dinner Reflects Not Only Who Americans Are, but Who We Want to Be

By | November 24, 2016

No American holiday conjures up images and memories of food like Thanksgiving. Starting in preschool, most of us learned that Thanksgiving commemorates the moment in 1621 when Pilgrims sat down for a peaceful meal with their Indian friends. They wore funny hats and buckle shoes that are conveniently easy to replicate out of construction paper. They ate turkey, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and stuffing … …

What It Means to Be American »

At Just 19 Years Old, the Marquis de LaFayette Traded Versailles for Valley Forge

By | November 21, 2016

The 19-year-old Marquis de Lafayette had met only a handful of Americans when he signed up to join General George Washington’s army, but he felt certain that the people of the United States were as honorable as the cause of freedom for which they fought. Their idealism was intoxicating, and its hold on Lafayette reminds us of a time when the young United States seemed …

What It Means to Be American »

Why Canoes Are the Quintessential Vehicle for Escape

By | November 21, 2016

A canoe is like a banjo—it makes everyone happy. Propelled with paddles, sleek, long, narrow, lightweight—mostly open—and fast: Every canoe I’ve owned makes me smile at its memory. I remember my oldest daughter, at age 10, mimicking the cry of a loon, and the loon crying back, while on a Boundary Waters trip. Or that one big fish that one time in that one hole …

What It Means to Be American »

How My Americana Childhood in 1950s Rialto Turned Me Into a Protestor

By | November 20, 2016

If you want a classic portrait of middle Americana in the middle of the 20th century, you had to look no farther than my hometown of Rialto, in inland Southern California, 50 miles east of Los Angeles.
My youth on King and North Verde streets was about American kid stuff—baseball, bugs, riding my bike, my crush on a grammar school classmate named Katherine, playing John F. …

What It Means to Be American »

Inside the Coney Island ‘Freak Show’, a Forgotten Human Zoo

By | November 17, 2016

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 …

What It Means to Be American »

American Culture’s Unlikely Debt to A British Scientist

By | November 16, 2016

In 1835, through an unlikely turn of events, the young United States became the beneficiary of the estate of one James Smithson, a British scientist of considerable means who had never set foot on American soil. The gift of $500,000 (about $12 million today) carried the stipulation that it be used to create an institution for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.”
How amazing—and baffling—this …

What It Means to Be American »

Why Campaign Buttons Will Survive the Digital Age

By | November 7, 2016

On April 30, 1789, enthusiastic onlookers filled the streets, dangled out of windows, and perched on rooftops to catch a glimpse of George Washington as he made his way through the streets of New York to Federal Hall to assume the new office of President of the United States.
As at many political events that would follow, there were vendors along the procession route busily …

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