The American Story

By Christopher Flannery

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Every generation of Americans has been faced with the same question: how should we live? Our endlessly interesting answers have created The American Story. The weekly episodes published here stretch from battlefields and patriot graves to back roads, school yards, bar stools, city halls, blues joints, summer afternoons, old neighborhoods, ball parks, and deserted beaches—everywhere you find Americans being and becoming American. They are true stories about what it is that makes America beautiful, what it is that makes America good and therefore worthy of love. Each episode aims in some small way to awaken the better angels of our nature, to welcome us into and encourage us to enrich the great American story.

Episode Date
Apples of Gold in Pictures of Silver

The Declaration’s great American proclamation that “all men are created equal” and the first three words of the Constitution—“We the People”—are profoundly connected. The relation between these two ideas—equality and consent—is the vital center of American political freedom.

Sep 15, 2020
The Real American Revolution

We are not born understanding what it means to be an American, understanding the idea of political freedom, or knowing about the American Revolution. We have to learn these things. If we don’t, the American Revolution, political freedom, and Americans will vanish from the earth.

Sep 08, 2020
Ninety Percent Mental

Great American philosopher, Lorenzo Pietro Berra, more commonly known as Yogi Berra, was a baseball legend. As a player with the New York Yankees, he won Ten World Series championships, with 18 All-Star games, three Most Valuable Player Awards, 358 home runs and 1,430 runs batted in, which earned him a place in the Hall of Fame. After his playing career, he was one of a handful of managers to reach the World Series in both leagues. But Yogi Berra is best known for —Yogi-isms.

Sep 01, 2020
As Time Goes By

One of the most popular films in Hollywood history, “Casablanca” seems to be composed of one famous line after another. For over 75 years, it has inspired us to stand up and sing in defiance of tyranny and on behalf of the cause of freedom.

Aug 25, 2020
The Course of Human Events

Billy Fiske was “the first U.S. citizen to join the Royal Air Force and the first American pilot killed in action during the war in Europe” in World War II. He was a New Yorker who had lived some years in Europe and who had won Olympic gold medals in the sport of bobsledding. He was a graduate of Cambridge University, and he told his British friends in the 1930s as they all could see the storm gathering in Europe, that if war came, “I want to be in it with you–from the start.”

Aug 18, 2020
Known but to God

More than 4 million visitors come to the Arlington National Cemetery every year from across America and around the world and, unless they have their own personal visit to make, the thing they most want to do is to climb the hill to the high ground of the Memorial Amphitheater and visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Aug 11, 2020

What makes Gettysburg America’s most hallowed ground? A delegation of Russian historians at the height of the Cold War seemed to know, when American historians had forgotten.

Aug 04, 2020
This Was a Man

Frederick Bailey was born into slavery in 1818. With determination, courage, some help from others, and good luck, he managed to escape to freedom when he was 20 years old. He made his way to Massachusetts, gave himself a new name, Frederick Douglass, started working as a free man and very soon gave a triumphant first speech to an abolitionist group, which launched him on a career as an anti-slavery speaker and writer.

Jul 28, 2020
Man’s Best Friend

America takes pride in being a land of opportunity—for everyone, including those who suffer the impairments of nature, accident, or tragedy. For those with disabilities, local communities can be supportive. Smart technology can assist. Government can do some things to give them a hand up. Above all, there is the spirit and determination of the individual. And for the blind, there are — guide dogs.

Jul 21, 2020

An old friend of mine has written a book, a very good and deeply learned book, about America. The book is about those truths and the blessings that flow from them, that extend across and bind together generations of Americans in noble civic friendship.

Jul 14, 2020
Pony Express to GPS

In 1861, the young Mark Twain set out on a great American adventure, a stagecoach ride from St. Joe, Missouri to Carson City in Nevada Territory. Today, he would ride in an SUV guided by a factory-installed GPS system. The adventure would be even greater!

Jul 07, 2020
Independence Forever!

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams celebrate their last Fourth of July.

Jun 30, 2020
An Ace You Can Keep

Most of us understand the language of poker, even if we’ve never played. We know what a “poker face” is, what it means to be “all in” or to “have an ace up your sleeve.” Since Kenny Rogers’s 1978 hit song “The Gambler,” millions of Americans have been singing about poker. It is very much a game of the American West. It has the frontier spirit in it, and it is somehow about life and death and everything in between.

Jun 23, 2020
American Names

A poem comes to a poet, and he sends it orphaned out into the world, to take its chances. It never knows who or what it might inspire or how it might become part of the world it has stepped into. Stephen Vincent Benet sent his poem, “American Names,” out into the world in 1927. Years later the first line inspired a hit song for a new movie. The last line became the title of a best-selling book, then of a song and a movie. All this and more, unexpectedly, from a couple of lines from an orphaned poem.

Jun 16, 2020
The Club

The Literary Club of Cincinnati was founded on October 29, 1849 and is—as far as I know—the oldest continuously operating Literary Club in America. Members come from all professions and persuasions; what brings them together is their abiding regard for the written word. Attending one of their Monday evening gatherings reminds one how essential private clubs and “associations” have always been to American democracy.

Jun 09, 2020
How Sleep the Brave

Back in that spring and summer of 1775, when he was just seven years old and the War for Independence swirled around him and his family, John Quincy Adams remembered, “[my mother] taught me to repeat daily after the Lord’s prayer [the Ode of Collins] before rising from bed.”

Jun 02, 2020
Hallowed Ground

It’s true that memory rests lightly on Los Angeles. But turn east from Sepulveda Boulevard just north of Wilshire onto Constitution Avenue, and you immediately recede from the goings and comings of the eternal present and enter a sanctuary of remembrance.

May 25, 2020
Last Hand

It is hard to know where facts give way to legend in the case of Wild Bill; but some of the things he did in truth, as a frontiersman and lawman, may have exceeded the legends or at least deserved to become legends. The case of Wild Bill seems custom made for the immortal and mystifying words of the editor of the Shinbone Star, in the classic John Ford film “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence”: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

May 19, 2020
“Make Cakes!”

During peak hours, in the 300 block of Brand Boulevard in the city of Glendale, in what is called “Metropolitan Los Angeles,” you might see a line of eager people making their way into Porto’s Bakery & Café. You might see a similar scene in Buena Park, Burbank, Downey, or West Covina. Porto’s is a many-splendored gift to the Southland. And it’s not just the empanadas; it’s the spirit of freedom and enterprise. Rosa and Raul Porto and their children brought this gift to America from Cuba a lifetime ago.

May 12, 2020
Fingertip Memories

Helen Keller was 14 years old when she first met the world-famous Mark Twain in 1894. They became fast friends for life. Keller, who was deaf and blind, loved to listen to Twain tell his stories by putting her fingers to his lips. As she said of Twain, “He knew that we do not think with eyes and ears, and that our capacity for thought is not measured by five senses. He kept me always in mind while he talked, and he treated me like a competent human being. That is why I loved him.”

May 05, 2020
The Man of Steel

Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive…The Man of Steel fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.

Apr 28, 2020
Our Greatest Poet

When you read Abraham Lincoln, you somehow become more than yourself, you become better. And his words want to be read aloud, too. Start with the Second Inaugural—so beautiful—and the Gettysburg Address—his short ones. They are American poems.

Apr 15, 2020
Number 42

Each year on April 15, all players in Major League Baseball turn in their regular uniforms and wear one adorned with the number 42. On no other day does any player wear that number; it has been permanently retired. This custom, unique in North American professional sports, has been adopted to honor a man who not only changed a sport, but helped change a country.

Apr 14, 2020
El Pueblo y el Hombre

The detective hero, and the detective novel, are not an American invention. But a few authors like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler made them as American as apple pie. The attitude of Chandler’s hard-edged, soft-hearted, wise-cracking hero and the atmosphere of Chandler’s Los Angeles were as unmistakably American as Humphrey Bogart, who played Marlowe in the 1946 film version of Chandler’s The Big Sleep.

Apr 07, 2020
Of Birds and Potatoes

If you need a little poetry in your life—and who doesn’t?—Billy Collins can be a good place to start. Collins writes unblushingly to attract new readers to poetry and to encourage those who have given up to come back. And he is famously funny. So much so that, because he reads his poems so amusingly and his readings have been so successful and well-attended, he has been called—not always as a compliment—a “stand-up poet.”

Mar 31, 2020
Michael Patrick Murphy
This episode is about an American warship that carries on the name and the work of an American warrior. The ship and her crew operate in more than 48 million square miles of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The area is more than 14 times the size of the continental United States; it includes 36 maritime countries, 50% of the world’s population, and the world’s 5 largest foreign armed forces.
Mar 24, 2020
On the Way to BB’s

If you are walking down Broadway in St. Louis on your way to BB’s Jazz, Blues, and Soups, you will awaken to many American memories, among them a poem you probably already knew.

Mar 17, 2020
Standin’ on a Corner

Things happen to a town, and then it’s never the same. Or it’s the same in some new way. Whatever it was before, it’s hard to think of it now without the new thing. Like the Parthenon in Athens or the Statue of Liberty in New York. It comes along and suddenly forever it is part of the identity of the town it came into. In the case of this town, it was a song. Or a few lines from a song.

Mar 10, 2020
Bravest of the Brave

When you visit the historic Mound Cemetery in Marietta, Ohio, the guidebook informs you that, in addition to the ancient burial mound, the cemetery “contains more Revolutionary War officers’ graves than any other graveyard in the United States.”

Mar 03, 2020
Charlie Brown

There is more of Charlie Brown in most of us than there is Abraham Lincoln or Michael Jordan. We identify with his failures and suffer with him. But it isn’t just his failures. Charlie Brown is resilient. He never quits. Despite setbacks and moments of despair, he is at heart an optimist — and one of America’s greatest success stories.

Feb 25, 2020
Beautiful Goodness

As a Captain of Volunteers in the Black Hawk War, the 23-year old Abraham Lincoln managed in a desperate moment to keep some hard-bitten men—who had elected him—from committing murder. They had chosen him as captain because he was the best man among them, the one most worthy of their esteem. Lincoln earned it in no small part by outrunning, outboxing, and outwrestling them, but they knew, when they listened to the better angels of their natures, that there were much more important reasons to esteem him.

Feb 18, 2020
Skunk Works

Beginning in a rented circus tent, a team of unconventional aeronautical engineers design generations of American military aircraft

Feb 11, 2020
The Great Houdini

The young Ehrich Weiss needed money, but he lived for fame. By the time he was 17, he had decided how to get it—he would become Houdini. 

Feb 04, 2020
Call Me Sam

A boy from a village in India makes his way to America and finds a bit of heaven on earth

Jan 28, 2020
One More for Chesty

What is it that makes a Marine’s Marine?

Jan 21, 2020
The American Dream

About the standard by which Americans judge the success and failure of their experiment in self-government

Jan 14, 2020
Just Kit Carson

“He looked as if he would know exactly what to do, if awakened suddenly in the night, ready for anything”

Jan 07, 2020
Freedom of the Mind

Let’s begin by daring to question the prevailing dogmas of our time, to open our minds to all times

Dec 31, 2019
The Art of Teaching

They learned from this Hungarian immigrant that they are the fortunate of the earth and that their great good fortune lies in the country into which they were born

Dec 31, 2019
Totus Porcus

I never knew so much hog in a man

Dec 24, 2019
A Little Academe

He always regarded the human mind as free to be determined by the truth about the greatest questions

Dec 24, 2019
Of Oranges and Shakespearean Dreams

For the rest of his life, oranges would always smell like freedom

Dec 24, 2019
The Crisis of Man

It was spring, 1946, and Albert Camus was in New York City on the only visit he would ever make to America

Dec 24, 2019
Born American

“Why are we going to America?” . . . “We were born American, but in the wrong place”

Dec 24, 2019
All of You on the Good Earth

President Kennedy told a special joint session of Congress that it was “time for a great new American Enterprise”

Dec 17, 2019
Go West!

The Oregon Trail was the superhighway of the early American West

Dec 10, 2019
Simple Truth

The Congress of the United States named him “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen”

Dec 03, 2019
Teddy Ballgame

If there was ever a real-life John Wayne — or the character Wayne played so well — it was Ted Williams

Nov 26, 2019
An Evening on the Benjamin Franklin

John Quincy Adams and a pioneer reflect on the Northwest Territory and American freedom

Nov 19, 2019

"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." This episode is in loving memory of Merle Whitis.

Nov 12, 2019
Daring Young Men in Their Flying Machines

How airmail became woven into the fabric of American life

Nov 05, 2019
The Greatness of Washington

"Our history is but a transcript of his claims on our gratitude”

Oct 29, 2019
One Iron

Ben Hogan and “the purest stroke I’ve ever seen”

Oct 22, 2019
The Great Author of America

Why “the finest Shakespeare collection in the world” is in Washington, D.C

Oct 15, 2019
We Are All Americans

“Savage Jack Falstaff” meets Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House

Oct 08, 2019
Broomsticks at Happy Time

American victory in World War II was far from preordained

Oct 01, 2019
What's Love Got to Do with It?

To be willing to lose your life for your country.

Sep 24, 2019
O Captain, My Captain!

Young Abraham Lincoln does some good in the Blackhawk War.

Sep 16, 2019
Independence Forever!

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams celebrate their last Fourth of July.

Sep 16, 2019
Number 42

Why everyone in Major League Baseball wears that number every April 15

Sep 16, 2019
The Great Depression and the Cowboy Philosopher

A little humor can help get a country through hard times.

Sep 16, 2019
America the Beautiful

The American Dream, The California Dream, and the City of Dreams

Sep 13, 2019