Nation Of Gamblers

Once seen as a vice and now as a public panacea, the national passion that got Thomas Jefferson in trouble has been expanding for two centuries

“I’m dad-gum disgusted at trying to police every half-square and every half-house,” Sen. Huey Long told a radio audience in Louisiana in May 1935. “You can’t close gambling nowhere where the people want to gamble.”

Dozens of casinos in St. Bernard and Jefferson parishes reopened the next day, after a nearly five-month hiatus. Read more »

Palaces Of The People

Americans invented the grand hotel in the 183Os and during the next century brought it to a zenith of democratic luxury that makes a visit to the surviving examples the most agreeable of historic pilgrimages

At the turn of the eighteenth century, a story went around Connecticut about a pious old woman who was berating her nephew for being such a rake. And an aging rake, at that. “But we’re not so very different,” he insisted. “Suppose that in traveling, you came to an inn where all the beds were full except two, and in one of those was a man and in the other was a woman. Which would you take? The woman’s, to be sure. Well, madam, so would I—” Read more »

A Tent On The Porch

First heard just a century ago at the Chicago fair, Frederick Jackson Turner’s epochal essay on the Western frontier expressed a conflict in the American psyche that tears at us still

This country’s long, acrimonious observance of the Columbian quincentenary is finally over, but it won’t be soon forgotten. during it, the much-abused figure of Christopher Columbus seemed to offer an irresistible target at which all sorts of present-minded concerns could be hurled. His case should remind us of how forcefully the shifting needs of the present affect our visions of the past, just as when a moving automobile changes direction, it transforms the vista in its rearview mirror.Read more »

The White City

THE 1893 WORLD’S COLUMBIAN EXPOSITION WAS SO WONDERFUL THAT EVERYBODY HOPED IT WAS A PROPHECY OF WHAT THE TWENTIETH CENTURY HELD IN STORE. BUT IN FACT, THE CITY THAT MOUNTED IT WAS.

“The world’s greatest achievement of the departing century was pulled off in Chicago,” said George Ade, one of the city’s first important writers. “The Columbian Exposition was the most stupendous, interesting and significant show ever spread out for the public.” The fair drew an estimated twenty-seven million people, making it the greatest tourist attraction in American history. And it was a cultural phenomenon of profound importance.Read more »

Fortress America

A Romanesque mansion in Chicago was built to forbid outsiders while providing a warm welcome to guests within

 

 
 

May 15, 1885. The architect Henry Hobson Richardson peered out of a carriage window at the corner lot on Chicago’s Prairie Avenue and then turned to his client and asked, “Have you the courage to build the house without windows on the street front?” Read more »

Indy

Every spring thirty million Americans watch the Indianapolis 500. It’s the nation’s premier racing event and the pinnacle of a glamorous, murderous epic that stretches back nearly a century.

May is a month of traditions: of flowers and commencements, of the Kentucky Derby for 117 years and Indianapolis five-hundred-mile races for 81. For an automobile race, Indy is ancient. Back in 1911 it was an all-day affair, as the winner covered five hundred miles in six hours and forty-two minutes. These days winners complete the distance in less than three hours, the same oval unraveling for a driver with the same turns, banks, and exhilarating straights.Read more »

The Party Of The People

A clipping selected at random from a generous stack tells me that the would-be Democratic candidate Tom Harkin is pitching a “populist, sharply partisan message.” I get the impression that the two adjectives are interchangeable. Another clip predictably calls David Duke a “populist.” That’s no surprise either. I have heard the word applied to Jesse Jackson and Ronald Reagan in previous campaigns—in fact, to practically every candidate who did not outright propose restricting government to the rich, the wise, and the well born.Read more »

The Diamond Jubilee Of Jazz

Seventy-five years ago this month, a not especially good band cut a record that transformed our culture

About 325,000 jazz performances have been recorded for commercial release in the twentieth century, according to the Institute for Jazz Studies, at Rutgers University. Plus thousands more have been taken from radio and concert events. Unknown billions of jazz records have been sold. But it was the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB) that made and sold the first jazz records seventy-five years ago this month (now reissued in a diamond-jubilee edition by RCA Bluebird). Read more »

Pride Of The Prairie

At the dawn of this century a new form of residential architecture rose from the American heartland, ruled by the total integration of space, site, and structure

After dinner Frank Lloyd Wright would sometimes raise a wineglass, watch the yellow candlelight refracted through the red liquid and crystal, and, quoting the Chinese philosopher Lao-tze, remark that the reality of the vessel lay in the void within, “the place of greatest peace.” Wright was perhaps America’s last great architect to conceive of his work as a search for truth. And for Wright, truth was found not in the physical form of a building but in what it contained.Read more »

Seeking The Greatest Bluesman

Robert Johnson died in obscurity in 1938; since then he has gradually gained recognition as a genius of American music. Only recently have the facts of his short, tragic life become known.

Who was Robert Johnson? For so many years that question haunted all of us who loved the blues. Certainly we knew about Robert Johnson’s music. He had time to make only a handful of recordings before he died at the age of twenty-seven in 1938, and outside of the small towns of the Mississippi Delta country where he had grown up he was almost completely unknown.Read more »