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From Camelot to Abilene
July 02, 2017 08:35 AM PDT
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In a country as big and diverse as America, stories are crucially important to our sense of common identity. But where do those stories come from, and who creates them? In this episode, we examine the work of writer Owen Wister, who gave Americans one of the touchstones of our common culture: the cowboy. But beneath the familiar surface of this legendary figure lies a complex web of dark and unexpected ideas. By exploring "The Evolution of the Cow-Puncher," an essay written at the height of the volatile Gilded Age, we gain insight into the origins of the cowboy -- and how myth can overpower truth.

1877: The Great Strike and the Red Specter of the Commune (Part Two)
December 23, 2016 08:33 PM PST
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When a railroad employee walks off the job in Baltimore, it triggers a violent chain of events that engulfs the industrialized North. From Pittsburgh to San Francisco, city after city erupts in rioting and street battles as railroad men, factory workers, and the unemployed take on militias, paramilitary groups, and the US Army in a spontaneous revolt against the new industrial order. Railyards burn and urban neighborhoods become battlegrounds. Pundits, politicians, corporate leaders, socialists, and union leaders hail the birth of an exterminationist class war. And through the smoke, the dawn of a new era can be glimpsed...

1877: The Great Strike and the Red Specter of the Commune (Part One)
June 30, 2016 03:03 PM PDT
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If you think 2016 is a turbulent year for the United States, try 1877. The country is, as one observer puts it, "on the edge of a volcano." Four years into a crippling economic crisis, a hopelessly corrupt government is beset by domestic terrorism, frontier conflicts, and class war. As cities and factories replace small towns and family farms, new, unregulated corporate empires are built on the backs of a new industrial working class. Faith in the system, and in the economic and political promise of American life, is fading. And looming over it all is the specter of the Paris Commune - an uprising from below that can only end in blood...

Buffalo Bill, the Mythic West, and the Imperial Frontier
March 28, 2016 02:16 PM PDT
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William F. Cody - better known as Buffalo Bill - did more than any other person to translate the history of the American West into the language of popular culture. This episode explores how he molded his own past, and the history of the frontier, into a grand story of national progress and conquest in dime novels, stage plays, his trademark Wild West show, and even film. As the United States plunged headlong into overseas adventures in Cuba, China, and the Philippines, Cody's spectacular arena shows gave Americans a framework for understanding their country's new role in the world, and the meanings of frontiers both old and new.

The Unending Civil War of Ambrose Bierce
September 03, 2015 07:05 PM PDT
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Ambrose Bierce was a Civil War veteran and the author of the most visceral and unsettling fiction to come out of the most violent conflict in American history. A man out of step with his own time, he insisted on bringing Americans face-to-face with the harsh realities not just of war, but politics, religion, marriage, family, business, and corruption. Hated by many, loved by virtually no one, Bierce hacked and slashed his way through a popular culture drenched in sentimentality and patriotism. In the process he became the first great American antiwar writer. We still view the Civil War through a haze of distant glory and heroism, obscuring its grit and squalor – and for us, no less than his 19th-century audience, “Bitter Bierce” provides the perfect antidote.

Sword of the Wilderness (Part Two)
May 12, 2015 07:36 AM PDT
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Forty years after the Pequot War, a new conflict threatens to tear New England apart. Decades of uneasy coexistence between Puritan colonists and native Algonquians are about to come to a bloody end. King Philip's War will become one of the most destructive wars in American history, a total war shaped by religious ideology and cultural differences. From its beginnings in 1675 through the present, it will be a "report written in blood," each generation searching for a deeper meaning in the destruction. This is the story of a complex, transformative, and nearly forgotten war - and of its long shadows.

Sword of the Wilderness (Part One)
February 10, 2015 10:18 AM PST
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The year is 1620. It is a time of upheaval and apocalyptic fears in England. In the midst of economic disaster, poverty, crime, and ever-worsening religious and political repression, a fundamentalist movement called Puritanism dreams of spiritual and national regeneration. A splinter group of Separatists transplants itself to the shores and forests of New England. They believe they have a God-given mission to redeem themselves, and mankind; they believe the cost of failure will be annihilation.

But New England is not, as the Puritans would like to believe, a tabula rasa or a virgin land. It is already inhabited by tens of thousands of Indians, with their own ways of work, war and worship. Their world, too, is a place of upheaval and uncertainty, ravaged by disease and profoundly changed by the presence of Europeans. The survivors must answer two questions: how will they survive in this rapidly changing world? and will they seek to accomodate the English – or fight them?