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American Icons: Fiddler on the Roof

How a milkman from a Russian shtetl became a Broadway star and a hero of postwar American culture.

More American Icons

American Icons: Migrant Mother

Friday, November 14, 2014

Before it became the all-purpose image of hardship, Dorothea Lange’s famous portrait was just one of hundreds she shot to document poverty in the Depression.

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American Icons: Fiddler on the Roof

Friday, October 10, 2014

How a milkman from a Russian shtetl became a Broadway star and a hero of postwar American culture.

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American Icons: Mad Magazine

Friday, July 25, 2014

From David Letterman to the writers of The Simpsons, generations of comedians and writers have grown up reading Mad Magazine. It changed the way we consume pop culture and the way we talk about world affairs — along with a generous helping of dirtyish jokes and goofy parodies.

Slideshow: The Evolution of Mad Magazine

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American Icons: The Tramp

Friday, June 27, 2014

With just a pair of baggy pants, a derby hat, mustache, floppy shoes, and his own physical genius, Charlie Chaplin created silent film's most memorable character — the Tramp.

Video: Charlie Chaplin in Kid Auto Races at Venice

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American Icons: The Scarlet Letter

Friday, May 16, 2014

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel about forbidden love among the Puritans captured our admiration for independence — and our craving for scandal. How much has changed in the 150 years since?  

Bonus Track: Tom Perrotta on Nathaniel Hawthorne's influence 

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American Icons: Untitled Film Stills

Friday, May 16, 2014

Cindy Sherman launched her career by placing herself in photos that look like movie stills for imaginary movies. With Untitled Film Stills, she also created some of the most recognizable images in 20th century art — and maybe even invented the selfie.

Slideshow: Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Stills

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American Icons: Anything Goes

Friday, May 16, 2014

Cole Porter was out of the musical theater game during the 1930s, as American mores grew looser and more risqué. But instead of getting stodgy, he wrote the classic celebration of bad behavior.

Bonus Track: an updated version of "Anything Goes"

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American Icons: I Love Lucy

Friday, March 28, 2014

It set the model for the hit family sitcom. Lucy's weekly antics and humiliation entered the DNA of TV comedy: from Desperate Housewives to 30 Rock — writers can’t live without Lucy.

Bonus Track: Mindy Kaling Hearts Ricky

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American Icons: The Autobiography of Malcolm X

Monday, February 10, 2014

When Malcolm X was assassinated at 39, his book nearly died with him.  Today it stands as a milestone in America’s struggle with race.

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American Icons: Nirvana's Nevermind

Friday, January 03, 2014

In April, the band Nirvana is being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — it’s been 25 years since the release of their first album, a gnarly piece of late punk called Bleach. But it was their second album, from 1991, that made them famous. It was angry and bracingly cynical ...

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American Icons: The Wizard of Oz

Friday, November 29, 2013

It's been over seventy years since movie audiences first watched The Wizard of Oz. Meet the original man behind the curtain, L. Frank Baum, who had all the vision of Walt Disney, but none of the business sense. Discover how Oz captivated the imaginations of Russians living under Soviet rule ...

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American Icons: The Scarlet Letter

Friday, November 01, 2013

One of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ancestors was a judge in the Salem witch trials. In his novel of early America, Hawthorne explores the tension between our deeply ingrained Puritanism and our celebration of personal freedom. Hester Prynne was American literature’s first heroine, a fallen woman who’s not ashamed of her sin ...

Bonus Track: Tom Perrotta on Nathaniel Hawthorne's influence

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American Icons: Uncle Tom's Cabin

Friday, October 25, 2013

Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin to promote the abolitionist cause. So how did Uncle Tom become the byword for a race traitor — a “shuffling, kowtowing, sniveling coward”? A scholar traces Tom’s unfortunate journey through pop culture, and a controversial writer who’s been called an Uncle Tom decides to own it ...

Slideshow: Uncle Tom in popular culture

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American Icons: The Disney Parks

Friday, October 18, 2013

Generations of Americans have grown up with Walt Disney shaping our imaginations. We’ll tour Disneyland with its art director, a second-generation Imagineer, who explains why even the trash cans are magic. In Florida, urban planner Andres Duany shows how a theme park helped reimagine city life; Tom Hanks, the first person to play Walt Disney on screen, and futurist Cory Doctorow explain how Disney made them kids for life.

Bonus Track: Cory Doctorow on the Disney theme parks

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American Icons: Untitled Film Stills

Friday, October 11, 2013

In the 1980s, Cindy Sherman began taking self-portraits that showed her in costumes and scenarios that looked just like movie stills, although they were her own inventions. In a media-saturated age, Untitled Film Stills have influenced a generation of artists as well as pop stars who play with identity as a kind of performance.

Slideshow: Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Stills

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American Icons: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Friday, October 04, 2013

How do you build a monument to a war that was more tragic than triumphant? Maya Lin was practically a kid when she got the commission to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall. Her minimalistic granite wall was derided by one vet as a “black gash of shame.” But inscribed with the name of every fallen soldier, it became a sacred place for veterans and their families, and it influenced later designs like the National September 11 Memorial. 

Bonus Track: Kurt Andersen's full interview with Maya Lin

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American Icons: Leaves of Grass

Friday, September 27, 2013

Walt Whitman set out to invent a radically new form of poetry for a new nation. His book was first viewed as bizarre and obscene — one reviewer said that the author should be publicly flogged. But revising and adding to the book until his death, Whitman accomplished his goal, creating a new Bible for American poets.

Slideshow: The changing editions of Leaves of Grass

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American Icons: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Friday, September 20, 2013

Ken Kesey had worked in a mental hospital, but his first novel was really a parable of what happens when you stand up to the Man – a counterculture fable that doesn’t end well. We visit Oregon State Hospital, where the film was shot, Louise Fletcher describes what it was like to play one of the top movie villains, and Sherman Alexie debunks the myth of the silent Indian.

Slideshow: Behind-the-scenes of the film

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American Icons: Anything Goes

Friday, September 13, 2013

Cole Porter lived in Europe during the 1920s, and returned to American to write a sharp satire of this freewheeling era that has outlived the people and events it referred to. Music historian Will Friedwald explains how Frank Sinatra saved the song, and we hear a new version written by Joe Keenan.

Exclusive Bonus Track: An updated version of "Anything Goes"

Comments [24]

American Icons: Native Son

Friday, September 06, 2013

The story of a young man in the ghetto who turns to murder was an overnight sensation. But some think Native Son exploited the worst stereotypes of black youth. We trace the line from Bigger Thomas to Notorious B.I.G., and visit a high school drama class acting out Native Son, and struggling to grasp the racism their grandparents experienced.

Video: Author Richard Wright's screen test for the film adaptation of Native Son

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