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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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

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