From robber barons to titanic CEOs, from the labor unrest of the 1880s to the mass layoffs of the 1990s, two American Gilded Ages—one in the late 1800s, another in the final years of the 20th century—mirror each other in their laissez-faire excess and rampant social crises. Both eras ignited the civic passions of investigative writers who drafted diagnostic blueprints for urgently needed change. The compelling narratives of the muckrakers—Upton Sinclair, Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, and Ray Stannard Baker among them—became best-sellers and prize-winners 100 years ago; today, Cecelia Tichi notes, they have found worthy successors in writers such as Barbara Ehrenreich, Eric Schlosser, and Naomi Klein.
In “Exposés and Excess,” Tichi, a professor of English at Vanderbilt University, explores the two Gilded Ages through the lens of their muckrakers. Drawing from her considerable and wide-ranging work in American studies, Tichi details how the writers of the first muckraking generation used fact-based narratives in magazines such as McClure’s to rouse the U.S. public to civic action in an era of unbridled industrial capitalism and fear of the immigrant “dangerous classes.”
Tichi then turns her attention to the group of nonfiction writers who burst on the scene in the late 1990s with their exposés of the fast-food industry, the world of low-wage work, inadequate health care and the multibillion-dollar prison industry. These authors—Ehrenreich, Schlosser, Klein, Laurie Garrett, and Joseph Hallinan—reveal much about their emergence as writers and the connections between journalism and literary narrative in the rich and insightful interviews that round out the book.
Originally published on October 30, 2003