Civic Passions: Seven Who Launched Progressive America (and What They Teach Us) (review)
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Civic Passions: Seven Who Launched Progressive America (and What They Teach Us). By Cecelia Tichi. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009. Pp. 400. $29.95)

Civic Passions, a beautifully written assemblage of minibiographies, is a welcome and crucially necessary addition to this national public discourse at this critical hour for our democracy. It aims to unite solid research with a frankly acknowledged social purpose—note those final five words of the title. Tichi, a distinguished professor of English at Vanderbilt University, prefaces the book with an essay, "Two Gilded Ages," noting the grim similarities between the final two decades of both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—periods of huge fortunes, rising inequality, and a political system for sale to the raw power of organized wealth—sustained in the age of the "robber barons" by Spencerian Social Darwinism, and in ours by a veneration of "free market" economics that borders on almost religious faith impervious to evidence. [End Page 112]

Tichi's seven subjects—Alice Hamilton, John R. Commons, Julia Lathrop, Florence Kelley, Ida Wells-Barnett, Walter Rauschenbusch, and Louis D. Brandeis—are a diverse (and except for Brandeis largely forgotten) group. What they had in common, besides middle-class origins, was a rising discontent with the patent failures of their America to match its stunning material progress with social justice and democracy. More to the point was their conviction that the situation was not dictated by immutable laws of "evolution" and economics, but that inequality and injustice could be changed by determined human efforts—starting with their own. In Tichi's words, they "turned peril into progress by citizen activism" (p. xvii). This is moral lesson as well as historical exploration; the book concludes with a call for progressive souls in the twenty-first century to likewise refuse (quoting Lathrop and Paul Kellogg) "the weary acceptance of defeat" and make every effort to leave their "tool marks on the paving stones" along the road to a better world (p. 285).

Tichi's literary technique is to focus on the "lightbulb moments" of her cast, when they were stung from complacency into action. For Dr. Alice Hamilton, pioneer crusader for occupational safety, it was learning that employers allowed their unprotected workers to be slowly poisoned on the job. For Florence Kelley, anti-child labor and consumer activist, it was seeing unschooled children working long, late hours amid the unshielded hazards of glassmaking furnaces. For African American journalist Wells-Barnett, it was having friends lynched, not in the Deep South but in Cairo, Illinois, and vowing no rest until lynch law was ended. Without preaching, but letting the facts speak for themselves, Tichi creates an eminently readable narrative.

Tichi does a particularly good job revealing these reformers as genuine human beings. They have passionate friendships; they have real-life worries about making livings and pleasing their parents, and they share concerns that they will waste their lives in the world unless they Do Good. Tichi shows, too, that they were thinkers—people mattered to her heroic seven, but so did books. One gets from Civic Passions implicitly as well as explicitly the sense that progressivism [End Page 113] was a truly democratic movement—full of humility and caring, as well as thoughtfulness.

As important and well done as Tichi's book is, there are a few weaknesses. The writing, which generally has much to recommend it, is at times a bit overwrought, more appropriate for early-twentieth century melodrama than early-twenty-first century scholarly writing (even that done with a public audience in mind). Also, Tichi's focus on one major event or transformation in her characters' lives means that she neglects or rushes through other important parts of their experiences. More significantly, Tichi's reformers are just a bit too high-minded, a bit too virtuous. Only in the rarest of circumstances do they succumb to antidemocratic motivations or ideas, or do the reforms that they advocate and help put in place have any deleterious (even if unintended) consequences. In fact, despite the difficulties that the reformers face along the way, they rarely fail to achieve their goals...


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