Exposés and Excess: Muckraking in America, 1900/2000

Exposés and Excess: Muckraking in America, 1900/2000

Exposés and Excess: Muckraking in America, 1900/2000

Exposés and Excess: Muckraking in America, 1900/2000

Synopsis

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 early 1900s, another in the final years of the twentieth century--mirror each other in their laissez-faire excess and rampant social crises. Both eras have ignited the civic passions of investigative writers who have 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 a hundred years ago; today, Cecelia Tichi notes, they have found their worthy successors in writers such as Barbara Ehrenreich, Eric Schlosser, and Naomi Klein. In Exposes and Excess Tichi 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 barbarous immigrant "dangerous classes." Offering a damning cultural analysis of the new Gilded Age, Tichi depicts a booming, insecure, fortress America of bulked up baby strollers, McMansion housing, and an obsession with money-as-lifeline in an era of deregulation, yawning income gaps, and idolatry of the market and its rock-star CEOs. No one has captured this period of corrosive boom more acutely than the group of nonfiction writers who burst on the scene in the late 1990s with their exposes of the fast-food industry, the world of low-wage work, inadequate health care,corporate branding, and the multi-billion-dollar prison industry. And nowhere have these authors--Ehrenreich, Schlosser, Klein, Laurie Garrett, and Joseph Hallinan--revealed more about their emergence as writers and the conn

Excerpt

In 2001, forty-five Vanderbilt University students, doubtless hoping for a film-and-literature course, enrolled in my “Twentieth-Century American Blockbusters.”

These blockbusters were books, not movies, I explained that hot, late August day. The titles, I emphasized, deserved the name “blockbuster” according to the dictionary definition of experience so overwhelmingly forceful that it radically changes people’s minds. The books appearing on the reading list, I pointed out, had changed public opinion on a range of issues. They included Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, both engines of the nascent environmental and feminist movements in the later twentieth century. Our semester together would let us investigate why certain books, both fiction and nonfiction narratives, have proved pivotal to social change. In a multimedia era, I wanted students to examine these narratives and their historical eras to discover how and why the book can be a social power tool.

We began with Upton Sinclair’s 1906 best-seller The Jungle. The students were horrified by the disgusting Chicago packinghouse conditions represented in the novel. Like Sinclair’s contemporary readers, the students of 2001 overlooked the heinous workplace conditions in favor of a self-interested focus on meat contamination, verifying Sinclair’s wry remark that he had aimed for the public’s heart and hit the stomach instead. Yet to a point all were sympathetic with the Lithuanian immigrant family struggling against impossible odds to earn their living as packinghouse workers in a socially corrupt and toxic environment. I informed them that President Theodore Roosevelt had read The Jungle and dispatched two agents to Chicago to verify Sinclair’s claims, whereupon they reported “meat shovelled from filthy wooden floors … in all of which practices it was in the way of gathering dirt, splinters, floor filth, and the expectoration of tuberculosis and other diseased workers” (qtd. in Tindell and Shi 951).

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