Civic Passions

Seven Who Launched Progressive America (and What They Teach Us)

By Cecelia Tichi

400 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 43 illus., notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-7191-1
    Published: February 2011
  • eBook ISBN: 978-0-8078-9869-7
    Published: October 2009

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Awards & distinctions

A Nota Bene selection of The Chronicle of Higher Education

A gripping and inspiring book, Civic Passions examines innovative leadership in periods of crisis in American history. Starting from the late nineteenth century, when respected voices warned that America was on the brink of collapse, Cecelia Tichi explores the wisdom of practical visionaries who were confronted with a series of social, political, and financial upheavals that, in certain respects, seem eerily similar to modern times. The United States--then, as now--was riddled with political corruption, financial panics, social disruption, labor strife, and bourgeois inertia.

Drawing on a wealth of evocative personal accounts, biographies, and archival material, Tichi brings seven iconoclastic--and often overlooked--individuals from the Gilded Age back to life. We meet physician Alice Hamilton, theologian Walter Rauschenbusch, jurist Louis D. Brandeis, consumer advocate Florence Kelley, antilynching activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, economist John R. Commons, and child-welfare advocate Julia Lathrop. Bucking the status quo of the Gilded Age as well as middle-class complacency, these reformers tirelessly garnered popular support as they championed progressive solutions to seemingly intractable social problems.

Civic Passions is a provocative and powerfully written social history, a collection of minibiographies, and a user's manual on how a generation of social reformers can turn peril into progress with fresh, workable ideas. Together, these narratives of advocacy provide a stunning precedent of progressive action and show how citizen-activists can engage the problems of the age in imaginative ways. While offering useful models to encourage the nation in a newly progressive direction, Civic Passions reminds us that one determined individual can make a difference.

About the Author

Cecelia Tichi is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English at Vanderbilt University. She is author or editor of eleven books, including Exposés and Excess: Muckraking in America, 1900/2000, and was awarded the 2009 Hubbell Medal for Lifetime Achievement by the American Literature Section of the Modern Language Association.
For more information about Cecelia Tichi, visit the Author Page.


"Remind[s] readers that the legacies of century-old struggles are woven deeply into the fabric of life today. . . . Tichi's writing is always clear; and she invests Civic Passions with narrative brio."--Bookforum

"In a lively spur to reform-minded discussion, Tichi offers profiles of seven Victorian-era reformers. . . . Their deeds, eloquently channeled here, do resound with renewed import now."--Publishers Weekly

"A passion for the progressives . . . Cecelia Tichi's new book dramatizes a chapter in America's history."--The Chronicle of Higher Education

"Highly readable. . . . As much an intervention in modern political debates as it is a contribution to historiography. . . . In each of the book's seven main chapters, Tichi presents a sensitive, contextualized portrait of an individual whose life work confronted, and changed, the circumstances of a rapidly modernizing America."--Tennessee Historical Quarterly

"Beautifully written . . . each chapter succeeds in gripping readers by plunging them into the middle of the subject's stream of life, generally at a pivotal moment in his or her career."--Indiana Magazine of History

"Read this book and the embers in your civic soul will flare again. Cecelia Tichi is a master of her subject and her craft. In writing so fluently and vividly about seven people who helped to save democracy in the first Gilded Age, she rekindles the passion and courage needed to confront the ravages of its reincarnation in our time. Just as she did with her book on great muckraking journalists then and now--Exposés and Excess--Tichi takes us back to the future and challenges us to stand up as citizens to the powerful forces of unbridled capitalism that threatens to overwhelm our democratic traditions and institutions."--Bill Moyers