Becoming Jane Addams
IN 1894, the Pullman Car Works, a paternalistic Chicago firm, announced a wage cut and its workers went on strike. Jane Addams, who had founded Hull House in Chicago five years earlier as a place of refuge and support for the poor, was stunned by the class antagonism that followed. "Nothing in my experience," she wrote many years later, had prepared her for "that distinct cleavage of society which a general strike at least momentarily affords." Unsure what to make of it all, Addams walked four and a half miles to the new statue of Abraham Lincoln created by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, where she brooded over the inscription, a reiteration of the Emancipator's call for charity to all, and then walked back to Hull House.
Did Jane Addams approach Lincoln as an equal? Or course not, for no one in American history rivals Lincoln's stature. Yet Addams would go on to become one of the greatest of Americans, and the pilgrimage she made to Lincoln Park, as Louise W. Knight relates in "Citizen," was a key stop along the way. Before the Pullman strike - and the simultaneous death of her sister Mary - Addams was a product of the small-town Midwest in which she was raised. Strongly shaped by the evangelical convictions of her father, she was as paternalistic, if in her own way, as George Pullman. Poor people lacked refinement; her task was to bring them culture. Sympathy, not solidarity, motivated her. She would teach the poor of Chicago Shakespeare and Goethe, and along the way, she would impress upon them the importance of virtue and the evils of vice.
The experience of the Pullman strike - indeed, experience itself - changed Jane Addams. She had developed a friendship with the University of Chicago philosopher John Dewey, and Dewey's pragmatism opened her to the idea that conflict was a fact of social life, even a sign of progress, not some deviation from an idealistic yearning for harmony. Examining with fresh eyes the realities of fin-de-siècle Chicago, Addams came to understand the role that powerful financial and political interests played in maintaining systems of social stratification. Devastating economic depressions and bitter class conflict, along with the insights of her Hull House colleague Florence Kelley, forced Addams to confront her belief in benevolence, which she increasingly saw as "self-righteous" and "egotistical." By the last years of the 19th century, the modern Jane Addams had been born, a determined social reformer, advocate of women's suffrage, opponent of the Spanish-American War, and powerful writer and political thinker.
Oddly, Knight stops her book at precisely the moment when the greatness of Jane Addams begins to emerge; "Citizen" ends in 1899, even though Addams, who would win the Nobel Prize in 1931, died in 1935. A half-life does not a biography make, but Knight is not really writing a biography; her book is what the Germans call a bildung, an account of how a person's character is formed. As it happens, Knight's decision to focus on Addams's early years is a stroke of genius. We know a great deal about Jane Addams the public figure. We know relatively little about how she made the transition from the 19th century to the 20th. In Knight's book, Jane Addams comes to life.
Addams was raised by three women; her mother died when she was 2ð, after which her older sister Mary and her eventual stepmother played major roles in her upbringing. But it was her father who dominated Jane's childhood. A successful businessman and devout Christian, John Addams corresponded with Abraham Lincoln and was an avid supporter of the Italian republican Giuseppe Mazzini. A man of his times, he wanted Jane close to home and constantly thwarted her dream of attending Smith College. But he was the kind of Christian who, believing that individuals ought to find their own path to God, never joined a church or subscribed to a creed. His daughter inherited much of the same disposition. Although under pressure from neighbors and teachers to convert, she resisted, and while her ideas would be shaped by Christianity, Jane Addams would never become a conventionally religious person.
Addams was an outstanding student at Rockford Seminary, where she met Ellen Gates Starr, with whom she would found Hull House. (Addams and Starr were a couple; whether they were celibate is known only to them.) For a woman expected eventually to settle into domesticity, Addams's early life brought her unusually close to public events. The son of a close family friend was the immortal disappointed office seeker who assassinated President Garfield. When a senior at Rockford, she participated in a debate dominated by men and placed fifth of nine; in second place stood an Illinois College student named William Jennings Bryan. Addams traveled extensively in Europe, where she met the leaders of Toynbee Hall in London, the inspiration for her efforts in Chicago.
After a personal crisis brought on by the descent of her brother into mental illness, Addams moved to Chicago, using her family inheritance to rent a large house on Halsted Street, in the heart of the immigrant world that Chicago had become. Knight's book is filled with fascinating detail about everyday life at Hull House, from the way residents were selected, to the fund-raising difficulties that emerged as Addams exhausted her personal wealth, to an absorbing account of Addams's life as a Chicago garbage inspector. Knight's extensive research and straightforward narrative allow readers to watch Addams gain self-confidence, survive a breakup with Starr and the formation of a new relationship with Mary Rozet Smith, wrestle with her desire to help immigrants even as she disdains much about their way of life, and try to establish democracy at Hull House while remaining reluctant to cede control of its destiny.
"Citizen" has a larger story to tell than that of Jane Addams's moral formation. Knight wants her readers to believe that the hardheaded and politically engaged Addams is preferable to the idealistic, Christian-influenced and morally absolutist one. Her argument on this point is not completely convincing. For one thing, Addams retained much of her early idealism later in life. She changed the world around her, not only because of her political activism but because of her moral persuasion. The reforms she helped midwife and the social justice she fostered came about because she, like Lincoln, appealed to the better angels of our nature.
More important, the progressive Jane Addams is familiar to us, and familiarity breeds complacency; we already know that privilege is unjust or that the powerful play unfairly. The thinkers who influenced the earlier Jane Addams - the British philosopher T. H. Green, the Social Christian economist Richard Ely, Samuel and Henrietta Barnett of Toynbee Hall - may be out-of-date, but in today's cynical political environment, their idealism is refreshing. Once, in 1895, a British couple visiting Hull House left their shoes outside their bedroom door, expecting that someone would polish them. Finding the shoes, Jane Addams did exactly that. Today's politically engaged leftist would be appalled. But for Addams, little acts of kindness led to large acts of compassion.
For all her identification with the mature Jane Addams, Knight, an independent scholar, has something in common with the woman who polished those shoes. "Citizen" is written neither to make money nor to gain academic tenure; it is a gift, meant to enlighten and improve. Jane Addams would have understood.
Alan Wolfe directed the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College and is writing a book on whether democracy still works.