Biography Of Jane Addamsby Jean Bethke Elshtain
The founder of the famed Chicago institution Hull House and first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize has for too long been misunderstood as a mere "do-gooder," argues Jean Bethke Elshtain in this eagerly anticipated new interpretation of the life and work of Jane Addams. Like her biographer, Addams (1860-1935) was a quintessential "public intellectual."
The founder of the famed Chicago institution Hull House and first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize has for too long been misunderstood as a mere "do-gooder," argues Jean Bethke Elshtain in this eagerly anticipated new interpretation of the life and work of Jane Addams. Like her biographer, Addams (1860-1935) was a quintessential "public intellectual." Under her hand, Hull House became a cultural and intellectual center, a place where beauty was served, where University of Chicago professors lectured and debate and discussion filled the auditorium.Elshtain examines Addams's life chronologically and thematically, exploring Addams's embrace of "social feminism" and her challenge to the usual cleavage between "conservative" and "liberal"-themes Elshtain brilliantly explores in her own writings. Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy is a rich and revealing portrait of one of the most extraordinary figures in American history.
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The Snare of Preparation
Jane Addams lived a quintessentially public life; there are no mysterious lost periods in her story. Records are sparse from the six months she spent bedridden following back surgery performed by her brother-in-law Harry Haldemanprobably due to her relative inactivity during this period and to her state of mind (she had reportedly suffered a nervous breakdown). But apart from this six-month period, her whereabouts and her actions are well documented. Born September 6, 1860, she was christened Laura Jane Addams; but throughout her childhood and youth, she was called Jennie by her close family members and friends. She was the eighth of nine children of John Huy and Sarah Weber Addams, and one of only four (three girls and one boy) to reach adulthood. Her mother died when she was two years old. She was cared for by her older sisters until 1868, when her father married Anna Haldeman, a widow with two children. Jane Addams entered the Rockford Female Seminary in 1877, and graduated in 1881. She was retroactively awarded a bachelor's degree in 1882, when Rockford Seminary became Rockford College and gained the right to confer that degree on students who had completed qualifying work in science.
The most important event of her young adult years was the death of her father in August 1881an event that plunged her into a paroxysm of self-doubt ending in the breakdown of her own health and a long period of psychosomatic invalidism. During her early adulthoodthe years that she called "the snare of preparation"shemade two trips to Europe: one in 1883-1885, and a second in 1887-1888. Her European trips were punctuated by a winter in Baltimore in 1884, where her stepbrother George Haldeman was pursuing graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University, and by two summers in her Cedarville home (1885 and 1886). During the first of those summers, she was baptized and joined the Presbyterian church in her village.
In January 1889, having hatched a scheme of moving into a "big house" in a "congested quarter" of Chicago in order to establish a settlement there based on the model of Toynbee Hall in London, Addams and her friend Ellen Gates Starr began their search for a suitable site. Hull-House opened its doors on September 18 that same year, and a period of rapid expansion followed, during which buildings sprang up and activities sprouted like mushrooms, seemingly overnight. Addams was hailed as one of America's most extraordinary and influential young women. Among Hull-House's residents were many who later played a foundational role in American social reform, including Julia Lathrop and Florence Kelley.
By the turn of the century, Jane Addams's praises were being sung in every quarter. In one way or another, her name is attached to every major social reform between 1890 and 1925. But irritation also began to surface among some observers in response to her defense of anarchists following the 1901 assassination of President William McKinley. A few years later, her activities took a more partisan turn, when she served as a delegate to the national convention of Progressives and as a member of the party's platform committee in 1912. At the national convention, she seconded the nomination of Theodore Roosevelt for president. Her peace activities, at first lauded, later exposed her to public ridicule and scorn. She opposed U.S. entry into World War I in 1917 and broke with most of her fellow Progressives on this issue. She spearheaded the American Woman's Peace Party, which became a founding section of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.
At the first congress of the Women's International League, held in the Hague in 1915, Addams was elected presidenta position to which she was reelected in every year following, until she stepped down from responsibility for direct, hands-on leadership (and even then she was named honorary president for life). Addams's wartime activities and her defense of immigrants and aliens earned her a blacklisting by the Lusk Committee of the New York state legislature in 1919. Interestingly, although she voted for Socialist Eugene Debs for president of the United States in 1920, Herbert Hoover earned her votes in 1928 and in 1932. She respected Hoover for his role in famine relief in postwar European effort in which she had participated. In 1931, the University of Chicago awarded her an honorary doctorate, and she received the Nobel Peace Prize (with Nicholas Murray Butler).
Her health was uncertain for many years, and she endured bouts of appendicitis, a heart attack, and a kidney operation. She died in Chicago on May 21, 1935, of cancer. All of Chicago was plunged into mourning. Expressions of sympathy and regret poured in from around the world. At her request, she was taken back to the village of Cedarville for burial. Her close friend and companion Mary Rozet Smith, who had signed on with Hull-House in its early years, taking on responsibility for the boys' clubs, had preceded her in death.
No one disputes these facts, although some have quibbled over a date or two (Addams's first biographer, her nephew James Weber Linn, was a bit haphazard with dates). However, a minor controversy arose around Addams's version of a bullfight she saw in Madrid, in April 1888, and later recounted in Twenty Years at Hull-House. Addams attended the bullfight with friends. She suggests in her autobiography that she was overcome with revulsion at her own attraction to the ritualized brutality. She describes her friends, who had left the fight early in disgust, as "stern and pale with disapproval of my brutal endurance," for she stayed to the very end, transfixed by the noise, the blood, the spectacle. But in a letter written at the time, she does not use the bullfight as an occasion for moral redress and improvement, and she makes no mention of friends leaving early even as she remained to the bitter, glorious end. According to historian Christopher Lasch, "[Her] autobiography almost invariably tends to read back more significance into earlier events than the contemporary records seem to warrant; more significance, at least, than she was aware of at the time."
The matter in disputeand it isn't much of a disputeis Addams's reconstruction and interpretation of events in her life. Interpretive ambiguity is more or less inevitable whenever people put pen to paper to tell the story of a life, whether their own or someone else's. As attuned as Addams was to narrative structure, the requirements of drama, and the need to tether important ethical decisions to concrete and vivid events, it would not be at all surprising for the bullfight sequence to take on a more elaborate role when placed within a later narrative about her life at Hull-House. All of us tend to read particular significance into past events so as to make sense of what occurred after those events. Addams clearly believed that a sturdy self is a self that makes sense, not a self that is "all at sea" about life's meaning and purposes.
Being no doubt aware that no history, including that of one's own life, can reproduce things exactly as they happened, Addams must have appreciated that what she omitted or retold in a way that differed from a contemporaneous account was a sidebar, not the main story. Her primary concern was to close the gap between thought and deed, and her civic identity sprang from this concern. What use, she reasoned, are grand ideas if they can never be put into practice in some way?
Such pragmatism can, in some individuals, lead to brute reductionism and debasement of all complex, abstract thought. I do not see this tendency in Addams; however, others have, including Christopher Lasch, whose book The New Radicalism in America first piqued my interest in Addams. Although I do not entirely agree with Lasch's interpretation (in particular, with his chapter titled "Jane Addams: The College Woman and the Family Claim"), I was intrigued by his interweaving of Addams's personal emotional crises of lassitude, ennui, and despair with her public, active solution to those crises: Hull-House. His intuition of a deep conflict born in the interaction between the morally earnest eight-year-old Addams and her demanding, artistically inclined stepmothera conflict mirrored in competing currents in American society at the timeis convincing. Such a conflict is implicit in Addams's omission of her stepmother from her official life story. Yet Addams also possessed the ability to depersonalize such conflicts and to perceive the wider cultural strands at work even in personal experiences. That being the case, it would be ironic indeed were the scholar writing about her to violate Addams's own sense of how a public self comes into being.
Although Lasch speculated about Addams's psychological motivation and identified a certain "anti-intellectualism" in her extolment of "applied knowledge," he did view her primarily as a theorist and an intellectual"a thinker of originality and daring"a conclusion that is borne out by my own analysis in this book. To his credit, Lasch got Addams's hard-won purposes right"not so much ... helping the poor as ... understanding them," and "bridging the chasm that industrialism had opened between social classes." The fact that Addams did not write an omnibus theory of society "because she distrusted the dogmatism with which such theories are often associated," Lasch saw as a strength, not a weakness. Lasch helps us get at the roots of Addams's identity formation and the motivation behind others' condescending treatment of her as a thinker, adopting her strugglenamely, sympathetic understandingas his own. For Addams, this approach was the indispensable core of what might best be called the democratic character.
Lasch's attempt at sympathetic understanding is rarer than it should be. Sadly, many who have written about Addams have made no such effort. As a result, when we read most accounts that postdate her death and burial, we enter the strangely abstract and perpetually unsettled realm of criticism. No wonder Ruby and Marie are vexed.
The Politics of Criticism
Jacob Riis, a journalist with a reputation for devastating exposés of the awful conditions in America's early-twentieth-century cities, also penned these rare words of praise: "They have good sense in Chicago. Jane Addams is there." This sentiment was not shared universally. In a 1934 tract titled The Red Network: A Who's Who and Handbook of Radicalism for Patriots, the mightily exercised Elizabeth Dilling described Jane Addams as a dangerous radical masquerading as a saintly champion of the poor. In Dilling's view, Addams was so "greatly beloved because of her kindly intentions toward the poor" that she was "able to do more probably than any other living woman (as she tells in her own books) to popularize pacifism and to introduce radicalism into colleges, settlements, and respectable circles." Dilling's warning to readers to avoid Addams's dangerous influence echoes the language used in World War I propaganda against aliens and seditionists: "One knowing of her consistent aid of the Red movement can only marvel at the smooth and charming way she at the same time disguises this aid and reigns as 'queen' on both sides of the fence." Dilling claims to have been impressed by Addams's charming subterfuge during their only face-to-face encounter, which occurred in May 1933, at a legislative hearing in Chicago.
A different form of depreciation appears in a 1991 book by literary historian and theorist Tom Lutz, titled American Nervousness: An Anecdotal History. Lutz's interesting analysis of turn-of-the-century diagnoses of nervous disorders including neurasthenia, with which Jane Addams was diagnosed, is marred by his undisguised contempt for what he sees as Addams's insensitivity to other cultures. He describes Addams as one "of the haughty few" who interpreted their personal afflictions as the result of the debilitating effects of overcivilization on the well educated and who nonetheless felt a need to "civilize the masses." As evidence for this view, Lutz cites the fact that "Jane Addams, when she opened her settlement house in Chicago after years as a neurasthenic invalid, had as a prime ingredient in the routine for her inmates a course of reading in the classics of Anglo-American literature" (the italics are mine). Reading this, I felt relieved that Ruby and Marie were unlikely to stumble on this tome and find themselves labeled "inmates." Jane Addams's neighbors, free to come and go as they pleased through Hull-House's open door, are turned into inmates of a coercive institution that cruelly subjected them to forced readings of Sophocles and George Eliot. Lutz apparently didn't know (or didn't care) that the literature classes were not only a vital part of the vast array of activities at Hull-House but were among the most popular. The classics of the cultures of the immigrant groups in the neighborhood were read, appreciated, and performed as drama. In Lutz's use of the word inmates, and in his disdain for the real suffering of those in Addams's time who were labeled "neurasthenic" (as if this were somehow a moral failure), one senses a disheartening tendency to condescend and demean. As nervous as Dilling and her contemporaries were about subversives, Lutz is contemptuous of purpose, meaning, and idealistic undertaking, seeing in such efforts only the harsh hand of hegemony. The diverse people who flocked to Hull-House out of curiosity, loneliness, fear, need, perplexity, pride, and a search for entertainment or intellectual possibilityall of them, young and old, become in his mind inmates confined to Jane Addams's asylum, a captive population for brainwashing. Such condescension is breathtaking.
Another book that taxes Jane Addams with a determination to generate homogeneity out of diversity is historian Rivka Shpak Lissak's Pluralism and Progressives: Hull House and the New Immigrants, 1890-1919. Lissak describes the immigrants living in the 19th ward as "helpless masses" rather than inmates and alleges that this is how Jane Addams related to her neighbors, although this characterization is unsubstantiated by Addams's own writings. There is no evidence that Addams considered people helplessexcept, perhaps, infants. She clearly believed that many were bereaved, forlorn, exhausted, down on their luck, driven around the bend, laid up, and ground down by difficult circumstances, yes, but never helpless. Nor did she think of them as an uneducated group "to be passively led" (Lissak claims that this was Addams's "rationalization" for forcing them all into a single mold). What Addams referred to as her incorrigible belief in democracy made her wary of paternalism, even as she believed that some individuals were called to help point the way for others.
Her view is similar to that advanced by African American scholar and activist W.E.B. DuBois, who was invited by Addams to lecture at Hull-House, As sociologist Mary Jo Deegan notes: "The consistent misinterpretation of Addams's stance on immigrants is truly difficult to understand. Although condescending passages can be found ..., her overwhelmingly more frequent and articulate stance against such attitudes far outweighs these other portions of her writings.... Addams found the American stress on homogeneous behavior and conformity to be stultifying."
Although public criticisms similar to these were voiced during Addams's lifetime, the commentary was overwhelmingly positive before the outbreak of World War I and after the wartime fervor subsided. Addams notes that she was embarrassed by the often fulsome praise. Perhaps it was partly for this reason that she became involved in creating and controlling her official life story, which was written by her nephew James Weber Linn. Addams read and authorized the first eight chapters of this biography; however, her death in 1935 prevented her from seeing the work through to completion. Linn's book, which was published in 1937, describes the extraordinary outpouring of public grief at Addams's passing (see chapter XXI, titled "She Goes in Peace"). Without his aunt's restraining hand, he occasionally gave in to the urge toward superlatives: "The death of no other citizen of Chicago, perhaps, ever provoked such grief; but it is quite certain that no other citizen of Chicago inspired such a sense of glory shared." He was not alone in experiencing this urge: The Chicago City Council unanimously passed a resolution naming Addams "The greatest woman who ever lived." A former governor of Illinois and ex-mayor of Chicago, Mr. Dunne, commented in "broken-hearted" tones over the radio: "There was a great woman of the past, the Mother of God, whose name was Mary; and there is a great woman of the present, the Mother of Men, whose name is Jane Addams, and they stand alone in history." In concluding, Linn wrote, if his aunt were "long remembered, it will be for the quality of her thinking, for her rightness as an interpreter of individuals to themselves and of social groups one to another." Ironically, the very abilities that many contemporaries found in Addams have since been largely forgotten, neglected, or downplayed.
Leaping from Linn's biography to Life magazine's fall 1990 tribute to "The One Hundred Most Important Americans of the Twentieth Century," we find Addams figuring as a suffragist and social worker. The two paragraphs on Addams include a description of Hull-House as a "center providing meals, job training, education and even a home for Chicago's immigrant poor"making Hull-House sound more like a Great Society-era program rather than the complex intercultural space that it was? Perhaps we are so accustomed to thinking of the poor as clients rather than citizens, as recipients of social provision rather than active architects of their own destinies, that we have lost a civic vocabulary rich enough to accurately and fully describe the reality of Hull-House. In any case, the real, three-dimensional Addamsthe prolific writer and prominent intellectual and public figureis worth nary a nod.
The New York Times also depicted Addams in this vein. In a 1989 article headlined "At Chicago's First Settlement House, Clients Are New but Problems Are Old," the language of clientage predominates. Portraying the old Hull-House of Jane Addams as a valiant but limited effort undermined by reliance on donations from wealthy benefactors, the article details the current annual budgetary needs of the contemporary enterprise that goes by the same name. Nowadays, the six sites in Chicago that have inherited the Hull-House name are staffed by "350 salaried professionals in the social services." Whatever Addams might have thought of the current social programs, she would certainly have avoided the language of clientage. She would have opposed any suggestion of the dependence or subordination of the needy to those presumably in a position to satisfy their needs, for this was precisely the dynamic she warned against.
The Politics of Historic Assessment
Some distortions of Jane Addams's life and work are the result of change over time in popular images of American womanhood. What in the Catholic tradition is called a vocationassociated historically with vows of chastity, poverty, spiritual devotion, and a life lived in community with cobelieverswas embraced, altered, and mingled with potent maternal imagery in Jane Addams. Jane Addams's life of moral seriousness, lived in a community largely composed of women (although Hull-House was the first settlement to include both male and female residents), and her deeply felt maternalism (although she had no children of her own) are a combination we seem to find difficult to understand. Historian Allen F. Davis, whose American Heroine, a biography of Addams, appeared in 1973, interviewed one of the last remaining members of that extraordinary group of founding mothers of Hull-House, Alice Hamilton, who was in her nineties in 1963. He questioned her about the relationships among the women residents at Hull-House and reports: "She denied that there was any open sexual activity involving Hull House residents, but agreed that the close relationship of the women involved an unconscious sexuality. Because it was unconscious, it was unimportant, she argued. Then she added with a smile that the very fact that I would bring the subject up was an indication of the separation between my generation and hers."
Hamilton was right. We are driven to expose what we take to be the most secret, hence truest (or so we believe), aspects of a person's lifeas if tearing off veils, however gossamer-like, would reveal the whole truth. But that impulse reveals more about us than about the object of our attention. That women in Jane Addams's era formed lifelong friendships; that those friends loved one another; that they expressed this love in effusive waysall of this is well documented. Salutations in Addams's letters to her close friend and companion Mary Rozet Smith include Dearie, Dearest, My Ever Dear, and the like. The redoubtable Florence Kelleya committed socialist, translator of Marx and Engels, and divorcée with three children when she came to Hull-Houseaddresses Smith in the same way. A letter from Kelley to Smith, dated February 14, 1899, begins Dearly Beloved and ends Your loving F.K. The nature of Addams's relationship with the rather quiet Smith, who preferred to stay out of the limelight, is attested to by photographs, letters, memoirs, and the observations of contemporaries. There is no doubt that they had a special relationship. But we are the ones who insist on sexualizing it to conform to the political exigencies of our age.
Every age reads its own obsessions into the record of ages past, but one should guard against this tendency rather than succumb to it. Writing about the controversy surrounding the writer Willa Cather, and about attempts over the years to either repudiate her or to embrace her depending upon whether she can or cannot be made to fit a particular political agenda, Joan Acocella could as well be describing Addams and her friends: "Crushes were common among college girls in Cather's day. And as feminist scholars have recently shown, women in the nineteenth century, the century in which Cather grew up, had far more effusive, more physical friendships than they have today. They wrote each other endearments; they snuggled, held hands, slept in the same beds."
What exactly would be revealed, if definitive proof were discovered of carnal activity among Hull-House women? That Jane Addams's many close friendships sustained her in her public enterprises is significant. Her capacity for friendship and love and her ability to inspire loyalty and devotion in and from others helped make Hull-House and her civic role possible. That she and so many among this first generation of college-educated women did not marry is unsurprising. Being unmarried was unremarkable. For umarried women to work together was similarly unremarkable. That we find it remarkable, and the public expression of a private secret, indicates not only a preoccupation with the sexual but also a tendency to reduce all social and political phenomena to either psychology or sex. Psychologized and sexualized caricatures of Addams omit her most salient featuresthose of a first-rate thinker and a gifted writer with extraordinary social and political influence.
Excerpted from Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy by Jean Bethke Elshtain. Copyright © 2002 by Jean Bethke Elshtain. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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