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Founding Mother

Whether by accident or design, she turned it into the center of more social, cultural, and political experiments than it is easy to describe. She taught the new immigrants among whom she had settled to lift their eyes from the squalid surroundings in which they were working and living, and to enjoy the achievements of their own native cultures—Italian, Irish, German, Greek, and Polish. But she did not neglect their squalid surroundings or their material poverty; she not only encouraged private philanthropy to provide medical care and relief for the unemployed, she taught her new friends and neighbors how to use the political system that was wasting city taxes on the friends of the local politicians, and to make the city do something for them.

After she had thoroughly established herself in Chicago, she looked further afield. She became an energetic suffragist, and was much in demand as a speaker on urban politics. But she was happy to sacrifice her popularity for important causes. In 1915, she broke with most of her friends—including, and particularly bitterly, with John Dewey—to oppose World War I, and then to oppose American entry into the war. She was one of the founders of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and was president and honorary president from 1919 until her death in 1935. In 1931, she became one of the first winners of the Nobel Prize for Peace, alongside Nicholas Murray Butler, the authoritarian president of Columbia University who had sacked several of his own professors for opposing World War I. When she died, Chicago mourned her with wonderful extravagance. A former governor of Illinois declared: “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.”

Yet oddly enough, both her biographers and intellectual historians have found it hard to agree on what she was all about. This is not because she was elusive—nobody could have led a more public life than Jane Addams; but she presents us with almost too much to think about. It is hard to see how the anxious and uncertain young woman of the early 1880s turned into the determined campaigner for urban improvement in the 1890s. That difficulty translates very easily into a puzzle about her feminism: Did she ever quite liberate herself from the view that politics was an “unfeminine” activity? If she did not, how was it that she was so effective a politician?

The plays and poetry readings at Hull House—drawing on the works of Shaw, Dreiser, and Whitman, for example—will disquiet the commentator who looks for signs of social and cultural condescension in the work of upper-class radicals and reformers; but they charm everyone who is ready to admire the politics of generosity. Further down that road lie innumerable difficult questions about the politics of radicalism and the inner lives of radicals. And Jane Addams puzzles the philosophically minded, because she was plainly an intellectual in just about any understanding of that term, and certainly more imaginative than most of her peers in expressing the democratic and egalitarian hankerings of the age. Yet she had none of the philosopher’s capacity for idle curiosity; politically, she became something quite other than her father’s daughter, but intellectually she preserved his antipathy to theological speculation, or any other speculation, in her enthusiasm for “practical knowledge.”

All these questions about how to understand Jane Addams were eloquently posed in an essay that renewed interest in her forty years ago, when Christopher Lasch began his The New Radicalism in America with an essay on Jane Addams. But Lasch then used her uncertainties about class, education, feminism, religion, and culture to epitomize the ambiguities of American radicalism generally. Since then, intellectual historians have explored just about every aspect of her opinions, and urban historians have filled in more and more of the background against which she worked. For some reason—perhaps because her own Twenty Years at Hull-House is so persuasive an autobiography—she has had few biographers, however, which makes Louise Knight’s Citizen particularly welcome. It is enviably well-written and deeply engrossing, and a considerable addition to the literature, not just on an extraordinary woman, but on an extraordinary epoch.

Citizen is in intention less a biography than a political bildungsroman—the story of its heroine’s passage through youth to maturity. It is not a biography because it stops barely halfway through Addams’s life, in 1899, almost two decades before her second career as a campaigner for world peace began on the outbreak of World War I. If it needed a subtitle, it might be: “How Jane Addams discovered both herself and American democracy.” Louise Knight herself says its theme is her heroine’s “becoming Jane Addams.” It is hard to suppress disappointment at discovering that this is a half-life; the subsequent three and a half decades of Jane Addams’s life included not only the excitements and miseries of antiwar campaigning against the jingoistic tide of First World War American opinion, but famine relief in postwar Europe, and a rethinking of the purpose of Hull House in the postwar world. And Louise Knight is so good on the first forty years that it is hard to have to do without the rest of the story as she would have told it.

Yet there is a logic to her decision. Almost all autobiographies concentrate on the writer’s passage to maturity. They show the author becoming the adult person the reader knows; these are stories of education, in the sense of cultural and psychological formation. To take one striking example, John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography becomes decidedly perfunctory once he has told us about his education at the hands of his father and Harriet Taylor. The romantic novel and the romantic autobiography frequently end with marriage. Jane Addams never married, but at the age of twenty-nine she created Hull House and devoted herself to the extraordinary experiment that it represented.

A decade later, she had become the person she wanted to be and that she seems in retrospect to have been destined to be. Ten years after that, she wrote the autobiographical Twenty Years at Hull-House, but by then she was explaining herself to a wide audience, looking to recruit them for her cause, and not trying, as Louise Knight has so successfully done, to imagine her way back into her childhood and adolescence. Louise Knight has a particular talent for writing as though she knows at any point in the narrative no more than her heroine does of what is about to befall her next; it is a technique that suits her subject perfectly.


The story is a romantic one. It raises two large questions, one about the curious route by which Jane Addams reached Hull House, the other about the place of Hull House and its aspirations in American radicalism and beyond. In obvious ways, she was born into privilege. Her father was the richest man in Cedarville within a few years of his arrival, and the leader of local opinion. When Lincoln was running for president, John Addams was pointed out as one of the men whose support he needed to carry Illinois. But Jane Addams’s life was far from easy. Her mother died when she was not three years old, leaving her in the care of her oldest sister, Mary. Then her next-oldest sister, the sixteen-year-old Martha, died of typhoid fever when Jane was barely six. When she was twelve, her older brother Weber became mentally ill, and although he initially recovered, he was periodically hospitalized for the rest of his life. Her father’s wealth and his impressive emotional steadiness were not enough to protect her.

When she was eight her father remarried; Jane’s relations with Anna Haldeman, her stepmother, were less than easy. Her stepmother was elegant, refined, and cultivated; Jane herself was restlessly searching for a purpose in life that would harness her abundant energy. The great frustration of her teenage years was that neither her father nor stepmother would allow her to become a “college woman.” They insisted that she could not follow her heart’s desire and attend Smith College, but must go to the nearby Rockford Seminary, a reputable woman’s institution, but one that did not award the coveted bachelor’s degree until the year after Jane Addams graduated. (She made sure that she had taken more than enough courses to receive her BA retroactively.) Her wish to go to college in the East was not political. It was a simple revolt against what she felt to be the provinciality of her life and its limitations.

Her political outlook during her childhood and adolescence was very like her father’s. Like him, she could not understand why able-bodied men were unemployed, and thought it must be a failure of self-respect that led them into idleness. Like him, she thought that women must be active and useful, but had no idea of this involving political activity. Her one sight of Susan B. Anthony led her to record only a couple of dismissive comments about her unladylike appearance and manners. Politics was for men to get involved in; women should certainly do good works, but the hurly-burly of the hustings and the bargaining in smoke-filled rooms was not for them.

Nonetheless, the simple, if unfocused, energy that she brought to her hankering for a meaningful life is astonishing. It poured out in the Rockford Seminary, and sometimes in strange ways. One of the more entertaining was when she and half a dozen friends became engrossed with de Quincy’s Memoirs of an Opium Eater and decided to consume large quantities of opium in order to investigate its effects on their imaginations. They confided in a favorite teacher, were firmly told to stop it, and fed emetics to get the poison out of their systems. Less alarmingly, Jane took twice as many courses as she needed for her diploma, excelled in all of them, and persuaded the college authorities to let her class show its strong qualities in a display of oratory.

Her contributions on that occasion provide more than merely glimpses of her frame of mind as she turned twenty. They reveal the literary and rhetorical talent that served her so well many years later; and even more interestingly, they reveal the tension between her desire to lead a life of heroic activity and her more conventional desire to lead a life of womanly service that both Christopher Lasch and Louise Knight are so struck by. One of her school orations was devoted to the Greek mythological hero Bellerophon, an ambiguous figure: on the one hand the hero who mounted Pegasus to strike down the terrible Chimaera, and on the other the victim of Zeus’s wrath when he tried to ride his steed into Olympus. It may have mattered more that he was indebted to Athena for the gift of Pegasus, and when Zeus hurled him down to earth he was indebted to her again for arranging a soft landing.

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