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.

Her gift for combining the heroic and the devout come out in the same ambiguous fashion in “Breadgivers,” the other lecture she gave at school. It takes off from John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies, not in itself a surprising choice for a girl who shared her father’s taste for Emerson, Carlyle, and Ruskin. But what it does with Ruskin, who wrote Sesame and Lilies as an antifeminist tract, is not predictable; what modern women need, she says, is above all to work. Are they to stay at home and literally bake the family’s bread? It does not seem so. “Breadgiving” refers to the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Is the work to which the Rockford girls are called charitable good works among the poor? She gives no answer, but the insistence that modern women need intellectual work for fulfillment suggests something very far distant from Lady Bountiful.

What struck Jane Addams in retrospect, as it strikes everyone who writes about her, was that immediately after this lecture everything ran into the sand. For all her resentment at being forced to sacrifice her wish to be a “college woman” at Smith, she had been energetic, surrounded by friends, and full of plans for the future; she spent most of the next decade in a state of acute depression, physically ill, lethargic, and utterly unsure of herself. Some commentators have thought it was a familiar “neurasthenic” episode of the sort that afflicted so many late-nineteenth-century women. But the outside world surely provided enough provocation.

First came her father’s definitive refusal to allow her to go to Smith after graduating from Rockford. It did not mean that she could never become a doctor as she had hoped, but it was nevertheless a devastating blow. Next came the assassination of President Garfield. The assassin was a forty-year-old named Julius Guiteau; his father had worked for John Addams’s bank, and his half-sister was a friend of Jane’s. By modern standards, Julius was plainly a paranoid schizophrenic; but in 1881 that diagnosis was unavailable, and he was held to be sane enough to be guilty of murder and hanged for it. It cannot have made Jane Addams’s life easier that this was a time when a flurry of books was asserting that attending college was bad for women’s minds. John Addams took his family away for a holiday to escape the tension; and while on holiday he died of appendicitis. He was fifty-nine.

Much of the next decade was spent exploring dead ends. Jane’s back was somewhat misshapen, and it became clear that she could not hope to spend the long hours at a dissecting bench that would be required if she was to qualify as a doctor. She had a modestly successful operation that made her life easier over the long run but necessitated heavy casts and uncomfortable steel and leather corsets in the short run. And whatever else she did, she could hardly abandon her newly widowed stepmother. It is a real achievement on Louise Knight’s part that she takes the reader through the story of foreign tours, years spent in Baltimore, courses started and stopped, and the slow loosening of ties to her stepmother, without ever wearying us while she is describing her heroine’s weariness of spirit.

Three events—two of them much dwelt on by Jane Addams herself afterward—stand out. One was her first experience of authentic East End poverty when she went to London in 1883; she was struck with horror at the sight of the pale, white-faced, half-starved people clustering around a vegetable stall that was selling food that was already hardly fit for human consumption. Another was a later visit to Toynbee Hall, the settlement in Poplar outside London that had been set up by Canon Samuel Barnett and his “social Christian” friends and allies. Those two events might plausibly be thought to have shown her the depth of the problem of urban poverty and at least one small possibility of alleviating it. The third event was wholly different.

In 1888, she went to Spain with a number of friends, and during their visit they attended a bullfight. Her friends swiftly tired of the bloodshed; she stayed and watched, fascinated by the spectacle. They were shocked by her reaction, and she herself was somewhat puzzled. She later described the decision to found Hull House as though it had followed as an immediate consequence of her own revulsion at her interest in the bullfight; but something about its life-and-death character, and the energies unleashed on all sides, had awoken a spark within her. The following year, she and her close friend Ellen Gates Starr looked for a place where they could live among the poor of industrial Chicago and hope to do some good. They found a substantial house on Halsted Street, and initially rented part of it, before going on not only to acquire the rest of the house but to expand it enormously.


The obvious questions are three: what provoked her to do it, what it was she set out to do, and what sprang from it. Answers to the third question range, according to the political allegiances of the questioner, from “nothing” to “the modern welfare state.” The settlement house movement was already familiar in England. It arose from a sense among philosophers and socially conscious clergymen that the gap between the well-off, educated, and spiritually minded middle class and their poor, ignorant, and culturally deprived working-class fellow citizens was growing wider, was becoming more and more morally intolerable, and was bad not only in all the obvious ways for the poor but in less obvious ways for the middle classes as well.

In Britain, this sentiment had produced some curious but durable alliances around the idea of bringing art and high culture to the deprived. In London, the Working Men’s College was established in 1854 by John Ruskin, Charles Kingsley and F.D. Maurice—the founder of Christian Socialism; its sister college, the Working Women’s College, was founded by Maurice in 1874. The Working Men’s College was one of the places that Jane Addams visited before she established Hull House. Toynbee Hall, which is usually thought of as the model for Hull House, was founded in 1884. Unlike the Working Men’s College, it was a residential community, modeled on the Oxford colleges from which so many of those who worked there came. Over the next fifty years, large numbers of the most important figures in the British Labour Party worked there during vacations and in their first few years after graduation.

Its purpose was not simple, and it was realized only for a small proportion of the neighboring population. It did not provide practical or vocational education; it tried to make available the cultural opportunities that were taken for granted by the middle classes and were far out of reach of the working poor. The purpose, however, was not just to open the eyes of the poor to the spiritual riches of their society in the hope that their aspirations would be raised and their everyday lives enriched. Toynbee Hall also aimed to give a purpose to the privileged young men who worked there. They knew, better than most, that it was an accident that they were comfortably situated, well-educated, and open to moral reflection. To live easily with their own consciences, they needed to serve their neighbors, and here was a way to do it.

The British settlement house was very much the product of anxieties particular to young men who could not quite believe the old Christian verities and could not quite let go of them. It was also an outgrowth of the development of a social conscience in the ancient universities. Hull House was an outgrowth of no such thing; its activities and its character bore the stamp of the three young women who created it. Jane Addams always insisted that the idea of buying a large house in the middle of the cramped dwellings of the poor was one that came to her when she was six and visited with her father the working-class neighborhood of Freeport, Illinois, where his bank was located.

And yet, allowing for the differences between her situation and that of the British undergraduates who lived at Toynbee Hall, the motivation was very similar. She was trying to make a difference both to herself and to the poor people in whose midst she proposed to live, and the difference she wanted to make was more nearly spiritual and cultural than material. She needed a task that was wholly engrossing; she needed to engage in it with close friends; and in establishing Hull House, she took on a project that was ambiguous in just the way the task she set for her generation of young women in her oration on “Breadgivers” had been ambiguous. It could be construed as essentially feminine in the sense that Hull House sheltered an extended family, to whom Jane Addams, Ellen Gates Starr, and Mary Rozet Smith offered a sort of mothering that made young people want to learn and succeed. Especially for young people, Hull House was a kind of open club, a refuge from the streets, a place where they could meet and take part in plays, games, study sessions, and serious discussions. For those who needed basic kinds of material help, the settlement could provide meals, new clothes, and assistance in getting jobs. Predictably Addams was seen by conventional people in the Midwest as radical and unfeminine because to keep the settlement going and deal with conditions around it she intervened in the none-too-ladylike politics of the city of Chicago.

Louise Knight tells the story of Jane Addams’s slow emergence onto the political stage very deftly. Almost her only moments of irritability as a narrator come when she rebukes writers who chide Jane Addams for failing to grasp in an instant the economic and political realities of industrializing Chicago. She is surely right. Jane Addams thought—in the company of Matthew Arnold, John Ruskin, John Dewey, and a great many others—that the deepest poverty of the poor lay in their estrangement from the moral and cultural possibilities of their society. Reducing everything to the Marxist demand for the “expropriation of the expropriators” would not have appealed to the immigrants who had come to the United States to better themselves; nor would she and her allies have thought that a man with a full belly and an empty mind represented progress.

But in the decade after 1889, the political and economic realities behind the filthy streets, the inadequate sewers, the absence of help for the unemployed, and the absence of public health care all made themselves felt. As they did, she broadened her reach, starting by giving her local alderman, John Powers, a very hard time until he found it easier to send the street-cleaning crews to do their jobs than to resist her pressure. With the depression of 1893, she raised her sights. The city council began by declaring that it had no duty to find employment for the unemployed, and bit by bit was pushed into doing that and a great deal more.

Citizen explores the politicizing of Jane Addams’s dreams with tremendous sympathy. It was not only politics as it was practiced that she began to embrace; she started to write down her thoughts on the ethics of democracy, and the nature of democratic leadership. Meeting John Dewey when he was a newly arrived professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago in 1894 helped, but she gained as much from reading Idealist philosophers from the other side of the Atlantic, such as Edward Caird, the Master of Balliol and a good friend. Rereading her letters and her other writings now is to be reminded how perennially the United States has oscillated between a tough-minded, “devil take the hindmost” enthusiasm for unbridled capitalism and the gentler, more communitarian ethics preached by Addams and her allies.

That is why it is so easy to say both that Hull House achieved few of its goals and yet launched the modern welfare state. If we ask whether American politics have closed the gap between the culture of the well off and highly educated and the culture of the badly off and badly educated, the answer is surely no. Modern standards of literacy are much higher than those of a hundred years ago, and the availability of art, music, and literature is vastly greater than it was, while it is also crowded out by electronic mass culture. The ideal of a common culture is as elusive as ever, and the ideal, which Addams believed in, of a society in which impoverished immigrants can celebrate both what they have brought with them and what their hosts can offer is now widely scorned as unpatriotic.

On the other hand, one might say that what Jane Addams discovered for herself, all modern industrialized societies have had to discover in her wake. The personal alleviation of distress and widening of horizons that she and her friends achieved on a small scale pointed the way to impersonal, publicly funded, public systems of health, housing, unemployment relief, and the care of the mentally and physically disabled—a way that the US began to follow and which it has more and more disregarded. Hull House was a welfare state in miniature, a blessing to its neighborhood, but in the nature of the case it was able to help with the problems of hundreds rather than hundreds of thousands. Yet on that scale Hull House and its creator solved the difficult but inescapable problem of giving help without condescension in ways that we still do not know how to emulate in the modern welfare state. Indeed the welfare state itself has recently become stingy and punitive, and not only in the US. It is no wonder, even if it also testifies to Louise Knight’s literary skill, that Jane Addams should feel so like our contemporary.

This Issue

May 11, 2006