Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles

Louise W. Knight, Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 2005, $35.00, xvi-582 pages, ISBN 0-226-44699-9)—Alain Suberchicot, Université Jean-Moulin Lyon 3

 

Louise Knight’s book is a biography of the first half of Jane Addams’s life (until 1899), the prominent Chicago-based civic leader and reform activist who, as acting President of the Woman’s International League for Peace and Freedom, was the first American female to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. Although much of the focus is on Addams herself, as one expects of a biography, the book’s success owes much to the biography of a city, Chicago, with its myriad complexities, political, cultural and social. It is also to the city of Chicago that Jane Addams owes much of her own success and her world fame. As a young girl with a background of affluence trying to circumvent the female boredom she saw in her immediate surroundings, she founded a settlement house, an early form of cultural center (the renowned Hull House, now a Museum curated by the University of Illinois at Chicago) in one of the city’s impoverished wards, thus constructing a sense of female purpose in a Victorian world that promised cooking and child-rearing as the only horizon of a woman’s life. Addams wanted a more glamorous and fuller form of social participation for women. This involved an ethics of social work and political responsibility which she herself helped define, on native grounds, in the spirit of John Dewey (a close friend and an associate at Hull House, during his years as a young academic in the Windy City). Such dazzling figures as Leo Tolstoy and Eugene Debs, together with a roster of socialist activists, enlighten the gloom of her modest beginnings and give a sense of vision to the young traveler in the uncharted territories of social responsibility she explored.

The documentation of Jane Addams’s childhood and adolescence is especially forceful in this book, because it identifies what core values throb in the heart of the heart of the country, and what beliefs emerge from the American small town. The detailed discussion of Addams’s father’s career plunges us into a social and religious context bearing semblance to Bill Clinton’s early days as an Arkansas Democrat. Like Clinton much later, he was trying to salvage social hope from the untutored and rugged world that yet had to deliver its promises of decency and advance towards civilization through a ferment of democracy few can shape into nourishing loaves of daily bread. And like Hawthorne’s Father Hooper, the freak minister with the black veil on his face who rebels against the moral conformity of drowsy farmers whose ears need to be vexed, Addams’s father relied on the Puritan refusal of conformity one often ignores when looking at the heritage of the American religious mosaic. A Presbyterian with a sympathetic ear for Quaker beliefs in human decency, John Addams was an emblem of the American democratic spirit, an Emersonian hero and a self-reliant man in the thriving post-colonial world that rose from the early republic. Louise Knight views him with generosity, and analyzes with great care the whiffs of self-righteousness she encounters in his life, and which she traces back to the Calvinist bent of provincial Cedarville, Illinois, aptly named after the majestic trees that shaded its streets, no ordinary sticks, one soon realizes, and man-grown ones. Louise Knight notes the smugness that pervaded the life and career of the successful business man who was “anti-slavery though not an abolitionist.” Yet she establishes that John Addams, no matter how risky this may have been at the time, was seen in conversation with a runaway slave eloping from some inferior condition down South by her daughter (born 1860) during the Civil War.

With such heredity, no doubt Addams’s start in life necessitated some soul-searching, which she accomplished with an energy deriving from the frustrations engendered by her father’s refusal to provide the opportunity for the higher education she craved when deciding against her departure for Smith College (then recently opened in Northampton). This is what she was at bottom, however, a Smith girl, ready to invent a generous future to be of service to the nation. A recent graduate of Rockford Seminary, Addams traveled extensively in Europe and this is where she encountered her first British social idealists, followers of one of the luminaries of the day, T.H. Green, the Oxford don and Christian social reformer who inspired a young crowd of intellectuals in the creation of Toynbee Hall, a patrician enterprise devoted to the moral education of the members of the working-class. Jane Addams, together with her life-long associate, college friend and companion Helen Gates Starr, visited the London-based outpost of pragmatic socialism led by Reverend Samuel Barnett, a graduate of Oxford University and the son of a wealthy Bristol manufacturer who wanted to bring down class barriers and carry culture to the East End of London with Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy safely tucked in his pocket. Barnett struck the two girls with his new concept, the settlement house, shaped by his parish experience. Where Gerard Manley Hopkins had fretted ministering to the proletarian world, Barnett thrived, salvaging Christian socialism from its inception in the minds of Britain’s social elite. These connections in the Christian socialism world explain why Jane Addams could barely spell Karl Marx’s first name, and why she characteristically dismissed his vision of class struggle as devoid of universality, hence also of significance to help in the definition of social policy, all of which Louise Knight analyzes with clear-sighted intelligence and conceptual force.

Settlement was the Addams key-word from then on. And this is what she sought to do when she returned to the streets of Chicago, embarking on the adventure of Hull House, an elegant structure miraculously up for rent to which she decided to commit her energies. Addams found it in Chicago’s 19th ward, a derelict, trash-lined district of the bustling city. It is in this section of the book that Chicago, with its million people flocking from various quarters of the European world, reveals its scope. In 1889, Chicago was not yet the African American Mecca it had yet to become, and was mostly Italian, Scandinavian and Central European. At Hull House, the Pullman Strike was in wait, about to provide the political incentive that was yet missing. Jane Addams was still to face the formative event that would shape her life and career, revealing an impassioned and resilient personality. Within months, Hull House blossomed amid the mud-puddles, and was made into a hive of culture, and working people’s education. It also became a female phalanx when the Addams-Carr pair added two ebullient women to Hull House: one was Julia Lathrop, a Vassar girl, and the other was Florence Kelly, a mother of three without a man, a Marxist, and the American translator of Friedrich Engels to whom Addams offered a home at Hull House.

The Haymarket Square Riot (May 4, 1886) and its aftermath showed the extent of class antagonism in the United States, when several of the insurgents were hanged on November 17, 1887. The dread of the working-class was at its apex with the Pullman strike, in which Jane Addams was personally involved, when it broke out in 1894. The conflict questioned the budding welfare system of American capitalism. The Pullman factories had a workforce of 50,000 just outside Chicago’s southern rim, but an economic downturn forced the company to cut wages without a decrease in company-owned housing fees. This led to the major industrial dispute in American social history. The strike was eventually broken up by military intervention, with 13 strikers killed and 57 wounded. Louise Knight documents with precision and analytical acumen how Jane Addams took action to help the workers. Jane Addams acted as a go-between, trying to smooth the litigation between the Strike Committee and the Conciliation board that had been set up, while the tensions caused by the strike throughout the city demonstrated to Addams the extent of the social cleavage at work in a now fully industrialized society, as she reminisced later in her book Twenty Years. One of the consequences of the Pullman Strike upon Hull House was the dwindling of financial resources, as donors balked on account of Jane Addams’s support of the workers. Eugene Debs, then leader of the American Railway Union, whom Jane Addams knew personally, was jailed, and the anti-labor forces triumphed both in Chicago and throughout the American nation. Social antagonism was now the universal collective force that Jane Addams had felt one could bypass somehow. She reacted with her usual capacity to draw lessons and be taught by facts, so as to devise a larger perspective to enable conciliation in the future. Soon, Jane Addams was in charge of organizing a national conference on industrial conciliation and arbitration, that took place in Chicago in the fall. However, Jane Addams, on that occasion, evinced little belief in the merits of class antagonism, declaring the following, as Louise Knight aptly reveals: “We do not believe that the world can be divided into capitalists and laboring men. We are all bound together in a solidarity towards this larger movement which shall enfranchise all of us and give us all our place in the national existence.” The least one can say is that Louise Knight demonstrates that the moderate reformer is born, which, as Jane Addams thought, allowed for pragmatic radicalism. American social history has in a myriad labor disputes shown intellectual moderation on the question of class to be the enabling force behind action: Jane Addams wants the ethicist to be a radical, and this belief has shaped the American labor movement in ways one still fathoms with awe.

One pragmatic question was brought to Jane Addams’s attention in the 1890s, the question of urban ecology and the related difficulty of sanitation in Chicago, which to her was one aspect of social justice. Addams joined the Sanitation Committee established by the Civic Federation of Chicago, when growing aware that the messy unwholesome streets of the 19th ward were the result of corrupt practices in the world of municipal politics, which was Irish, and characteristically nicknamed “the Irish machine.” Louise Knight analyzes with care the modes of Jane Addams’s response to the current situation. The result, after months of tactical involvement and political pressure upon the rank and file of the Irish Machine, was cleaner paved streets, and garbage removed from the alleys of the 19th ward. This led to reports on Jane Addams’s efforts in the Chicago press, and additional public support for Jane Addams and Hull House, which overturned the dire consequences of her involvement in the Pullman Strike broil. Beyond sanitation, which was a serious matter in terms of public health, as she realized more quickly than anyone else had done before, Jane Addams knew some thinking has to be devoted to the larger issue of political reform. Jane Addams’s capacities as a theorist Louise Knight brings into focus in the closing chapters of her book. A companion volume to Knight’s biography might be Charlene Haddock Seigfried’s edition of some of Addams’s essays and speeches, titled Democracy and Ethics, published in 2002 by the University of Illinois Press. Reading, in particular, Addams’s essay on “Political Reform,” one realizes that the ideal of community had fascination on her, and that Addams placed little trust on the business men who wanted to be civic leaders and were frightened of democracy. Addams’s agenda consisted in setting the good of the many before the interests of a few. This may sound generous; it may embody an ideal of political responsibility which has roots in the Aufklärung, but it may also unleash private interest and corruption in the élite. One of the values which Jane Addams extols for its civic efficiency, which is at bottom the object of her political quest, is “village kindness,” in which she sensed the roots of American democracy might grow, though they might feel uneasy when taken to the alleys and streets of any big city. It is this unprepossessing value, generated by small town America, that she thought might be protective amid the fray of an urban, industrialized society, to which she thought solidarity and decency on a day-to-day basis were the adequate response.

How citizen Addams became the beacon of solidarity and peace in the international rough seas of the twentieth century, as she moved from local leadership in Chicago to world politics, will require the impeccable talent of Louise Knight as a social historian to understand. In particular, it will be interesting, in the second volume, to analyze how ideals of social unity can help in international politics, to which Jane Addams devoted her life as she matured into an articulate pacifist.

Cercles2006
All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.