(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Jane Addams 1860-1935

American social worker, essayist and autobiographer.

Jane Addams is known primarily as a social reformer, a reputation built during the many years she devoted to serving the poor through Hull House in Chicago. But that was only one level of her achievements. She created the foundations for the profession of social work, contributed significantly to the discipline of sociology, developed the idea of parks and playgrounds as places vital for reducing urban tension, and established a model of progressive-minded activism which helped form the basis of the welfare state that emerged under the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s. In the process she became one of America's best-known and best-loved women, and her fame spread with the publication of her books—including the autobiographical Twenty Years at Hull-House (1910)—and hundreds of articles. Addams challenged her compatriots' understanding of urban life, wealth and poverty, democracy, and peace, and was instrumental in founding numerous organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). A popularizer rather than an innovator in the realm of ideas, she transformed the pragmatism of William James and John Dewey, along with the mystic agrarian socialism of Leo Tolstoy, into a workable program of social action that transformed the American landscape.

Biographical Information

Addams was born in Cedarville, Illinois, on the eve of the Civil War. Her father, John Addams, who would become her most significant role model, was an entrepreneur and politician who had served in the Illinois legislature with another of Addams's later heroes, Abraham Lincoln. Addams seldom spoke of her mother, who died when she was three, or of her stepmother, who her father married soon afterward. She was a sickly child, and like many young women of her day, was discouraged from pursuing too high a degree of education. Giving up a dream to attend Smith College, she went instead to Rockford Seminary, and soon after her graduation, a series of unhappy events threw her young life into turmoil. Her beloved father died, and after six months at a medical college in Philadelphia, she withdrew in 1882 for reasons of illness, and never went back. A year of convalescence followed, and then two tours of Europe, but her travels did not make her happy. Later she would write of being caught in "the snare of preparation" which she said impeded young women from wealthy backgrounds, keeping them locked in a state of continual preparation for life rather than permitting them to commence an actual career. Partly as a result of experiences in Europe, however, she discovered her life's mission, and with her friend and lifelong companion Ellen Gates Starr founded Hull House in a run-down Chicago mansion on September 18, 1889. At Hull House (which Addams referred to in her writing as "Hull-House"), she established numerous innovative programs to provide not just food and shelter, but a sense of purpose and belonging, both to the people served by the house and to the upper-class women and men who ran it. During the next two decades, Addams's work on behalf of the poor and immigrants of the nearby slums made her a figure of national and ultimately international prominence, and she published numerous articles and books. She was also instrumental in the founding and development of dozens of organizations, and through Hull House, helped create a model for a vital community center which could transform a troubled urban environment. In the years leading up to World War I, her outspoken pacifism began to strike a raw nerve in a nation mobilizing for the defeat of Germany, and she became almost as much a figure of scorn as she had been of admiration. But her reputation ultimately rose to its former level, a resurrection which culminated in her receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. During her career, Addams spent time with a number of notable writers and philosophers, including James, Dewey, Tolstoy, W. E. B. Du Bois, and many others. In politics she campaigned for Theodore Roosevelt in his unsuccessful bid to regain the White House under the Progressive Party banner in 1912; and later she put her support behind a man with whom she had worked in the area of famine relief following the First World War, President Herbert Hoover. Addams never married, and had few interests outside her social concerns. She was an astute manager and promoter who devoted all her efforts—and the proceeds from her publications and prizes—to Hull House and its activities.

Major Works

As with many writers, it is virtually impossible to separate Addams' published work from the conditions that surrounded their creation. This is not only because Addams's life was defined by action rather than thought, but also because most of her writings were in response to specific situations that she encountered first as the director of Hull House, and later as a campaigner for world peace. Furthermore, with a few notable exceptions, most of her books were actually composed of essays, speeches, and articles she had presented earlier, again in response to specific conditions. Such was certainly the case with her first book, Democracy and Social Ethics (1902), in which she identified a spirit of alienation pervading modern life, and as an antidote offered active involvement in the project of establishing a more humane public order. Likewise The Spirit of Youth and City Streets (1909) came from a series of essays, and it, like A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil (1912) explored the problems of the slums and the unhealthy lifestyles they bred. Her examination of prostitution in the latter work scandalized readers, but it was the pacifism expressed in volumes such as Newer Ideals of Peace (1909) and Peace and Bread in Time of War (1922) which would earn her the disapprobation of conservative leaders and institutions from the Daughters of the American Revolution to the Ku Klux Klan. The condemnation of Addams for her vocal opposition to the First World War perhaps marked the low point of her career; Twenty Years at Hull-House (1910), on the other hand, came at the high point. Ostensibly an autobiography, it was in fact the story of how Addams came to find her mission as a crusader for social justice, and then pursued that mission without wavering. Critically acclaimed at the time and thereafter, it is usually considered the best of her works, whereas the sequel, The Second Twenty Years at Hull-House (1930)—which sums up activity in the two decades that followed the writing of its predecessor—is often viewed as one of her least well-written. Her later works included a collection of essays called The Excellent Becomes the Permanent (1932), which helped to sum up an extraordinarily distinguished career.