Biographers are like photographers. Fascinated by background, some authors use a wide-angle lens to produce a life-and-times narrative of their subjects. Intrigued by the psychological dimensions of an individual life, other writers choose a portrait lens to capture close-ups of their subjects' most intimate feelings, reactions and motives. The best biographers change lenses constantly, offering readers intimate portraits of their subjects, balanced by wide-angled views of their social and political landscapes.
Gioia Diliberto's biography of Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House, an urban settlement that provided services for the poor of Chicago, covers the early years of her subject's life and emphasizes the psychological transformation of Addams from a young, sickly, insecure girl into one of the most powerful and revered women in American history. Diliberto also yokes Addams' profoundly democratic vision to her rural youth in Illinois, a partial explanation of the origins of Addams' evolution as a political and social activist.
Born in 1860, two months before Abraham Lincoln took office as president, Addams grew up in the wealthiest family and largest house in the little farming village of Cedarville in Northern Illinois. The daughter of a highly respected, wealthy banker and mill owner, Addams experienced a transformation that was not only psychological but political. As a young woman, Addams admired her parents' Yankee faith in unfettered industrial capitalism. But she entered adulthood during the Gilded Age, a period like the 1990s, when the opulence of the wealthy sharply contrasted with the grinding poverty of the urban poor. As did so many progressive activists at the turn of the century, Addams began to believe in the state's ability to regulate industrial capitalism--in the name of preserving democracy.
Diliberto's biography helps counter our scandalous neglect of Addams. As one of the few historical women familiar to young children, Addams has been presented by textbooks as such a saint that she is hardly recognizable as a living, breathing human being. By emphasizing her early years, Diliberto restores humanity to Addams, vividly evoking her lengthy and tortured struggle to carve out a meaningful and purposeful life. The story of her political radicalization, however, is oddly missing from Diliberto's account of Addams' life.
Addams came of age as a member of the first generation of college-educated women in the United States. Upon graduation, they entered a society in which new opportunities, particularly in teaching, medicine and missionary work, conflicted with their families' expectations that they marry and raise families. Confused and conflicted, many young educated women faced the future paralyzed by dread. They feared being suffocated by marriage and children, certain they would never get to use their educations. But they also recoiled from spinsterhood. As Addams put it, her generation "was practically faced with an alternative of marriage or a career. . . . Men did not at first want to marry [such] women . . . and women could not fulfill the two functions of profession and homemaking until modern invention had made a new type of housekeeping practical, and perhaps one should add, until public opinion tolerated the double role."
Without a language to express their conflict, Addams and her friends suffered anxiety attacks and nervous prostration. Said to have neurasthenia (literally, an impoverishment of the nerve force), many of these young women turned into chronic invalids, took to their beds, often for months, even years. What saved some of these educated women was their growing political conviction that they should dedicate their lives to aiding the human casualties left behind by rapid industrialization and unregulated capitalism.
For eight years, Addams suffered excruciating back pain, neurasthenia and serious depression. She tried medical school, helped her siblings raise their children and finally took the European Grand Tour. In England, Addams visited Toynbee Hall, a settlement house run by young college-educated men who attended to the needs of London's poor. It didn't take long for Addams to wonder: Why couldn't college-educated women in America do the same thing?
In 1889, Addams and her friend Ellen Gates Starr founded Hull House in the midst of the Chicago slums. Within a few years, Hull House became home to a rotating group of women reformers, sponsored more than 50 clubs and offered dozens of classes that taught cooking, hygiene, debating and the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. Concerned about children's welfare, Addams also provided child-care and kindergarten for local children and built the first playground in Chicago.
The settlement house, as Addams would later admit, became a salvation for herself as well as for the poor. It gave her the opportunity to live "a useful life" and offered her the support of a surrogate family as well as respectable work. The city, she came to believe, was the site for women's emancipation, the one environment in which they could use their "moral superiority" to create a more egalitarian and peaceful society. In the process, Addams created the career of the social worker.
The longer she lived at Hull House, the more Addams embraced a broad progressive political agenda. An advocate of the eight-hour, six-day work week, she also fought to banish political corruption through civic service reform and campaigned for the abolition of child labor and in favor of improved sanitation, public nursing, compulsory education, kindergartens and playgrounds, the rights of workers and women's suffrage.
It was Hull House that transformed Addams from a young privileged girl into a radical woman who rejected traditional philanthropy and embraced the settlement experience as an opportunity to educate elite Americans about working-class culture. Every week, 9,000 people, mostly immigrants, rang the doorbell and walked through the doors of Hull House. Their extraordinary ethnic diversity--from 28 countries--taught Addams to respect the unions and clubs that glued together immigrant communities. Unlike many of her contemporaries, Addams didn't try to "Americanize" immigrants. Instead, she tried to give them opportunities through which they could improve the quality of their lives. In her words, she began to side with the "many against the few." But she never became a socialist. Still, like so many progressives, she constantly criticized unregulated capitalism, rejected profit as the measure of social and moral worth and blamed social and economic forces, rather than individuals, for the urban poverty that blighted America's cities.
Diliberto's biographical account is fascinating when she focuses on the personal lives, rather than the political ideas, of this generation of women. Hull House inspired more than 400 other settlement houses around the country, attracting hundreds of women who dedicated their lives to good works rather than to marriage. As Victorian women, they relied on other women for friendship and love. Some women paired off in stable romantic relationships. Mary Rozet Smith, to whom Addams considered herself married, spent decades traveling with Addams, taking care of her needs and vacationing with her in their summer home. In a pre-Freudian atmosphere, such passionate relationships between women were common, even among married women.
By 1912, Addams had emerged as the most famous and beloved woman in the country. The author of the best-selling "Twenty Years at Hull House," which recounted her settlement work, Addams seconded the nomination of Theodore Roosevelt as the Progressive candidate for president in 1912. This is where Diliberto's biography ends. But the rest of Addams' life, which Diliberto has squeezed into an epilogue, was even more dramatic.
When Addams opposed America's "preparedness" to enter World War I, she quickly turned into a public enemy. In 1915, the press vilified Addams when she founded the Women's Peace Party, an international organization dedicated to waging a "women's war against the war." Elected president of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom in 1919, Addams condemned the Versailles Treaty as unwise and unfair. Fed up with her peace activism, Roosevelt denounced Addams as part of the "shrieking sisterhood" that sought universal disarmament. No longer America's favorite saint, Addams topped the War Department's list of subversives during the 1920s.
But just as the Great War took it away, the Great Depression restored Addams' saintly reputation. President FranklinRoosevelt institutionalized many of the welfare reforms advocated some 30 years earlier by Addams' generation of women activists. In 1931, she received the Nobel Peace Prize, and by her death in 1935, she had become America's icon of peace activism.
Addams' life spanned the country's transformation from a rural agricultural society to an urban industrial one. But by focusing so closely on Addams' psychological journey, Diliberto fails to capture the changing zeitgeist of this explosive political and economic era and therefore slights the most important experiences that inspired Addams' fiercely held democratic vision of a more egalitarian America.
Diliberto's biography, unfortunately, offers neither fresh revelations nor original interpretation, and is based on the scholarship of other historians. Factual errors (in one case six in 13 lines) also litter the narrative. Still, Diliberto, a gifted writer, has written a lively, accessible biography that will introduce readers to Addams, the woman. "A Useful Woman" is a tale worth telling and, in Diliberto's hands, is a story well told. But Jane Addams deserves more. We still await the magisterial biography worthy of this remarkable woman.