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Jane Addams: Spirit in Action Hardcover – September 6, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Jane Addams (1860–1935) was one of the leading figures of the Progressive era. This "pragmatic visionary," as Knight calls her, is best known as the creator of Hull House, a model settlement house offering training, shelter, and culture for Chicago's poor. Addams also involved herself in a long list of Progressive campaigns. Her rhetorical skills as both speaker and writer made her internationally recognized as a supporter of civil rights, woman suffrage, and labor reform. Using brief quotes and contextual details, Knight (Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy) describes her subject's journey from a Victorian upbringing that stressed family duty through her practice of lofty "benevolence" as a young woman to the confidence to unhesitatingly risk her substantial reputation advocating pacifism during WWI. Her continuing peace activities earned her a Nobel Peace Prize in 1931, but antagonized many longstanding supporters. In this well-supported and appealing portrait of an iconic American, Knight emphasizes Addams's struggle to redefine Victorian womanhood and claim her right to "possess authority in the public realm" and "exercise authority" as a lobbying feminist who helped women acquire the right to vote. 32 illus.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Jane Addams’ life story never becomes irrelevant. With the passage of time, her reputation and her remarkable accomplishments have only increased in stature. As the cofounder of Hull House, the first settlement house in America, she gained a level of independence, influence, and respect seldom achieved by a woman in the late nineteenth century. As the twentieth century dawned, Addams began translating her own heartfelt spirit of democracy into both social and political action. In addition to helping the immigrant residents of her working-class Chicago neighborhood, she became a tireless advocate of labor unions, free speech, civil rights, women’s suffrage, and world peace. Knight, the author of Citizen (2006), provides the first full-length biography of Jane Addams in 35 years. She carefully traces Addams’ philosophical progression as she Addams evolvedfrom a passive reformer into an active collaborator, who tirelessly worked with, not for, others to usher in a new era of democracy and social justice. --Margaret Flanagan
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The writing is gorgeous: clear, straight-forward, and pitch-perfect.
I think that in the world we have today, she would be startled at what is still left unfinished from the day she left this earth. She was a compassionate person, but didn't leave anything undone that could be finished in a day's time. I believe Addams would push again for a movement that would act against the militarism, sexism, and racism that are appear in everyday life today.
Jane Addams' remarkable life is excellently told in this biography.
I found her personal philosophy and ethos (and lapses) fascinating. She sought to reconcile herself to what she was often already doing or advocating, yet somewhat unusually for that era, her compulsion toward public service was not based on traditional religious beliefs.
While the book paints a full picture of her range of intellectual and advocacy pursuits, it doesn't shy away from her failings. To give an egregious example, in 1899, a rash of lynchings occurred across the country and not just in the South. Perhaps because of a lack of personal knowledge, perhaps because of her own prejudices, her writings and advocacy were intended for white Southerners as an audience and took a tone of concern about the lack of due process of the mob, not the lynching itself or the torture, inequality and innocent victims of lynching. In the same year, her protests regarding the Filipino-American war did not take on the outdated tenents of "benevolent assimulation."
Louise Knight has woven the story of this complex, intelligent woman with her internal ethical debates into a highly readable book that presents Addams and her advocacy within the frame of her time's events. She met and corresponded with Presidents, intellectuals and leaders of her day, as well those emigrants using Hull House resources. A really interesting, engaging book I enjoyed.
To provide but two of many examples, Knight notes that in a speech Addams gave in 1896 following the violent Pullman strike, Addams used the word "power" in what was for her a new context, that of "Pullman's 'power' to build the town of Pullman and... his failture to recognize the legitimacy" of his own workers'/tenants' demands. Knight: "'Power' was a word Addams had previously used to refer to character. Growing up, she had dreamed of achieving that kind of personal power, but she had no conscious experience with other kinds of power. Sheltered within her family, she had not seen the power the family's wealth gave it economically and socially, nor seen the other kinds of power her father's influence as a politican created. She lived on the safe side of impersonal power, oblivious and innocent. Why did she see it now?" With this question, Knight takes the inquiry (and the reader) even further, finding clues in a related speech Addams delivered where Addams experienced a "moment of blinding insight" in which she recognized, through the lens of examining the oppression of women, that social hierarchy of any kind is the source of all conflict. She quotes Addams as describing women, in a dramatic metaphor, as "chained down by a military code," leading her down the path of realizing that hierarchy in action -- not just men over women, but boss over worker, native born over immigrant, war lord over civilian -- is wrong. (See pp. 94-96). Viewed in this way, it becomes easy for the reader to understand how it was that Addams always seemed so new and contemporary. She never allowed herself to become a prisoner of dogma and formality.
Knight provides the same sort of probing analysis of Addams' thought and action in discussing a book Addams wrote toward the end of her life, "The Excellent Becomes the Permanent," a collection of speeches Addams gave at memorial services. (See pp. 258-9) Knight: "[Addams] said in her introduction that she intended the book to answer a question she was often asked: Did she believe in life after death?... She never actually answered the question in the book..." However, "her book title gave her real answer: Achieving moral excellence was the path to living eternally.... The addresses in 'Excellent' capture, for the most part, the way each person being memoralized had lived with just that kind of bold passion."
One might say by extension that Addams herself lived with "bold passion." Knight writes in this segment that Addams "liked to treat herself as a mystery to be studied." Louise Knight has expertly unravelled the "mystery" that is Addams by delving into the motivations and evolved thought processes that led to Addams' very brave, often unpopular actions.