Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy. . – Books: devout democrat – book review

Allen C. Guelzo

Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy. By Jean Bethke Elshtain. Basic Books, 352 pp., $28.00.

QUAINT” MAY BE the first word that springs to mind when the name of Jane Addams surfaces. Not that it surfaces that often these days outside academic discussions. Although she was once lauded as the greatest of American women, a “contemporary immortal,” and was a co-winner of the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize, her opposition to American involvement in the First World War cost her dearly in the public eye. Furthermore, the frantic hedonism of the 1920s and the immense social and economic collapse of the Depression made her once-celebrated social experiment at Hull House look lilliputian in design. In her severe long skirts and billowing sleeves, Addams gradually came to be seen as the quintessential do-gooder, blindly obstructing genuine social change in favor of salving her own social guilt. She was, as it were, the first social worker.

Jean Bethke Elshtain’s biography has no lesser ambition than to blow this image of Addams sky-high. Born into an independent family in rural northern Illinois, Adam’s experience of city life in the newly teeming industrial tenements wounded her into founding a settlement house in Chicago that would deal directly with the woes of the immigrant poor. Addams’s description of her early years in this work, Twenty Years at Hull-House, has never gone out of print since its first publication in 1910.

What has generally escaped notice is that Twenty Years at Hull-House was Addams’s fourth book (eight more would follow), since she struggled continuously to allow the experience of directing Hull House to formulate a new social ethic for industrial America.

Addams was not looking for an ideology. She disliked the “wilderness of dogma,” and routinely maddened the partisans of the political right and left as she zigzagged among their pet notions and blind hatreds. Her social ethic would be based not on theory, but on what she called “broadened sympathies toward the individual,” a frankly sentimental unsentimentalism about the need to stanch the real wounds in people’s lives rather than possess them with visions. She stressed the need for social amelioration, not social upheaval; she was not interested either in loving or hating capitalism, but in something infinitely more demanding, and that was mitigating it.

What Addams did believe in devoutly was democracy, the kind of democracy her father had taught her through the example of his onetime political acquaintance, Abraham Lincoln. It was a democracy in which people of all classes and all identities could shelter under the common title of citizen, and for Addams, Hull House was a schoolroom for teaching–and practicing–citizenship. (Elshtain delights in reiterating that Addams never thought of the residents and neighbors of Hull House as clients.)

It was this dedication to shaping citizens that saved Addams from drifting toward paternalism. It also explains why so many of Hull House’s programs were musical, artistic, literary, almost academic. In a democracy, any citizen may lay claim to culture; in a democracy, any life should include the beautiful. “All of Hull House’s many activities,” says Elshtain, “pointed toward one goal: the building up of a social culture of democracy.”

Citizens embraced democratic culture, however, not by abandoning the ordinary for the political, but by transforming the political by the ordinary. Elshtain speaks of Addams as a “social feminist,” in that Addams believed that women as much as men had a role to play in the fostering of democracy. But Addams never suggested that public life required a mass secession from domestic life. Rather, she wanted to see public life envisioned as a mirror of the domestic, a kind of municipal housekeeping. She thought it madness to drag mothers of young children out of their homes and put them to work in factories–a madness which allows Elshtain to contrast Addams’s “social feminism” with “the triumph of an individualist version of feminism in the past quarter century,” to the shame of the latter. Addams labored under no illusions about women’s domestic lives–she was confronted every day with examples of abuse–but she fiercely resisted gender victimology.

For Addams, the great challenge of democracy was to balance “the social claim” democracy makes on everyone in the world of work and public life, and “the family, claim,” which can be realized only through healthy marriages, families and children. Addams’s life was a simple assertion that the two could be reconciled; that assertion, more than anything else, may be what makes Addams incomprehensible to our times.

To say that Elshtain admires, defends and advocates for Addams is to dignify understatement. Much of the book consists of Elshtain’s direct exhortation to take Addams to heart for our times. This is not a strictly linear biography, and still less is it an intellectual biography, providing the context of her writings (John Dewey hardly gets a look from Elshtain). It is, in places, almost a meditation on Addams’s attitudes–her simplicity, her grace, and her confidence that American democracy could fill the void in people’s lives left by the loss of religious authority, of economic independence, even of a homeland.

In other books, Elshtain has eloquently defended a faith in democracy not unlike Addams’s; in this one, she revives something of Addams’s anger at democracy’s latter-day effacement by bureaucratic poltroons, therapeutic hedonists, multicultural quacks and academic cynics. But can we expect a revival of citizenship when its cultural underpinnings have begun to loosen, buckle and separate? Is citizenship and civic life enough to bridge the gap between increasingly incommensurate moralities and cosmologies? If it is, Jane Addams’s thought will be a better place to begin that work than almost any other, perhaps, except for that of Addams’s revered Lincoln. And Elshtain’s vigorous resurrection of Addams’s faith will be the best introduction.

Reviewed by Allen C. Guelzo, who is dean of the Templeton Honors College at Eastern College in St. Davids, Pennsylvania.

COPYRIGHT 2002 The Christian Century Foundation

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group

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