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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

In this issue:

A Bookish Holiday Season and a couple of winning reads for the young: Jane Addams; Spirit in Action relates how Addams stretched her understanding of people and political forces far beyond what she knew as a sheltered child, and through the wisdom translated thought into action. 13 Words by Lemony Snicket and Maira Kalman is a great grandparent/grandchild read. Terry Pratchett, the author of Nation is a profoundly moral writer, his writing consistently playful and often just delicious. There's a caveat about Theodore Boone - Kid Lawyer by John Grisham, too

Reviewed by Jill Norgren

By Louise W. Knight
Published by W. W. Norton; Hardback, ©2010, 334 pp,

Well-known political women were not abundant in pre-World War II America. Among the few household, and schoolhouse, names with currency and respectability were Eleanor Roosevelt and Jane Addams. Blanche Wiesen Cook has given us insightful volumes of biography about Roosevelt. In 2005 Louise Knight took up the first half of Addams’s life in her passionate and elegantly written Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy (University of Chicago Press).

Five years later, Knight has published a pleasing sequel, Jane Addams: Spirit in Addams. Shorter in length than Citizen, it offers a spellbinding overview of Addams’ work, philosophies, and relationships. Most particularly, Knight explores how Addams, a middle class woman, beginning in young adulthood, took in the whole of the world around her, stretched her understanding of people and political forces far beyond what she knew as a sheltered child, and through the wisdom gained translated thought into action.

Jane Addams has been called an American original. She was a child of the nation’s heartland, born in 1860 in northern Illinois. She suffered the death of her mother at the age of two but had the good fortune to be raised by a loving sister and a concerned father who was a prosperous entrepreneur, state representative, and Quaker-bred “perfectionist.” He taught Jane to trust her inner light rather than the views of others. He led by example and believed in the central importance of deeds that benefited others, namely, benevolence.

As a seventeen year old, Addams wanted to attend the newly opened Smith College but her father insisted that she attend nearby Rockford ( Illinois) Female Seminary, an evangelical institution. Students who had not yet “come to Jesus” were expected to convert and be baptized. Jane was a deist and did not convert despite the persistent pressure of her teachers. Knight considers this ability to resist an early sign of Jane’s “fierce desire to be true to her conscience and of the strength, the inner moral steel” that she possessed.

Rockford inadvertently permitted Addams to develop this power of individual conscience. Simultaneously, in history and literature courses taught by Caroline Potter, Rockford offered Addams an impressive exposure to the intellectual contributions of women. Jane read the writings of Margaret Fuller, discovered the goddess Isis, Shakespeare’s Portia, novelist George Sand, priestess Cassandra, and author Madame de Staël. She also honed her oratorical skills in Potter’s classes and in competitions that Addams organized after hearing that they were common at men’s colleges. She was beginning to dream, writes Knight, “that a woman [might] have an authoritative voice in public debate.”

Although Addams hoped for independence and a medical school education, graduation from Rockford sent her into the waters of duty, tragedy, and a nervous breakdown. In compelling narrative Knight spells out these events. More critically, she places Jane’s illness in the context 1880s medical and moral thinking including Jane’s belief “that she lacked the goodness of character to be truly self-denying.” Addams saw in her illness “the likelihood of a lifetime of failure.” The message for Jane and others of her class, according to Knight, “was that [they] must deny [their] own freedom for the sake of others and that failing to do so was selfish and would lead to [further] illness.”

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