Cover image for With one bold act : the story of Jane Addams
With one bold act : the story of Jane Addams
Polikoff, Barbara Garland.
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Publication Information:
Chicago : Boswell Books, [1999]

Physical Description:
238 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
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HV40.32.A33 P65 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

For 25 years, Jane Addams, social reformer, pacifist, Nobel Prize winner and founder of Chicago's Hull House settlement for inner-city immigrants, has not been accorded a full-length biography. Now there are two: Gioia Diliberto's A Useful Woman (Forecasts, May 17) and the present volume. The former is a feminist examination of Addams's earlier life; Polikoff, who has a personal connection to Hull House through her aunt, a long-term resident, provides a broader narrative account of Addams's life and works. She treads lightly over the more controversial areas of this life story, briskly dismissing as the product of modern Freudianism suggestions that Addams and her longtime companion, Mary Smith, were lovers. While she presents a richly detailed account of the remarkable reach of Hull House's social and cultural programs, she offers little in the way of a critical discussion of the liberal philosophy on which these programs were based. Polikoff describes Addams's association with Theodore Roosevelt's insurgent, unsuccessful Bull Moose campaign for the presidency in 1912, but misses the opportunity to explore the conflicts between Addams's social idealism and the constraints of practical politics that Addams's experience furnishes. Although Polikoff's family connection to Hull House supplied her with a fund of anecdotes, which she uses to good effect, in the end, Addams remains an elusive figure here, one hard to disentangle from her public persona. Still, this illustrated account is a useful introduction to Addams's life and works, especially for younger readers. 54 b&w photos. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One The Miller's Thumb and the Wagon Wheel     S adie Ellis had been attending classes at Hull House for five years when she was told that Miss Addams wished to see her. Hardly able to contain her nervousness, she climbed the long stairway to Miss Addams' office. At Sadie's timid knock Jane Addams greeted the 16-year-old warmly, delighted to give the shy girl the news that she and her friend, Blanche Maggioli, had each been awarded a scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago.     Sadie's art classes had begun by a lucky chance. Blanche was to have her first music lesson at Hull House and had asked Sadie to go along for moral support. Sadie had never been to the Settlement before and was awed by its maze of somber brick buildings and the sheltered courtyard where the play of water in a small stone fountain mesmerized her. Upon entering the music school, Sadie and Blanche were told that the teacher was running late. They decided to pass the time by drawing the bright red geraniums blooming on the waiting room table.     A tall, light-haired woman walked into the room and paused, her attention caught by the girls' drawings. "Why, you girls are artists! You should be in Miss Benedict's class." And Emily Edwards, assistant art teacher, whisked the startled friends to the art studio where Enella Benedict solemnly inscribed their names in the class book.     Walking home with the news of the scholarship, Sadie rehearsed what she would say to her parents if they objected to her going all the way to the Art Institute for classes. If that should happen, she would ask Miss Addams to talk with them. No one, not even her father, would be able to refuse "Miss Kind Heart." Looking back on her life seven decades later, Sadie concluded that everything of importance that had happened to her from that day forward stemmed from her association with Jane Addams and Hull House.     It was just such a child of poor immigrant parents that Jane Addams had hoped Hull House could help when in 1889 she and Ellen Gates Starr had founded the Settlement on Chicago's West Side. As president of the Woman's Peace Party she had been traveling and lecturing in the United States and abroad for the past six months and had been able to spend little time at Hull House. She missed closeness with her neighbors, particularly the young people with whom she felt a special bond.     The year was 1916. Jane Addams, or Miss Addams as she preferred to be called by all but family and intimate friends, was looking particularly tired. She was 56 years old, plagued by chronic back pain, and had never fully recovered from a serious kidney disease. Neither condition, however, prevented her from working ten to twelve hours a day, well over the number she claimed to be inhumane when imposed on factory workers.     Jane Addams was accustomed to both poor health and hard work. She was also accustomed to harsh criticism from the press. Not, however, to the malicious missives hurled at her since she had become a leader in the international peace movement. The very journalists who had once dubbed her Saint Jane, sentimentalizing her work with the poor, now described her as one of the "shrieking sisterhood." Colleagues with whom she had shared her pacifist beliefs had dropped from the fold, urging her to do the same. Businessmen, longtime supporters of Hull House, were withdrawing vital financial support. Increasingly, she felt out of touch with the people among whom she lived and worked. For Jane Addams, who had always drawn nourishment from being part of her community, such alienation was an open wound.     Perhaps on that afternoon, with the sun laying a shawl of warmth across her shoulders, she had leaned back in her chair and let her mind drift to the time when she had been as young and shy as Sadie Ellis. How different from the childhood of this daughter of Russian immigrants had her own childhood been.     Born on September 6, 1860, in the hamlet of Cedarville, Illinois, Laura Jane Addams had grown up in a two-story house with tall windows, spacious rooms and a kitchen commodious enough to seat ten of her father's millhands for lunch. An avid reader, John Addams had made a second floor parlor of his home available as the Cedarville Union Library. It was there that Jenny, as Laura Jane was then called, would seek out her father for treasured private moments. The living room, holding her stepmother's gleaming piano, was easily as large as a Chicago tenement flat in which an immigrant family of five might live. Gracious old elms shaded the front yard which sloped down to the road, then the main artery between Freeport, Illinois, six miles south of Cedarville, and Madison, Wisconsin.     John Addams had not begun married life as a wealthy man. In July 1844, a 22-year-old worker in his father's gristmill in Sinking Springs, Pennsylvania, he married Sarah Weber, sister-in-law of the owner of the mill in Kriedersville at which he had apprenticed. Sarah, five years older than John, had attended boarding school and came from a family more socially mobile than John's. But she was attracted to the ambitious young man who had read all the books in the village library and exuded a quiet self-confidence.     With small savings enhanced by generous wedding gifts, the young couple started out on a honeymoon dictated more by practical than romantic concerns. Sarah's father, Colonel George Weber, had long thought it would be financially wise to build a mill in "the west." He was to join the newlyweds in New York, on their way to northern Illinois where they hoped to make a home.     John Addams kept a careful daily journal of the trip. The first entry reads: "Myself and Wife left Kreidersville at four a.m. in a two-wheeled conveyance," first for Somerville, New Jersey, and "thence by Railroad, and arrived at the Great City of New York at 11 o'clock P.M., traveling 47 Miles in three hours. Thence, after two days of sightseeing, by boat to Albany -- a night trip, 160 miles in nine hours ..." The young couple, with Colonel Weber whom they met as planned, then continued west, arriving in Chicago, a "city commenced ten years ago and has a population of 8 thousand, nearly every person is engaged in some mercantile business, in my opinion too many for the place."     After three months of exploration Sarah and John decided to settle in the "Alps of Illinois," the lovely rolling country north of Freeport, sparsely settled by a few second-generation pioneers like themselves. John bought a small gristmill on the banks of the Cedar River, a modest stream more aptly called Cedar Creek, where in 1849 a village was incorporated and given the name Cedarville. Colonel Weber built a mill about 30 miles to the southwest.     John and Sarah Addams prospered. They were soon able to build a new mill and barn, and in 1854 a home that came to be known as the finest in the village. Built in the then popular Greek Revival style, it stood on a hill in the verdant valley carved out centuries ago by Cedar Creek. In his Cedarville memoir, an acquaintance of the Addams family recalled the striking garnet red glass in the transom of the front door which gave, especially to a child, a rosy tint to the world outside.     Gentle but resolute, Sarah Addams managed the domestic domain of child-rearing and household care with a mastery comparable to her husband's business skills. She bore nine children but only five lived beyond the age of two: Mary, born in 1845, Martha in 1850, John Weber (called Weber) in 1852, Alice in 1853, and Laura Jane in 1860. The markers in the Cedarville Cemetery explain why April was a sad month for the Addams family. Georgiana died April 12, 1850, at the age of ten months; Horace, two months old, died, April 15, 1855; and two-year-old George died April 7, 1859.     With the help of a hired girl, Sarah produced the household's candles, soap, rugs, socks and mittens, preserved its vegetables and fruit, and baked its bread. When her husband was away on business trips, Sarah knew enough about the workings of the mill to keep it running.     At age 32, John Addams, by then a founding member of the Republican Party, was elected a state senator, a position he held for the next sixteen years. Farsighted, confident, and not afraid to take risks, he spearheaded the building of a railway across the northern part of Illinois that was eventually consolidated with the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. Forty-eight years later that railroad would furnish free rides to campers on their way to the Hull House camp in Waukegan, Illinois. In this and many other ways, Jane Addams was to find the fabric of her father's life woven into her own.     On a frigid. January day in 1863, 49-year-old Sarah Addams, seven months pregnant with her ninth child, went to the aid of a wagon-maker's wife in labor. Off in another part of the county, the doctor did not arrive as expected and Sarah delivered the baby herself. On her way home, exhausted, Sarah collapsed and her infant was stillborn. A week later she died and was buried beside her stillborn child and her three other deceased children. The village newspaper expressed the sentiments of family and friends: Sarah Addams would "be missed everywhere, at home, in society, in the church, in all places where good is to be done and suffering relieved."     Mary took Sarah Addams' place, a forbidding responsibility for a 17-year-old. Much like her mother, she was intelligent, capable and devoted to the well-being of others. She had the able help of Polly (Mary) Bear, her mother's childhood nurse who had followed the family to Cedarville, and a hired girl from town as well as a handyman and a woman to do the laundry.     Two-and-a-half-year-old Jenny attached herself to Mary and Martha, but her clear favorite was her father. She yearned to be as much like him as possible, a desire that prompted her to spend hours at the mill, pressing the wheat grains falling from the millstones between her thumb and forefinger so she too would have a "miller's thumb." But all her diligence came to nothing and her thumb stubbornly stayed its same boring shape, not marvelously flattened like her father's.     Jenny loved to hear John Addams tell stories about his youth. Looking back on her childhood in her autobiographical book, Twenty Years at Hull-House , published in 1910, Jane Addams wrote: [With the] sincere tribute of imitation which affection offers to its adored object ... I was consumed by a wistful desire to apprehend the hardships of my father's earlier life in that faraway time when he had been a miller's apprentice. I knew that he still woke up punctually at three o-clock because for so many years he had taken his turn at the mill in the early morning and if by chance I awoke at the same hour, as curiously enough I often did, I imagined him in the early dawn in my uncle's old mill reading through the entire village library, book after book, beginning with the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Copies of the same books, mostly bound in calfskin, were to be found in the library below, and I courageously resolved that I too would read them and try to understand life as he did ... Pope's translation of the `Iliad,' even followed by Dryden's `Virgil,' did not leave behind the residuum of wisdom for which I longed ...     Eight-year-old Jenny wearied of rising at 3 a.m., began to sleep to a normal hour, and entered the more welcoming world of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women , a book she would reread many times. But the fact that at such a young age Jenny actually rose at that dark hour and attempted to read Pope and Dryden must have signaled to her father that his youngest daughter was a most unusual child. Jenny, in turn, centered on John Addams "all that careful imitation which a little girl ordinarily gives to her mother's ways and habits."     In legislative sessions in Springfield, John Addams had become both friend and legal advisor to Abraham Lincoln. It was a special treat for Jenny when her father, in his sober, resonant voice, read from the packet labeled "Mr. Lincoln's letters." The letters always began, "My dear Double-dee'd Addams." (The extra D had been added by an ancestor, Isaac Adams, who wanted to differentiate himself from a cousin with the same name.) In one such letter Lincoln asked his friend, John Addams, how he was going to vote on a matter before the legislature. He trusted that Addams "would vote according to his conscience," and it was "a matter of considerable importance to me to know how that conscience was pointing."     "There were at least two pictures of Lincoln," Jane Addams wrote, "that always hung in my father's room, and one in our old-fashioned upstairs parlor, of Lincoln with little Tad. For one or all of these reasons I always tend to associate Lincoln with the tenderest thoughts of my father." Jenny was four-and-a-half years old when she came home from play one day to find a black band and an American flag fastened to each gate post. She ran up to her father's room to inquire what the flags and bands were for, then stopped, amazed to see her father weeping. "The greatest man in the world has just died," he told her. "Abraham Lincoln."     It was one of Jenny's earliest introductions to that vast, unknown universe lying outside the two white gate posts. Another occurred when she walked into the house and found her father quietly talking to a Negro man. She was told afterwards never to speak to anyone of seeing that man or any other Negro in their home. Many years passed before Jenny was to learn that John Addams was an ardent abolitionist and the Cedarville house had been a stop on the Underground Railroad.     Jenny had had tuberculosis of the spine at a very young age and was left with a slight curvature that caused her to walk somewhat pigeon-toed and hold her head a little to one side. Convinced that she was ugly, she would hang back while walking with her father in Cedarville and Freeport, loathe to have strangers think that such a handsome man had such a homely daughter. She harbored the painful concern that her father might be relieved not to be seen with her.     Emerging from the Freeport Bank one afternoon, John Addams saw Jenny dutifully waiting for him. She later recalled that transforming moment when, "With a playful touch of exaggeration, he lifted his high and shining hat and made me an imposing bow." That public acknowledgment convinced Jenny that her father was not at all ashamed of her. Though she was able to walk by his side with equanimity after that, she never broke free of feeling that she was unattractive. Following the typically self-conscious adolescent years, she paid little attention to dress or hairstyle. Years later Louise Bowen, patroness of Hull House, would purchase a new dress for Jane Addams (preferably gray, black or navy blue) when she wearied of seeing her friend in the same clothes week after week.     In fact, Jenny was a pretty child with dreamy, blue-gray eyes and thick brown hair. Living mostly in a world of adults, and spending a great deal of time with her father, a reserved man with little inclination for seeing the lighter side of life, she tended to be serious and introspective. An early entry in Quaker John Addams' journal attests to his aim to settle in the new land and do honor to God and selves. Guided by an "inner light," John Addams not only resolutely lived by those words but passed their sober message on to young Jenny.     Allying herself "doggedly" to her father, Jenny was drawn into moral concerns at a remarkably early age. At eight years old she had been given a wool cape which she described as "gorgeous beyond anything she had worn before." On Sunday morning, readying herself for Bible class, she put on the cape and went to show it to her father. But instead of being complimented, she was told to take off the new cape and wear the old one. It would keep her just as warm and would not make the other girls feel badly for not having anything nearly so beautiful. I complied with the request [Jane Addams later wrote] but I fear without inner consent, and I certainly was quite without the joy of self-sacrifice as I walked soberly through the village street ... My mind was busy, however, with the old question eternally suggested by the inequalities of the human lot. Only when I neared the church door did I venture to ask what could be done about it.     John Addams conceded that Little could be done about equalizing people's material possessions. For that reason, in school or church "where everyone received the same portions," she should not wear an expensive cape that would set her apart from her schoolmates. A stern lesson for an eight-year-old.     Jenny's dreams at that age were disturbingly real, particularly the one she dreamed night after night, that everyone in the world was dead except myself, and that upon me rested the responsibility of making a wagon wheel ... I always stood in the same spot in the blacksmith shop, darkly pondering as to how to begin, and never once did I know how, although I fully realized that the affairs of the world could not be resumed until at least one wheel should be made and something started.     The dream was so real that the next morning would sometimes find Jenny, "standing in the doorway of the village blacksmith shop, anxiously watching the burly, red-shirted figure at work."     "Do you always have to sizzle the iron in water?" she asked.     That's what makes the iron hard, the blacksmith explained. Despairing of ever being able to sizzle iron in water, or go through all the other steps necessary to make a wheel, Jenny would return home, feeling the weight of failure, but telling no one, not even her sister Mary, what was troubling her.     One day, happily accompanying her father to Freeport in the family buggy, Jenny saw the slums of the city for the first time. Distressed at the poverty of the dwellings and the children playing on garbage heaps, she asked her father "why people lived in such horrid little houses so close together." When he answered that they could afford no better, she replied that when she grew up she would "of course, have a large house, but it would not be built among other large houses but right in the midst of horrid little houses like these."     In the Jane Addams Room of the simple, two-room historical museum in Cedarville, some memorabilia of Jane's childhood are on exhibit -- a worn coin purse filled with fossils, her joke and riddle book, and a handkerchief case made for her father. The letters to her sister Alice, at Rockford Female Seminary, written in a painfully cramped script with a liberal spattering of misspelled words (the poor spelling that persisted through adulthood may have been caused by a mild dyslexia), speak of ordinary things: It is good skating and has been for a couple of weeks ... Mr. March preached hear to day but I did not go he preaches so long ... Mrs. Carey is very sick with the dropsy they do not think she will live. I have got a new water proof it is a great deal nicer than any other ever was ... They had a crasy man came hear last evening and this morning he wanted to tune and play on our piano ...     So, we learn with relief there was a little girl here who collected fossils, read riddles, went ice-skating and wrote letters to her sister begging for letters in return. Interwoven among the relentlessly somber moments with which Jane Addams documents her early childhood, there were ordinary days of play and irresponsibility to give some balance to the life of a child who dreamed repeatedly of her duty to make a wagon wheel on which the affairs of the world depended. Copyright © 1999 Barbara Garland Polikoff. All rights reserved.