Notes from the Capital: Jane Addams
The founder of Hull House and former beacon for progressivism struggles to define herself in contemporary America.
When Jane Addams was last in Washington, to preside over a world-peace gathering, the common remark was that she had lost her hold on a considerable part of her old constituency. There was a time when Miss Addams had only to open her lips and the whole country listened. Indeed, her voice could be heard across the sea, as was evidenced when John Burns, the English labor leader, pronounced her "the only saint America has produced," and other Old-World notables made use of her name and exploited her ideas in public utterances to their home people.
It would he hard to define precisely the character of the change that seems to have come over feeling here. It was recognizable in the rather perfunctory quality of the applause which greeted her appearance on the platform, and it was not unlike what has been observed here repeatedly in the cases of political leaders who have overloaded their prestige with unfamiliar burdens. It contained no hint of derogation of her earlier activities. Jane Addams, of Hull House, loomed large in the history of her special era, and is still cherished as warmly as ever in the popular affections, but Jane Addams, of the World, seems a small figure projected against a huge background. Hull House and its work she knew from centre to circumference. As her fame spread and she was drawn into other lines of activity, however, her definiteness of vision seemed to suffer. The limit was reached, perhaps, four summers ago, when she became engulfed in the Progressive party whirlpool, where "Bill" Flinn, of Pennsylvania, and other boss-trained veterans were grasping at everything in sight which might be trusted to bring a vote to the polls in November. No one human mind could have compassed such a hodge-podge as was included in the demands of the new party programme, and the leaders of the movement did not hesitate to crack a jest on the fact in private. The one great object they had in view was the destruction of a certain public man and the banishment of his following, and persons like Miss Addams were used, quite unconsciously to themselves, as advertising figureheads, to give an air of genuineness to the so-called crusade.
What did surprise many of the old supporters of Miss Addams was that she should not have apprehended the real position assigned to her in the general scheme, for she had not been without experiences calculated to sharpen her mental eyesight for the detection of tawdry illusions and false philosophy. There was the incident of the old Scotchwoman in the Hull House neighborhood, whom she found walking out one raw winter day in clothing which struck her as too thin for the temperature. Taking the fur-lined circular from her own shoulders, she threw it around those of the woman, a free gift. Afterwards, her friends suspected, she came to realize that she had done a rather foolish thing in her over-prompt response to a generous impulse, for the old woman could have been adequately protected with a less fine and inappropriate garment, and a philanthropic end accomplished by a means net so uneconomic. Every one will recall her confession of her morbid fancy, as a child, for not walking with her father in public, because she was so painfully conscious of her imperfections that she did not wish to cast discredit upon him in the eyes of other people who might suspect their relationship; but along with this went her habit of attaching herself to her uncle in the street, blindly disregarding the fact that, were any odium to come to her escort on her account, she was merely shifting it from one good man who loved her to another.
Then, there was her worship of Bronson Alcott because he was the friend of her idol, Emerson, extending to the point of surreptitiously getting held of his cloth overshoes and cleaning them of mud "in a state of ecstatic energy." And it is a delicious story she tells of the impression left on her mind by a visit to Tolstoy, at which he enlarged to her upon his primitive theory of regenerating the world by having every one perform with his own hands the labor necessary for the supply of his individual wants, and of her coming back to America resolved to devote two hours every day thereafter to working in a Chicago bakery, on the assumption that that amount of labor would just about supply the essentials of her simple diet.
All these conceits, and a few others, born of an unwholesome habit of introspective self-analysis, she apparently outgrew as she came to a better balanced state of mind. At several she was able even to laugh soon after their occurrence. But they ought to have warned her against too ready an acceptance of any remedial nostrum with a plausible label. When Miss Boardman rebuked her for having, by an alliance with the Progressive party in 1912, arrayed the enginery of her prestige against Mr. Taft, who, as president of the Red Cross, stood for so much that she had advocated in behalf of humanity, the accuser may have been as super-sensitive on the one hand as the accused was over-zealous on the other, but it did startle many excellent people to notice what Miss Addams had let herself in for, and they are moved to wonder whither she will turn in 1916 if the Progressives desert their semi-detached allies in order to save themselves. Nor has it been forgotten that her views on lynching in the South, as publicly uttered a few years ago, laid more than common stress upon the consideration that the crime charged against the negro victims richly deserved the punishment decreed for it. Although this was not, of itself, a plea for lawlessness, it was one of those expressions to which a worldly-wise person would have preferred not to give utterance at that particular juncture, when a carnival of violence was in progress.
The tendency of such a career as Miss Addams has had of late years is doubtless towards mental "all-overishness," if we may embalm in print a current colloquialism Hull House is, and will always remain, a magnificent monument to its founder and chief promoter, and Miss Addams is still, except for a certain surface hardening, due to contact with the larger world outside, the same vivid and interesting personality as in her comparative youth. What she has lost in the intensity of her appeal appears to have been sacrificed to an endeavor to do too much in too many alien and untried fields, with its incidental diffusion of her native force.