Woman Caught Between Two Worlds

For Jane Addams the spring of 1881 was bright and golden, a timefor dreaming. But the summer that followed was a nightmare. With Junecame the thrill of graduation, the flurry of farewells, the pledgesto "remember you always." Then back to Cedarville, snug and secure,where her idolized father and the others sustained her. Like herstepbrother George, Jane talked of going east in September to furtherher education by graduate study, he in biology and she in medicine.Whenever there was a dull moment, Mrs. Addams arranged a gay partyand played on the guitar to add to the merriment. Life seemed to besinging.

Suddenly the singing stopped. On July 2, 1881, the telegraph linescrackled with news from Washington: President James A. Garfield hadbeen shot, and mortally wounded, by a deranged, disappointedoffice-seeker. Jane gasped: The assassin, Charles J. Guiteau, was theson of a man who worked in her father's bank in Freeport. Hishalf-sister, Flora, was a frequent family guest in Cedarville. Angry,venomous charges swept the country, centering on the Guiteaus. Jane,needless to say, had no thought of abandoning her friends because ofpublic opinion; this was their hour of greatest need, and she didwhat she could to strengthen the Guiteaus to meet an ordeal renderedall the more pathetic by the insanity of the assassin. When he wentto the gallows for the crime, she was with Flora, trying to take herfriend's mind off the terrible events that would place a stigma onthe name Guiteau forever.

Partly to get his family away for a vacation, partly to inspectmining properties in Michigan and Wisconsin, John Addams planned atrip that August. As always, Jane was glad to be at his side. Thebrisk northern air and the spicy pine trees of Michigan delightedher. She leaned out of the carriage to buy blood-red raspberries, thesweetest she had ever tasted. A few days later she watched boats,laden with silver cargoes of fish, skimming over blue Lake Superior.Her father's enthusiasm for the copper mines he had come to seedelighted her, too. Suddenly one day, Mr. Addams doubled up withpain. "We must take him home at once," his wife said. They got as faras Green Bay, Wisconsin. There, in a hotel, his inflamed appendixruptured and John Addams died. Vigorous and capable as ever atfifty-nine, he had been struck down in a few hours. The silent,stunned family brought the body home for burial. There, in the familycemetery near the creek in Cedarville, they laid him to rest next tohis first wife Sarah and the four children who had died in infancy.

Pain like a knife

John Addams left behind an estate valued at $350,000--quite afortune for his time and place. Neither his widow nor his childrenwould have to worry about maintaining the station in life to which hehad accustomed them. The most prominent family in Cedarville, theycould live at their ease if they wanted to, or indulge their tastefor travel without worrying about the cost. No matter. It was alldust and ashes as far as Jane was concerned. Her whole existence hadbeen shaken by the loss of her father, the center of her thoughts forso many years. There was a vacuum, a void in her life that no otherinterest, for the time being at least, could fill. To her friendEllen Starr she wrote shortly after the funeral: "The greatest sorrowthat can ever come to me has passed, and I hope it is only a questionof time until I get my moral purposes straightened." Actually, ittook years rather than months before she regained her equilibrium.

Meanwhile, she often seemed hardly to know what was said or donearound her. John Addams, the father-god, was dead, and Tennyson'sterm for one type of male-female relationship--"he for God only, shefor God in him"--had some application here, as it may have had for aneven higher percentage of men and women in that Victorian era than inmost other periods of human history. No child is ever fully preparedfor the effects of a beloved parent's death--but the growingindependence Jane had shown in her Rockford days must have made atleast some of her family and friends wonder why she did notdemonstrate a greater strength and resilience in coping with thiscrisis. Still, life goes on, and Jane knew she must come to termswith it. She had already been accepted by the Women's Medical Collegein Philadelphia. Since George was going east for his graduate studiesat Johns Hopkins, she would have to pull herself together and go eastwith him. Because they too felt cut off from what had been their lifein Cedarville, Mrs. Addams and Jane's older sister Alice also decidedto visit Philadelphia. The shutters of the Addams house were closed.The piano was covered. The fires were put out for the first timesince John and Sarah Addams had moved in a generation earlier.Somehow the very heart of the family had stopped beating when thepatriarch was buried six feet under the black soil across the creek.

The only solution, Jane sensed, was constant work, which wouldwipe out the memory of that dark, silent house. Her studies went wellenough, but her health began to fail. In the spring she passed herexaminations; but pain cut into her back like a knife, and her nervesseemed close to breaking. For tortured days and nights she lay paleand helpless in a Philadelphia hospital. Her brother-in-law, Dr.Harry Haldeman now, visited her and called in a noted backspecialist. "She'll not live a year," this doctor concluded. "Youdon't know her," Dr. Haldeman replied. "She'll outlive us all."

Jane improved enough to make the journey home, in great pain, andeven to return to Rockford. The seminary had been transformed into acollege, and could in June 1882 grant her the B.A. degree she hadactually earned a year earlier. Back home, she collapsed. Now shemoved west, to Mitchelville, Iowa, where Dr. Haldeman was practicing.He decided that she had an abscess on her spine that only surgerywould relieve. The operation was successful, although it was soextensive that it left Jane incapable of bearing children. After theoperation she had to lie on a board for six months, then wear a heavysteel and whalebone brace. Fitting down to her hips, it acted as acrutch under her arms and took the pressure off her spine. No one cansay what pain and despair the gallant young girl of twenty-twoendured during this phase of her life, and for years afterward.

Again Mrs. Addams came through with a plan: Why not go to Europefor a complete change? Jane was enthusiastic. In 1883, Jane, herstepmother, and a party of six others went aboard the Cunard linerServia headed for the Old World from which the Addams hadmigrated two centuries earlier. For an educated American in the1880's, a journey to Europe was a kind of pilgrimage. Ancestralshrines, memories, and roots were here; so were the world's leadinguniversities, academies, and cities. Europe's wealth, power, andprestige were unmatched. Politically independent for a century,Americans still suffered from a strong sense of cultural inferiority."In truth," Matthew Arnold proclaimed in his haughty report of avisit made to America the same year Jane Addams was first visitingEurope, "everything is against distinction in America, and againstthe sense of elevation to be gained through admiring and respectingit." The United States had no castles, no sages, no medieval knights.If American writers like Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman consideredthis an advantage, visitors like Harriet Martineau, Charles Dickens,and Mrs. Trollope often sneered at American newness and crudity."Their cities are all provincial towns," Miss Martineau wrote. "Itwould be well if they loved the real less and the ideal more,"Dickens complained. "I was quite oppressed by the serious andmelancholy air of business." To escape this "provincialism" and taintof business, thousands of Americans flocked annually to Europe,tracking down "culture" in packs. They still do.

Fiction close to fact

Of all European nations, Americans then seemed to feel most in aweof Great Britain, at her imperial peak in the late nineteenthcentury. When Queen Victoria's government got effective control ofthe Suez Canal (1875) and she became Empress of India (1876), onecould truly say that Britannia ruled the waves. Almost a quarter ofthe globe's land surface was colored red on maps, to designateBritish control or allegiance; the sun never set on British soil. Hereconomic, political, and cultural influence permeated the world--afact that the British had no notion of keeping secret.

No one was more fascinated by the Anglo-American connections thanthe novelist Henry James, born in America in 1843 but through choicea resident of England after 1876. He eventually became a Britishsubject. By coincidence, James was also on the Servia when itsailed for Europe on August 22, 1883, and he sat at the same tablewith Jane Addams in the dining room. "He is very English inappearance," she wrote, "but not especially keen or intellectual."This remains perhaps the most astonishing judgment ever passed onHenry James, who was actually among the most "intellectual" men ofhis generation. But, apart from his Anglified reserve, which made itdifficult for him to converse easily with strangers, the truth isthat he and Jane could hardly have understood one another. Jamesagreed with those Europeans who considered Americans crude,commercial-minded, and brash. Unsympathetic to the booming democracythat inspired Walt Whitman and Mark Twain, he found his ideal in theBritish aristocratic tradition that nurtured ladies and gentlemen ofrefined manners and established social position. While Jane Addamswanted to work out her destiny in her homeland, Henry James simplyturned his back on it. She was an activist bent on changing society;he was a detached observer of the passing scene. Both becamecosmopolitans interested in the people of foreign lands, but Janewould mingle with the poverty-stricken and downtrodden, while Jamespreferred to circulate through the salons and country houses of theupper classes.

Still, Jane might have had a better opinion of her dining roomacquaintance if she had read his latest novel, The Portrait of aLady, a beautifully written study of a young American girlvisiting Europe for the first time. James described, with a wealth ofsubtle nuances, the experiences of Isabel Archer entering an old,sophisticated society quite willing to take advantage of herwide-eyed American innocence--something that Jane might haveappreciated during her own European experience. Like Isabel, she sawfine country houses similar to the Gardencourt of James's novel, andshe brushed against women who resembled his insidious Madame Merle.Unlike Isabel, however, Jane noticed how the other half lived--themasses, the larger segment of what Benjamin Disraeli called "the twonations" of the rich and the poor.

Jane Addams and Henry James went their separate ways after thisone brief encounter on the high seas. It is a beguiling thought thattwo such different human beings ever got within speaking distance ofone another.

Literary and social historians are also tempted to compare andcontrast Jane Addams' life with that of her brilliant contemporary,Emily Dickinson, who was residing quietly in New England while Janewas seeking new experiences in Europe. Both were surcharged withnervous energy, baffled by the problems of finding a role forthemselves in nineteenth-century America, given to introspection andself-analysis. The two did have somewhat different attitudes towardtheir fathers, for while Jane cherished a deep devotion to herfather, Emily was sometimes quite skeptical about hers--as well asabout the busy male world where her father played an active part.Emily heartily disliked people who "care about careers" to theexclusion of all other possible interests, and her attacks on astuffy deity are accompanied by attacks on stuffy men. However, likethe New England poetess, Jane Addams saw her life close twice--oncewhen her father died, and again as she herself approached death. Bothhad a terror they "could tell to none," and came to know that "thesoul selects its own society." Their solutions were quite different.Emily's surcease was poetry written in relative solitude; Jane had toget out into the world of action to find satisfaction. But are thereany women of the present generation who tell us so much about our eraas these two dedicated spinsters tell us about theirs?

Isabel Archer lived only in Henry James's novel; Emily Dickinsonin distant Amherst, Massachusetts. The woman who had a direct effecton Jane's life, day after day, was Anna Haldeman Addams--but theeffect was too often negative to please either. While they agreed onthe importance of refinement, grace, and style in personaldeportment, Jane refused to regard these passports to high society asthe be-all and end-all that Mrs. Addams made of them. Jane'sunwillingness to marry George Haldeman, or anyone else, remained as abarrier between stepdaughter and stepmother, for the latter could notsympathize with the determination of a girl in her early twenties tohave a career rather than a husband. The quiet, intense conflictbetween the two was yet another burden for the frail,still-convalescent Jane.

Social vs. aesthetic reactions

During these months of mental struggle, physical pain was Jane'sconstant companion. But she would have nothing to do with self-pityor pampering. "Failure through ill health is just as culpable andmiserable as failure through any other cause," she observed. InEurope, she would go to all the places she was supposed to go, seeall the things she was supposed to see, learn whatever she wassupposed to learn.

No one was more excited than twenty-three-year-old Jane Addamswhen she got her first glimpse of Europe--off Queenstown (now Cobh),Ireland, on August 29, 1883. Yet as early as the following day shebegan to find out what European "aristocracy" meant. The owner ofnearby Blarney Castle, she learned, had an income of --13,000 (thenover $60,000) a year. Men who worked for him got six shillings (thenabout $1.50) a week. Jane remembered this gross inequality as well asthe striking beauty of the castle. She had hardly set foot in the OldWorld before the gulf between her social and aesthetic reactions began to emerge.

The next two months were devoted to "doing" the British Isles. InDublin the Addams group bought art books. They went on to Edinburgh,"an enchanted city, filled with heroic associations."Stratford-on-Avon conjured up all the Shakespearean memories. But thetraumatic experience that was to shape her whole thinking occurredfarther south, in London. One Saturday evening, soon after theirarrival in the capital, the American visitors went into the slums atMile End Road. Jane "saw for the first time the overcrowded quartersof a great city at midnight." It was a sight that left her stunnedand in disbelief. She had never imagined that such wretched, haggardpeople existed as the men, women, and children who pressed forward ina turbulent mob at the Saturday-night food auction, biddingfrantically for vegetables that no member of the upper classes wouldhave considered fit to eat. She noticed, too, that, as the auctioneerhawked his unsavory wares, skullduggery mingled with sorrow among thebuyers. Since many an individual had to trade his last poor coin fora mildewed cabbage or wilted bunch of carrots, or else go without hisSunday meal, each tried to jostle his way to the front, and tooutmaneuver the others before the last remnant of food was gone.

So this was glorious London, admired capital of a cultured nationand worldwide empire! The stinking vegetables, pinched faces, andraucous shouts were bad enough, but the myriad of clutching handswould haunt Jane more than anything else. From that day forward, shecould never see a number of outstretched hands without being carriedback to the horror of Mile End Road.

Not the fact that she had been unable to do anything, but that noone expected her to do anything, was the shock from whichJane Addams never fully recovered. As in London, so in every othercity she visited, she found that an endless panorama of hideous humanneed and suffering lurked just behind the shining aristocraticexterior. On one occasion, in Saxe-Coburg, Germany, Jane tried to dosomething about conditions in a brewery. From her hotel she saw aline of working women carrying wooden tanks full of hot brew. Leaningforward under their back-breaking loads, they sometimes spilledscalding hot liquid on their bodies; large scars showed how manytimes such accidents had happened before. Stung into action, Janefound the brewery owner and complained. He received her with"exasperating indifference," evidently puzzled as to why anyoneshould object to the sight. The incident was a lesson in theindifference of employers to the suffering of their employees.

Little to dance about

On and on the Grand Tour went, lasting twenty-one months, andcarrying Jane from northern Europe to Austria, Italy, Greece, back toItaly again, Switzerland, Britain, Berlin, and finally Paris. Janelooked at dozens of cathedrals, hundreds of pictures, and innumerablelovely views; studied German, Italian, and French; filled notebookswith her impressions. Her stepmother wanted her to take dancinglessons in Paris, but Jane's back hurt too much for that. Her diariesshow conclusively that Jane Addams found a great deal to think about--but little to dance about--in nineteenth-century Europe.

One central lesson dominated all others: Artistic and intellectualeffort was futile when disconnected from the ultimate test of theconduct it inspired. Until the word was made flesh,what did it mean to the millions who never attended operas orvisited museums? What had she learned about real life in the cloistercalled Rockford Female Seminary? The young woman who returned firstto New York and then to Cedarville could not ignore these questions,and could not begin to find answers. She wished that life might bemolded closer to the heart's desire, but she had no idea of how to doit, or even where she should begin.

A bad period of her life followed. Jane called it "the nadir ofnervous depression and sense of maladjustment." The family moved toBaltimore, where George was studying at Johns Hopkins. Mrs. Addamsspent much time trying to climb the social ladder, a game in whichher stepdaughter had no interest whatever. Jane felt as if she werebeing stifled by the politeness and pretension all around her.Courses in archaeology and Italian history provided the only realstimulation she had.

Anxious for the corporate religion that had eluded her atRockford, she was baptized a Presbyterian in the summer of 1885. But,because the dedication of this church's members, rather than itsspecific theological tenets, motivated her, she remainednonsectarian, and some years later transferred, with no feeling ofdiscomfort, to the Congregational church near Hull-House. She joinedthese religious bodies, her nephew James Weber Linn claims, as shemight have joined a labor union, "because she thought her membershipwould help out." She was always glad to cooperate with any religiousgroup engaged in humanitarian social work.

"I wish I had had a call to foreign missions as some of the girlsat Rockford had," Jane wrote to Ellen Starr, who was now aschoolteacher. "They were fortunate; they knew what they wanted todo." Out of college several years, well-read and traveled, what hadshe done? That question became more acute during a visit toGirard, Kansas, where part of the funds from her father's estate hadbeen used to buy mortgages. This type of investment had neverbothered her before. Now, touring one of the farms that contributedto her personal income, she suffered a rude awakening. The farmhousewas badly rundown. The farmer's wife, "a picture of despair" afteryears of work and sorrow, stood in the doorway. Dirty, raggedchildren, too young to comprehend their own misery, shrank shylybehind her. The yard was filthy, the pigs in the pen half starved.The whole place had "poverty" written over it as surely as the slumsof London. Jane's conscience revolted. She withdrew her investment inorder to register a practical protest against the system that sodemoralized human beings.

Personal doubts and spiritual unrest accompanied her home fromKansas. She still had no fixed resolution about what to do with herlife when, in December 1887, she again went on shipboard, headed forEurope to join Ellen Starr. Perhaps this time she would find thepurpose and the meaning she craved. At twenty-seven, six years out ofcollege, she had accomplished nothing of consequence and had lost anysense of continuity or pattern in life that she had begun to developin her teens. On her second European journey she wryly noted "thedifference in my age and dignity between this trip and the onebefore. Then I was Mademoiselle and Fraulein; now everywhere it is'Madame' with the utmost respect."

Revelation at the bullring

From Southampton and Paris she traveled to Germany. At Ulm, theglorious cathedral rose before her eyes. What impressed her most,however, was not the aesthetic beauty that has enchanted visitors tothe town since the Middle Ages, but the mingling of peoplerepresented in the statues, paintings, and stained-glass windows.Here in this medieval building were portrayals of Hebrew prophets andGreek philosophers; Martin Luther, father of the Reformation, tookhis place amid Catholic saints. All mankind seemed welcome and athome in Ulm Cathedral. It was something new in the experience of JaneAddams--a "cathedral of humanity" dedicated to brotherhood,understanding, unity, and spiritual aspiration. A thought began totease her mind: Why not build a modern "cathedral of humanity" ?Surely so magnificent an ideal could not be dead, only waiting to berealized in a form that would meet contemporary needs? That thoughtbecame the cornerstone on which the edifice of her later life wouldbe built .

Jane and Ellen Starr met in Munich, then went on to Rome. ThereJane was ill for several weeks, and spent some time on the Rivierarecuperating, after which she traveled to Madrid for Easter of 1888.Here the goal she had been seeking, and the idea she had been tryingto formulate, would finally begin to clarify itself. Jane, like mosttourists, was drawn to the spectacle of the bullfight. The others inher party, unable to stand it, left early; but Jane stayed, entrancedby the "glories of the amphitheater." The bravery of the matadorsreminded her of the trials of courageous men in past ages. Thisreverie, not the stark reality of the five dead bulls, held her.Finally leaving, and finding her friends waiting for her, she began,under their criticism, to mull over the incident. Suddenly she felt"tried and condemned"--for enjoying the violence, and for wasting herprecious time on it.

Like a bolt, the realization of her inaction struck herspeechless. She had been lulling her conscience with dreams,defending her continued idleness with self-righteous charges againstothers, and making some indefinite future reform a reason for goingon with study and travel. "I had fallen into the meanest type ofself-deception in making myself believe that all this was inpreparation for great things to come," she confessed. In the sternterms of Christ's parable, she had been so busy pointing to therelatively small motes in others' eyes that she had not seen therelatively huge beam in her own eye. Such was her self-criticismoutside the Madrid bullring.

From then on, she would act. The next morning she revealed toEllen Starr a plan that had lingered in her mind for years, but hadnot begun to take any definite shape until her stay at Ulm. Why notrent a house in a city where many daily needs were urgent--where thebattle for life was actually being fought--where one could try outthe grand ideas learned in books and lectures by putting them to theultimate test of the conduct they dictated or inspired? Why not dothe truth? To Jane's astonishment and delight, Ellen Starr, theartist, understood precisely what she meant, and promised to join herin putting the new scheme into practice. The central principle onwhich the remainder of Jane Addams' long life would rest had beenstated. Now she knew what she was seeking: ways and means of turningmere words into an inspiring, practical reality.

From Fishwick, Marshall W. Illustrious American: Jane Addams.Pp. 31-40. Morristown, NJ: Silver Burdett Company, 1968.

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