Interpreting a Life
THE NAME RINGS A BELL. Most Americans of middle age or older have heard of Jane Addams. Didn't she have something to do with immigrants and social work? "She was a socialist, right?" queried an academic friend when I told her I was at long last writing my "Jane Addams book." A vague sense of familiarity without any specific knowledge of who Addams was or what she did is understandable. Not only do Americans study far less history now than they once did, but Addams fell from public consciousness rather quickly following her death May 21, 1935, at the age of 74. Planned memorials faltered, and statues of her were never built. Yet at her death Addams was America's best-known and most widely hailed female public figure. Some went so far as to compare her to her hero, Abraham Lincoln. The mourning at her death was international. Tributes poured in from prime ministers and from ordinary men and women whose lives she had touched in some way by her life and work.
The reasons for Addams's posthumous eclipse are complex. Government-controlled and -administered welfare programs of the 1930s supplanted the settlement house movement Addams had pioneered, and altered settlement activities in such a way that they no longer conformed to her capacious vision. Addams thought of those who came and went at Hull-House as citizens, or citizens-in-the-making, not as clients or receivers of services. Although the names of settlements such as Hull‐ House were in some cases retained, the original model was transformed radically during the New Deal era and after. In addition, the costly battle against Nazism, followed by the long Cold War struggle with Sovietstyle tyranny, made Addams's pacifism seem increasingly outmoded, or