Early in my research for this book, I came across a passage in Jane Addams's writings that has remained one of my favorites. “"W"e are under a moral obligation in choosing our experiences,” she wrote, “since the result of those experiences must ultimately determine our understanding of life.”1 Addams was thinking like a biographer, I mused; she was interested in how life changes people. But I knew she was also speaking personally. What choices did she make, I wondered, and what did she learn that was of such profound moral consequence?
This book attempts to answer those questions. It tells of the formative years of a person who began life, as most people do, unknown and who became one of America's most accomplished social reformers. Addams's subsequent fame, her reputation as the country's “most admired woman,” and her numerous accomplishments—as a leader in immigrant and labor relations, as an advocate for children, low-income people, civil liberties, and peace, and as a 1931 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize—compel our interest in her youth and young adulthood. We want to know more about her.
Sharp contrasts abound. She began life as a child from a small town, yet, driven by her sense of moral responsibility and hunger for adventure, she became a pioneer in urban reform, co-founding Hull House, the first settlement house in Chicago and one of the first in the United States. She was a dreamy book reader who dwelt happily in her imagination when young, yet she became an activist citizen, someone who applied ideas to life and who worked cooperatively with others, not alone. Two other facts of her childhood could have been limiting yet were overcome. Although she was a girl with big dreams who doubted that she, being female, could fulfill them, she achieved more than she could have dreamed. And although she was the daughter of a superior-minded, morally absolutist, Victorian upper-middle-class family, she developed into one of America's foremost social democrats and into one of its most pragmatic ethicists. Addressing all these stories, this book covers Jane Addams's early life from her birth in 1860 to 1898, the years of her becoming.