What we know about Jane Addams's childhood comes mostly from her own pen. In the sometimes lyrical, sometimes gently probing, sometimes skillfully obscure passages of her classic memoir, Twenty Years at Hull-House, Addams shared with the world her memories of her small-town American life. The situation for the biographer is at once delightful and dangerous— delightful because Addams is an evocative writer with a talent for telling stories, dangerous for the same reason and because the dearth of other sources leaves us too dependent on Addams's account.
But all texts reveal more than their authors intended, and none more so than autobiographies. While few can doubt that Addams crafted an artful tale of her Cedarville years, one that omits far more than it includes, the book escapes the boundaries of the universalizing story she sets out to tell.1 She views herself as a typical child, sharing, for example, the expected tales of how her father helped her in her moments of embarrassment and moral perplexity. But her stories also provide glimpses of the unexpected—most significantly, of the unusual depth of her feelings of inadequacy and of her intense fear of, and fascination with, death. Like every child, Jane Addams had a particular childhood whose influence on her would ramify down the years.
The way she treats her parents is also hardly typical. Although she writes a good deal in the book's early chapters about her conversations with her father, she writes nothing at all about her relations with her mother. Her dilemma, in part, was that she had three. In addition to her deceased mother, she had a temporary mother in her oldest sister Mary and, beginning when she was eight, a new permanent mother in her stepmother, Anna Hostetter Haldeman Addams. Her failure to write about her mothers leaves us to puzzle about what she might have said and to consider the possibility that her silence embodied the profoundest truth of all—that she felt motherless most of her life.