What many consider the most notable aspect of Jane Addams's life—that she worked not for the interests of her own class but, as it has been commonly put, “for the poor”—heightened her reputation in her own lifetime but has diminished it in ours. To a degree, this interesting shift in her public standing was simply a by-product of history. As American society lost its unexamined trust in white women of wealth and discerned the condescension implicit in their reform methods, it was inevitable that Addams would be transformed from “saint” to sinner. But the unthinking admiration with which she was treated in the decades immediately after her death in 1935 was unhelpful in any case. Addams deserved a closer analysis.
In the mid-1960s, she began to receive it. In essays and other forms of critical analysis, historians, literary critics, and others set aside the usual admiring framework to wrestle with the complicated issues, including those of class, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality, raised by Addams's life, work, and writings.
For biography, however, the situation has been different. There has been a smattering of popular biographies of Addams, including one published by her nephew James Weber Linn in 1935 (and a steady flow of juvenile ones). At the same time, scholarly biographies, that is, works that use original research to achieve new interpretations of a life, have been as scarce as hen's teeth. Until 2004 only one, Allen F. Davis's 1973 work, had been published.1 By the opening years of the twenty-first century, a new scholarly biography of Jane Addams was long overdue.
Addams began her public life in 1889, and by 1910 her activism on behalf of workers, immigrants, women, children, and world peace and her public presence of gentle, inclusive civic-mindedness, conveyed in her many lectures, magazine articles, and books, had earned her the respect and affection of a wide portion of the American public. Although her pacifist stance during World War I and her continued progressivism in the conservative years of the early 1920s undercut that reputation for a time, it was restored in the 1930s, particularly after she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. When she died in 1935, she was once more one of America's most admired women. As late as the centennial of her birth, in 1960, she was as