Jane Addams: A Writer's Life

By Richter, Amy G. | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Jane Addams: A Writer's Life


Richter, Amy G., Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


Jane Addams: A Writer's Life. By Katherine Joslin. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004. Pp. x, 306. Illus., notes, bib., index. Cloth $35.00).

Jane Addams crossed boundaries repeatedly. A woman of the leisure class, she chose to labor among Chicago's working poor. A white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, she dedicated her life to exploring, improving, and celebrating the experiences of ethnic and racial minorities. And at a time when women were praised for their private virtues, she crafted a public life for herself, founding Hull House and serving as the first president of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. In retelling Addams's story, Katherine Joslin also crosses boundaries, blending biography, social history, and literary criticism. More important, Joslin pushes beyond the popular image of Jane Addams as "the frail yet eager young women from Illinois, the quintessential female success story." (10) Following Addams as she moved her own life from the private into the public sphere, Joslin shifts our attention from the public story to the private life behind it. For both biographer and subject, Addams's writings are central to these efforts.

While Addams's work as a reformer and pacifist are familiar to many students of American history, Joslin notes, "The Jane Addams who lived as a writer is hardly known at all." (12) Yet writing was an enormous part of Addams's public work and private identity. Her writing habits were already established by college where she revealed her lifelong tendencies to jot down ideas, test them in speeches or informal conversation, and then reuse and recombine pieces according to her desire. Addams wrote ten books, collaborated on three, and published essays in magazines from Ladies 'Home Journal to The Crisis. In addition, she wrote speeches, political propaganda, and countless letters. Her writings ranged widely and included sociological studies (Hull-House Maps and Papers), autobiography (Twenty Years at Hull House), war stories (Women at the Hague and Peace and Bread in Time of War), and biography (My Friend, Julia Lathrop).

Joslin uses these published works and some private documents-including childhood letters, college essays, even youthful diary musings about the appeal of trashy novels-to illuminate the development of Addams's literary imagination. From the earliest writings Joslin sees the beginnings of a distinctive literary voice-Addams's rejection of academic writing, her willingness to refashion events to heighten their dramatic power, her ability to blend voices of others with her own and to speak through people different from herself. …

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