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Working-Class Hero : A USEFUL WOMAN; The Early Years of the Life of Jane Addams : Gioia Diliberto; Scribner: 388 pp., $26

September 05, 1999|RUTH ROSEN

Biographers are like photographers. Fascinated by background, some authors use a wide-angle lens to produce a life-and-times narrative of their subjects. Intrigued by the psychological dimensions of an individual life, other writers choose a portrait lens to capture close-ups of their subjects' most intimate feelings, reactions and motives. The best biographers change lenses constantly, offering readers intimate portraits of their subjects, balanced by wide-angled views of their social and political landscapes.

Gioia Diliberto's biography of Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House, an urban settlement that provided services for the poor of Chicago, covers the early years of her subject's life and emphasizes the psychological transformation of Addams from a young, sickly, insecure girl into one of the most powerful and revered women in American history. Diliberto also yokes Addams' profoundly democratic vision to her rural youth in Illinois, a partial explanation of the origins of Addams' evolution as a political and social activist.

Born in 1860, two months before Abraham Lincoln took office as president, Addams grew up in the wealthiest family and largest house in the little farming village of Cedarville in Northern Illinois. The daughter of a highly respected, wealthy banker and mill owner, Addams experienced a transformation that was not only psychological but political. As a young woman, Addams admired her parents' Yankee faith in unfettered industrial capitalism. But she entered adulthood during the Gilded Age, a period like the 1990s, when the opulence of the wealthy sharply contrasted with the grinding poverty of the urban poor. As did so many progressive activists at the turn of the century, Addams began to believe in the state's ability to regulate industrial capitalism--in the name of preserving democracy.

Diliberto's biography helps counter our scandalous neglect of Addams. As one of the few historical women familiar to young children, Addams has been presented by textbooks as such a saint that she is hardly recognizable as a living, breathing human being. By emphasizing her early years, Diliberto restores humanity to Addams, vividly evoking her lengthy and tortured struggle to carve out a meaningful and purposeful life. The story of her political radicalization, however, is oddly missing from Diliberto's account of Addams' life.

Addams came of age as a member of the first generation of college-educated women in the United States. Upon graduation, they entered a society in which new opportunities, particularly in teaching, medicine and missionary work, conflicted with their families' expectations that they marry and raise families. Confused and conflicted, many young educated women faced the future paralyzed by dread. They feared being suffocated by marriage and children, certain they would never get to use their educations. But they also recoiled from spinsterhood. As Addams put it, her generation "was practically faced with an alternative of marriage or a career. . . . Men did not at first want to marry [such] women . . . and women could not fulfill the two functions of profession and homemaking until modern invention had made a new type of housekeeping practical, and perhaps one should add, until public opinion tolerated the double role."

Without a language to express their conflict, Addams and her friends suffered anxiety attacks and nervous prostration. Said to have neurasthenia (literally, an impoverishment of the nerve force), many of these young women turned into chronic invalids, took to their beds, often for months, even years. What saved some of these educated women was their growing political conviction that they should dedicate their lives to aiding the human casualties left behind by rapid industrialization and unregulated capitalism.

For eight years, Addams suffered excruciating back pain, neurasthenia and serious depression. She tried medical school, helped her siblings raise their children and finally took the European Grand Tour. In England, Addams visited Toynbee Hall, a settlement house run by young college-educated men who attended to the needs of London's poor. It didn't take long for Addams to wonder: Why couldn't college-educated women in America do the same thing?

In 1889, Addams and her friend Ellen Gates Starr founded Hull House in the midst of the Chicago slums. Within a few years, Hull House became home to a rotating group of women reformers, sponsored more than 50 clubs and offered dozens of classes that taught cooking, hygiene, debating and the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. Concerned about children's welfare, Addams also provided child-care and kindergarten for local children and built the first playground in Chicago.

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