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Jane Addams biographer feels bond with the social reformer

DemocracySocietyActivism

The relationship of biographer and subject is a complicated one, especially when it spans more than two decades. Biographer Louise W. Knight began her study of Jane Addams when she encountered Addams' memoir, “Twenty Years at Hull House,” in a college course. She felt a special bond with the social activist who dreamed of improving the world and chafed under the social restrictions of her time.

Like Addams, Knight is the daughter of a banker. “I identified with her,” reflects Knight, “as a woman whose own class had hemmed her in.”

Jane Addams is among the most influential figures of the Progressive era: first American woman Nobel Prize winner; founder of Hull House, America's first settlement house where social workers lived with the poor. She was a major player in establishment of the NAACP and an effective public activist: a champion of the underprivileged and advocate for peace.

Known as Lucy, Knight, who grew up in Evanston and Winnetka and attended New Trier High School, has studied Addams for the last two decades. Her previous book, “Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy,” published in 2005, focused on the reformer's formative years. Her new book, “Jane Addams: Spirit in Action,” synthesizes this earlier work and broadens it to encompass the dramatic arc of Addams' career. Publication coincides with the commemoration of Addams' 150th birthday, Sept. 8.

“I didn't get bored or develop a reaction of impatience,” explains Knight, “because I was as interested in her ideas as much as her activities, and her ideas were so interesting.” A favorite example comes from Addams' 1902 book, “Democracy and Social Ethics”: “We are under a moral obligation in choosing our experiences, since the result of those experiences must ultimately determine our understanding of life.”

Those words resonated with Knight, who admired that Addams believed in speaking up and standing by one's beliefs. An idealist and philosopher, Addams was also profoundly practical and positive. “She matters to me because she thinks about life as I do,” explains Knight, “as a fascinating, mysterious, sometimes painful, but ultimately wisdom-producing process.”

What is next for Knight? “After hanging out with (Addams) for more than 20 years, I know I am going to find stronger ways to act on my political views. She has taught me the importance of this.”

etaylor@tribune.com

Louise W. Knight will discuss her latest book, “Jane Addams: Spirit in Action,” at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Book Stall at Chestnut Court, 811 Elm St., Winnetka. The event is free.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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