Jane Addams and Her Conflicts with Tolstoyism

Addams’ affection and admiration for Tolstoy is evident in both her correspondences and her published works. In her 1910 book Twenty Years at Hull-House, Addams recollected her visit to the Count’s residence in Russia. She embarked in search of the answer to a question: “I was most eager to know whether Tolstoy’s undertaking to do his daily share of the physical labor of the world, that labor which is ‘so disproportionate to the unnourished strength’ of those by whom it is ordinarily performed, had brought him peace?”

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“Leo Tolstoy Barefoot” (1901) – Ilya Repin

Addams gave a lecture in 1902 in which she explained the four types of labor Tolstoy believed every person should partake in. She noted that “he would, of course, always excuse the ill, the aged, and little children” but believed that the bulk of people should perform manual and skilled labor as well as engage in literary work and social effort. According to Tolstoy, by reducing the amount of “brutal and dehumanizing” labor that one performs it gives those unaccustomed to performing that type of labor a perspective that will change the way they view their own lives and commodities. Addams spoke of skilled labor: “If we had some of this experience we would try to simplify our lives, because we would then realize, as we do not now, some of the work on which it is founded. Many people would then stop wearing many things, and having many things in their houses which are not needed.”

Many people fear meeting their favorite celebrity since it is possible it will result in embarrassment or the shattering of a previously held illusion. Addams likely experienced both upon meeting the revered author. She recounted the “distrustful” manner with which Tolstoy regarded the sleeves of her dress during their first meeting. Tolstoy, who was clad in peasant’s clothes, commented on the excessive amount of fabric on Addams’ dress and remarked that “there was enough stuff on one arm to make a frock for a little girl.”

Despite originally feeling disconcerted, Tolstoy’s comments did not dissuade Addams from searching for the answer to her question. Addams recalled a particular instance in which she attended dinner with Tolstoy, his family, and his traveling guests in Twenty Years. She wrote:

The countess presided over the usual European dinner served by men, but the count and the daughter, who had worked all day in the fields, ate only porridge and black bread and drank only kvas, the fare of the hay-making peasants. Of course we are all accustomed to the fact that those who perform the heaviest labor eat the coarsest and simplest fare at the end of the day, but it is not often that we sit at the same table with them while we ourselves eat the more elaborate food prepared by someone else’s labor. Tolstoy ate his simple supper without remark or comment upon the food his family and guests preferred to eat, assuming that they, as well as he, had settled the matter with their own consciences.

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Immigrant Visitors Congregating in the Coffee House, 1900

Addams’ time among Tolstoy, his family, and the peasants elicited such strong feelings in her that she made a mental vow to spend two hours each morning in the bakery which had recently been added to the coffee house at Hull-House. Upon her return she realized her vision was not possible due to her overwhelming responsibilities. In Twenty Years she wrote: “The half dozen people invariably waiting to see me after breakfast, the piles of letters to be opened and answered, the demand of actual and pressing wants—were these all to be pushed aside and asked to wait while I saved my soul by two hours’ work at baking bread?”

Earlier she pointed out Tolstoy’s difficult stance:

Doubtless all of the visitors sitting in the Tolstoy garden that evening had excused themselves from laboring with their hands upon the theory that they were doing something more valuable for society in other ways. No one among our contemporaries has dissented from this point of view so violently as Tolstoy himself, and yet no man might so easily have excused himself from hard and rough work on the basis of his genius and of his intellectual contributions to the world.

While Addams admired Tolstoy, his way of life was incompatible with the life she had already established in Chicago. She wished to emulate him in some capacity, but her duties to Hull-House subsumed a great deal of her time. While writing books, giving lectures, traveling, and worrying about her own health and the health of her friends and family, Addams was always finding new ways to improve Hull-House. It is no surprise, then, that she was incapable of designating even two hours each morning to bake bread. The question remains: how might one find a compromise between Addams’ way of life and Tolstoy’s?

Hull-House later received five hundred dollars which were left over from Tolstoy’s profit from publishing his novel Resurrection. The bulk of the profit was given to the Dukhobors, a Russian religious group who had recently settled in Canada with the help of their government. When faced with the choice of what to spend the money on, Addams felt that it was only natural to use it “for the relief of the most primitive wants of food and shelter on the part of the most needy families.”

Ultimately, Addams assisted the Nineteenth Ward without spending two hours per day in the Coffee Shop baking bread. Instead, she used her talent as social reformer to improve the lives of those living in poverty around her. Although she saw the value in performing manual labor, Addams realized there was greater value, in her situation, in devoting her working hours to her role as the head figure of Hull-House.

Jane Addams and an Anonymous Bull Moose

Members of the losing party of a presidential election are met with disappointment and sadness. In the following months the party is left to recuperate and reorganize. The losing and winning party must also plan how they will function with each other in the future. In the election of 1912, the election involved a variety of political parties with some overlapping and some clashing goals. Jane Addams had an important role in the election of 1912 and its many political parties as she became the first woman to nominate a presidential nominee by seconding the nomination for Theodore Roosevelt in the Progressive Party. The backlash she received for seconding the nomination of Theodore Roosevelt for the Progressive Party, also known as the Bull Moose Party, was astounding. It lead to some of the most interesting letters I have ever read throughout my time at the Jane Addams Papers Project. After the election, Addams continued to receive letters about her participation in the 1912 election.

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A 1912 US cartoon, showing the “Big Four at the Two Chicago Conventions”. Front row (Progressive or “Bull Moose” party): Theodore Roosevelt, Jane Addams, Hiram Johnson, Albert Beveridge. Back row (Republican party): Boies Penrose, William Barnes, Jr., Winthrop M. Crane, Elihu Root.

While the Progressive Party was attempting to recover after a presidential loss, Addams received a letter that claimed that the party would potentially be destroyed by all of the other political parties involved in the election of 1912. An anonymous writer, referring to himself as “a Bull Moose,” wrote Addams on December 13, 1912 an at first seemingly innocent letter, praising Addams for her efforts with the suffrage movement. As “Bull Moose” continues, he wrote to Addams about an alleged “disaster” for the Progressive Party. In this alleged disaster the Republicans, Democrats, Socialists, and Prohibitionists had created a trap for the Progressive Party to fall into and ruin the party forever. “Bull Moose” decided to take it upon himself to create five “shamtraps” for the Progressive Party, in order to expose the traps of the other parties, but the “shamtraps” needed to be dealt with before December 15th or the plan would not work.

This was not even the strangest part of the letter. “Bull Moose” then goes on to say that Addams can tell no one else about the letter except Theodore Roosevelt, who he refers to as “our future President,” despite the fact that Roosevelt has already lost the 1912 election. “Bull Moose” must have been hoping for a 1916 victory for Roosevelt. Unfortunately for “Bull Moose,” Roosevelt would not enter the 1916 election. “Bull Moose” proceeded to give Addams a list of instructions that will prevent the other political parties from trapping the Progressive Party. The first few seem pretty reasonable – instructions such as “not to side with either Drys nor Wetts,” which makes sense since the Prohibition Party is allegedly involved in this “shamtrap” plot. Instructions six and seven are the strangest. In rule number six, “Bull Moose” instructed Addams that he would come to her as a “polish tramp to wash windows, with a raincoat on” and told her all of the horrible ways to treat him. Rule number seven instructed Addams to treat a hobo the same way, perhaps worse, if “Bull Moose” should have sent a hobo in his place.

Addams was instructed by “Bull Moose” not to share the contents of this letter with anyone besides Theodore Roosevelt until 1917. So far there has been no indication that Addams ever shared the contents of the letter with anyone, including Theodore Roosevelt. The Jane Addams Papers Project works chronologically so we have not yet read and transcribed the letters from 1917. I will certainly keep my eyes peeled for any letters about “Bull Moose” once we get there.

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This political cartoon follows the 1912 Presidential Election in which Woodrow Wilson (D) won in a landslide defeat over Theodore Roosevelt (Progressive/Bull Moose Party), William Taft (R), and Eugene Debs (Socialist Party). (From the November 8, 1912 issue of the Sandusky Register.)

“Bull Moose” was not entirely off the mark when he said that the other political parties were planning to destroy the Progressive Party. The Progressive Party ultimately did fall because of other parties, mainly the Republicans. The Progressive Party essentially merged back together with the Republican Party, especially after Roosevelt refused to accept the Progressive presidential nomination in 1916 and chose to campaign for the Republican Party. Maybe the Progressive Party would have lasted longer if Addams had followed “Bull Moose’s” instructions!

This document can be located on the Jane Addams Papers microfilm on Reel 7, frame 542. It will soon be freely available to read and view in digital form on our database website, which can be found by clicking the link to the right of this post.