Sunday, February 13, 2022

A Modern Lear

Jane Addams (1860–1935)
From Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now

The Arcade Building, Pullman, Illinois, c. 1895. Illinois Digital Archives.
“American writers and leaders have often turned to Shakespeare in moments of national crisis,” writes James S. Shapiro in his introduction to Shakespeare in America. The social reformer Jane Addams, for instance, found herself caught between the two sides of the Pullman strike of 1894. “Before it, there had been nothing in my experience to reveal that distinct cleavage of society, which a general strike at least momentarily affords,” she later wrote. Her attempts to mediate during the dispute led many in her circle to call her a “traitor to her class,” while the workers became disenchanted with her because she would not definitively take up their cause. “Her stance—that she would take no side—guaranteed that nearly everyone in the intensely polarized city would be angry with her,” writes Louise W. Knight in a recent biography. When the strike was over, she turned to the pages of King Lear to help her make sense out of the conflict, and she shared her thoughts on the comparison with audiences nationwide.

Built by railroad tycoon George Pullman on the outskirts of Chicago in the 1880s, the town of Pullman was both praised and criticized immediately after it was founded. The town provided workers and their families with immaculate, modern, and relatively spacious cottages with indoor plumbing on tree-lined streets, as well as daily trash collection and groundskeeping services. The large Arcade building, anticipating the malls of the twentieth century, contained dry goods shops, an 800-seat theater, the bank, and a library.

Yet, as the economist Richard T. Ely wrote in Harper’s in 1885, “The Pullman companies retain everything. No private individual owns today a square rod of ground or a single structure in the entire town. No organization, not even a church, can occupy any other than rented quarters.” Pullman was designed to be a profit center; investors were promised a six percent annual return. In an era of free public libraries, for instance, Pullman’s residents were charged an annual fee for the use of the Arcade reading room, with its books all selected and “donated” by George Pullman himself, most of them on topics of mechanics and industry. Even the town’s sewage was pumped to the for-profit Pullman Farm a few miles away. Town meetings were prohibited; associations and clubs had to be approved by the company; the town’s officials—indeed, its entire government—were officers of the company.

Ely—who later became Addams’s good friend and edited two of her books—described Pullman’s “philanthropic undertaking” as little more than “benevolent, well-wishing feudalism”:
It is impossible within the realm of Pullman to escape from the overshadowing influence of the company, and every resident feels this, and “monopoly” is a word which constantly falls on the ear of the visitor. . . . Here is a population of eight thousand souls where not one single resident dare speak out openly his opinion about the town in which he lives.
Ely also anticipated the fatal flaw of Pullman’s company town: its workers would inevitably want to take charge of their own lives, to fulfill (among other things) “the desire of the American to acquire a home.” Above all, as their situations improved, the community’s residents would eventually want to govern themselves:
One can not avoid thinking of the late Czar of Russia, Alexander II., to whom the welfare of his subjects was truly a matter of concern. He wanted them to be happy, but desired their happiness to proceed from him, in whom everything should centre. Serfs were freed, the knout abolished, and no insuperable objection raised to reforms, until his people showed a decided determination to take matters in their own hands, to govern themselves, and to seek their own happiness in their own way. Then he stopped the work of reform, and considered himself deeply aggrieved. The loss of authority and distrust of the people is the fatal weakness of many systems of reform and well-intentioned projects of benevolence.
These themes—how benevolence begets domination, how gratitude can turn into rebellion—are what Jane Addams found reflected in the doomed relationship between Lear and his daughter Cordelia. More than a year after the strike ended, she collected her thoughts in a speech she first delivered in Chicago in March 1896.

(The first page of this week’s selection features additional remarks about Addams and the Pullman strike by James Shapiro, editor of Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now.)

Note: Addams quotes Giuseppe Mazzini, a leader of the nineteenth-century movement for Italian reunification and an advocate for women’s rights; Addams was greatly influenced by his essay The Duties of Man, written in 1858 and translated into English in 1860.

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Those of us who lived in Chicago during the summer of 1894 were confronted by a drama which epitomized and, at the same time, challenged the code of social ethics under which we live, for a quick series of unusual events had dispelled the good nature which in happier times envelops the ugliness of the industrial situation. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.