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Theatre Journal 53.3 (2001) 520-522
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Lines of Activity:
Performance, Historiography, Hull-house Domesticity
Lines of Activity: Performance, Historiography, Hull-house Domesticity. By Shannon Jackson. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2000; pp. 371. $45.00 cloth, $19.95 paper.
As I read Shannon Jackson's book about Jane Addams and Hull-House, my thoughts kept returning to Gwendolyn Brooks, the Chicago poet who died recently at the age of eighty-three. In Jackson's descriptions of both the Progressive Era and contemporary Chicago, in her theorizing about the work of Hull-House and the complex "lines of activity" in which welfare takes place, I kept remembering fragments of Brooks' poem "The Lovers of the Poor" (1945):
The lovers of the poor
arrive. The Ladies from the Ladies' Betterment
Arrive in the afternoon...
Walk in a gingerly manner up the hall.
Cutting with knives served by their softest care,
Served by their love, so barbarously fair. . . . [End Page 520]
What Jackson's book shares with Brooks' poem is a critical focus on the ambivalent negotiation of space that lies at the heart of social work or, as Jackson often refers to it, "civic housekeeping." Just as the hallway plays a central role in "The Lovers of the Poor" ("Keeping their scented bodies in the center / of the hall as they walk down the hysterical hall, / They allow their lovely skirts to graze no wall. . . .), the rooms and hallways and closets of Hull-House, as Jackson tells it, are the mise en scène in which performances of admiration and condescension, love and aggression, largesse and fear, are staged.
Uniting history and performance studies, Lines of Activity presents an ambitious account of Hull-House that is indebted to and admirably carries on the work of groundbreaking texts, such as Joseph Roach's Cities of the Dead, and their fundamental premise that memory is embodied and surrogated, that the dead animate and perform in the present, and that history is a practice of "careful forgetting." The book depends less on a linear or developmental chronology than on interlacing themes. Its chapters are titled in the present progressive--theorizing, settling, building, living, staging, professionalizing--words that are meant to capture something of the diverse activities by which the drama of Hull-House was, and still is, being performed.
In general, Jackson's book seeks to document these activities (day care, education, art, political meetings, social activism, public bathing, sociological research, sports, cooking, reading, theatre, etc.) and to position them as embodied practices that structured and were structured by various spaces--from sitting rooms and kitchens, to neighborhood streets and tenements, to the Nineteenth Ward and Chicago's West Side, to the city as a whole. More specifically, she traces the contentious and contradictory politics of this work. She notes, for example, not only the feminizing of civic activism, the struggles of the "Janes"--those unmarried women who chose to work at the settlement--but also the racial and economic privilege of these settlers and their benefactors, all of which take place against the backdrop of the changing fortunes of welfare and civic politics.
Lines of Activity makes an invaluable contribution to the historiography on Jane Addams and Hull-House and to the growing field of performance studies. Jackson looks skeptically at both those histories that uncritically heroize Addams and those that take cynical pot-shots at her upper-class motivations. Instead, she examines the major figures at Hull-House during the Progressive Era to show how they both perpetuated and were constrained by sexism, racism, and the economic order. Like Gwendolyn Brooks, she highlights the ways in which their work both "coddled and assaulted" the "very very worthy and beautiful poor." One means by which she gets at such contradictions is through Pierre Bourdieu's theory of habitus. She uses this to think about how Hull-House settlers' habits of thinking, judging, and acting both impeded and facilitated social change, how these habits of performance were constantly challenged, disrupted, and transformed by everyday experience.
Although an extraordinarily useful model...