James Cracraft details encounter between ‘two shining souls’

James Cracraft, professor of history emeritus

When Jane Addams met Leo Tolstoy, he criticized the lace on her dress, says historian James Cracraft. Photo: UIC Photo Services

Jane Addams thought so highly of Leo Tolstoy that she traveled all the way to Russia just to spend a few hours with him.

The story of their encounter — and mutual admiration — is told in Two Shining Souls: Jane Addams, Leo Tolstoy, and the Quest for Global Peace, a new book by James Cracraft, professor emeritus of history.

Tolstoy is best known as the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina.

“But Jane Addams was more impressed with him as a writer of moral and religious tracts than a writer of fiction,” said Cracraft, who first visited Russia as a grad student and has traveled there nine times since.

“She was so impressed that she resolved to go meet him.”

She did so with the help of Aylmer Maude, a Briton living in Moscow who was Tolstoy’s English translator. He escorted her and a traveling companion to the Russian nobleman’s country estate.

So on a day in July 1896, they spent the afternoon and evening with Tolstoy and his family. Addams was 36; Tolstoy was 68.

But what Cracraft calls their “encounter” covers much more than their few hours together.

“I mean her long encounter with him through reading many books and tracts by him; reading and listening to what others reported about him; and thinking about, quoting from and writing about him,” he said.

As for their personal encounter, it came at a troubled period for Addams.

She had founded Hull-House — on what is now UIC’s campus, where the main building and dining hall survive —  seven years earlier, but had become “disillusioned with settlement work for not having a big enough impact,” Cracraft said.

Adding to her difficulties were illness, the death of her sister and the Pullman Strike of 1894, which she attempted to mediate without success.

More hopefully, Addams had the previous year begun her “plunge into pacifism,” Cracraft said, “which really took over her life” — culminating in a Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.

The dress she wore for her meeting with Tolstoy drew unexpected criticism from the Russian.

“He said, ‘Why this fancy dress? You’ve got enough cloth in this sleeve to dress one of my peasants,’” said Cracraft. “She was mortified.”

A photo of Addams in the dress appears in the book. There’s also one of Tolstoy, barefoot in a peasant smock, an image she hung by her desk for nearly 40 years until her death.

Tolstoy spoke and wrote English, and Addams wasn’t the only American with whom he had contact. He corresponded with Clarence Darrow, Mark Twain, the novelist Hamlin Garland, dean of American letters William Dean Howells and William Jennings Bryan, who also visited him.

This is Cracraft’s 11th book. Of the others, seven are about or relate to Peter the Great, who ruled Russia from 1682 to 1725.

Tolstoy himself tried to write about the czar, “but gave it up as an impossible task,” Cracraft said. “Russia must be modernized and brought into Europe, but not at the cost of such violence. It was impossible for a person with moral sensibilities to approve.”

The professor also has published many journal articles and book chapters and hundreds of book reviews.

Cracraft, a native of Minneapolis, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Georgetown University and a doctorate at Oxford University in England.

He was a faculty member at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts for two years before joining UIC in 1969. Until his retirement in 2010, he taught courses on Russian and Modern European history, Russian-American relations, and historiography and historical methods.

Cracraft won the history department’s Shirley Bill Award for Outstanding Teaching three times and the Silver Circle Award for Teaching Excellence twice. He was appointed a University Scholar in 1998.

He was also a visiting professor at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago.

Cracraft lives in Hyde Park with his wife, Nancy, a UIC graduate who taught school in Homewood-Flossmoor before her retirement.

Their daughter, Elizabeth, 42, also a UIC grad, serves in the U.S. Army Medical Corps in Germany. He has two stepsons, Jacob Young, 38, a market research executive, and Drew Young, 34, a graphic design student at Prairie State College.

Cracraft enjoys gardening — flowers, trees and shrubs — at their second home in Marshall, Mich.

His book about Addams and Tolstoy is his first for a general audience.

In its last chapter Cracraft writes, “For virtually all of her adult life, she said in one place or another … she drew inspiration from both his writings and his personal example.”

The title comes from Addams’ description of Tolstoy.

“I suggest that she, too, is a shining soul,” Cracraft said.

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