“After all, what is the function of art but to preserve in permanent and beautiful form those emotions and solaces which cheer life and make it kindlier, more heroic and easier to comprehend; which lift the mind of the worker from the harshness and loneliness of his task, and, by connecting him with what has gone before, free him from a sense of isolation and hardship” (p.29).
Jane Addams’ “The House of Dreams” tackles communication as entertainment—specifically in terms of the theater. Referencing it as a “veritable house of dreams” (p. 26), Addams seemingly chastises the venue for being a fantastical place of escape from the harsh realities of life, and suggests that it gives false hope to younger generations about the certain disappointment that is to result in their futures.
In listing theatre’s contributions, though, Addams’ second characteristic, in my opinion, was notable: that it has the “strange power to forecast life for the youth” by drawing on one’s ancestral past to encourage “valors and vengences” (p.26) and giving man the “thrilling conviction that he may yet be master of his fate” (p.26). This idea can, obviously, only lead to one conclusion.
Jane Addams, in all her unimaginative glory, would have hated Harry Potter.
…and would have deprived the young adult generation of today the story that so often defines many of us. Harry Potter is everything that she stood so firmly against—teaching children that they are more heroic than humanly possible, that violent duels can always be won, that spells exist at the end of a wooden stick, and most importantly that, at a train station in England, hidden between two platforms, a better and more magical world awaits us. “Is it not astounding that a city allows thousands of its youth to fill their impressionable minds with these absurdities which certainly will become the foundation for their working moral codes and the data from which they will judge the properties of life?” (p. 27).
What Jane Addams would have missed about Harry Potter, and what she misses in the theatre shows she critiques, is the sort unifying communication that is facilitated around them. She says that people go to the theatre “hoping to find a clue to life’s perplexities” (p. 27), but that the only way they can truly find “companionship and solidarity” (p. 28) is by participating in “real” recreation—sports, dancing, etc. She fails to notice the theatrical dialogue that took place among children and the families and friends of her time, which then trickled through the community as a form of shared knowledge. Jane Addams doesn’t see the myriad of people who monitored the launch of last year’s Pottermore.com website, or those who are bonded because they have “liked” Harry Potter on Facebook. She doesn’t see @EmWatson’s 2 million Twitter followers, nor does she track the conversations that fall under the #HarryPotter umbrella.
Yes, some of this is attributed to the progression of media, but I find it interesting that skepticism is what she argues to be a byproduct of the messages communicated by the theatre. Could she have forseen the sellout crowds that met in-person and online for the opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter? No. But for being a member of the progressive era, Addams’ suggesting that communication’s only use was for that of concrete, “real” information does produce skepticism—in that she severely underestimated the power of the rapidly evolving state of common ground within the media.