Frank Stein's Reviews > Twenty Years at Hull-House

Twenty Years at Hull-House by Jane Addams
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Jul 01, 2010

really liked it
Read in June, 2010

The first part of this book is simply beautiful. In it Addams provides a strange and insightful look at what it was like to grow up the daughter of a well-off miller in rural Cedarville, Illinois in the 19th century. Surprisingly for a Victorian-era social reformer, she's eminently relatable and self-reflective. She describes in detail things like a nightmare she had as a young girl where everyone in the world was dead except her, and the world depended upon her solitary work as a blacksmith to start it up again. She is able to recognize in this the early delusions of grandeur so common to children, and a sense of her own impotence she carried into the women's seminary and beyond. She discusses how her later educational tours of Europe furthered her charitable and democratic sensibilities (along with her hope for a non-religious "cathedral of humanity" to unite all mankind), and yet she also realizes that this excessive education was only part of what Tolstoy called "the snare of preparation," that chilling sense that infinite training only impedes real life and action. Addams saw that she (and the other over-educated and underemployed women of her generation) needed real vigorous action, especially in public life, to feel like worthwhile members of society. So, she starts the Hull Street Settlement House. Overall, it is the best psychological description of what motivated a Progressive reformer, or just a charitable life, that I've ever read.

Unfortunately, the other half of the book tends to ramble. She certainly has loads of interesting stories, from the time Hull House challenged its corrupt local aldermen in the Chicago city elections, to the time they set up a "Museum of Labor" to teach immigrant children about their parents' crafts in the Old World, to the time she visited that Mecca of reformers, Tolstoy's farm at Yasnaya Polyana in Russia (he eats a porridge of gruel with them after coming in from working on the farm with his peasants. He is less than personable). But most of these stories have a predictable pattern; they are finished in two pages and then move on to an almost completely unrelated one. Some, like her attempts to pass a law forbidding pharmacies from selling cocaine to minors, are interesting, others, less so.

I highly recommend reading the first half, and the second you can take or leave. It's 50% a classic.
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