After 122 years of service, Chicago’s famous Hull-House closed earlier this year. This summer, we at the Bradley Center intended to honor and celebrate its contributions to human welfare and the powerful civic spirit that sustained it for so long. Nothing would show greater appreciation than a public discussion of the classic book written by its founder Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull-House.
Yes, we made the entire volume “assigned reading” for the discussion, which took place on July 24th—noon to 2 pm. After all, one of Addams’ first events at the newly opened Hull House in 1889 was a free-for-all discussion of George Eliot’s Romola with her Italian immigrant neighbors.)
Many preconceptions about Addams have been formed over the years—she was a socialist; she was a paternalistic elitist, and so forth—but an encounter with Twenty Years will do much to diminish that, and to reveal her as an extraordinarily imaginative and thoughtful civic entrepreneur, tackling some of the same problems of social division that we continue to face today.
For those of you who would like to learn a bit more about Jane Addams’ contribution to American civic renewal, Jean Bethke Elshtain’s biography Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy is on our “strongly recommended” list. Elshtain helps us understand the range of activities Addams pursued:
“A visitor to Hull-House between 1890 and 1910 might have found Jane Addams following a garbage collector through refuse in the morning; leading a discussion of George Eliot in the afternoon; meeting with backers or with those angered by something she had said or that Hull-House had done; introducing newcomers to Hull-House in moments snatched away from other activities; participating in a rousing discussion of the Working Man’s Social Science Club in the evening; working on correspondence and financial matters well into the night; and then rousted out of bed the next day by a crisis involving a child in trouble, a police roundup of suspected anarchists, or some other event. Her work was never done.”
Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull House, New York: Empire Books, 2012.