When “Twenty Years at Hull-House” by the Chicago reformer Jane Addams was published in 1910, the book was an instant hit, selling 17,000 copies--a blockbuster figure in the days before SuperCrown and Oprah--and canonizing its author. The autobiography provides a lively, anecdotal account of Addams’ early life on the Illinois prairie and the founding of Hull-House, the influential Chicago settlement that provided a broad variety of community services. “The most important book of the year,” announced the Baltimore Sun. “A book which breathes on every page the spirit of a dedicated life,” declared the Sociological Review.
Now, 88 years later, at a moment when the memoir is literature’s hottest genre, Penguin Classics is reissuing “Twenty Years at Hull-House.” By today’s standards, of course, Addams’ sensibility is quaintly Victorian. She is silent about many things modern readers want to know; there is no discussion of her private life and no gossip about the famous people she knew: from Teddy Roosevelt and Leo Tolstoy to Jacob Riis and Eugene Debs. Yet in other ways the book has resounding echoes for today’s world, particularly in its ideas about helping the poor and the role of women.
Along with “The Spirit of Youth and City Streets,” Addams’ lyrical evocation of urban childhood published in 1909, “Twenty Years” is her most readable work today. Indeed, the book is still taught in social work schools. By comparison with Riis’ “How the Other Half Lives” (published in 1889, the year Hull-House opened), another pioneering effort to humanize the poor, Addams’ book is less voyeuristic and more sentimental. Indeed, Riis’ work derived much of its power from stark black-and-white photographs accompanying the text. Addams’ book is illustrated with romantic line drawings by the sister of a Hull-House resident.
Addams’ pioneering work occurred against the backdrop of a rapidly changing America, a time not unlike our own, when upper-class splendor clashed with urban misery. Grand fortunes were amassed while the inner cities teemed and thousands of immigrants struggled to become Americans. It was also an era of transition for women. For the first time in history, they were going to college, although afterward they found few opportunities to develop their talents and intellects. Their “uselessness hung about them heavily,” Addams wrote. They were anxious, melancholy, exhausted, headachey, emaciated and dizzy. A young neurologist named George Beard gave a name--neurasthenia (literally, “an impoverishment of nerve force”)--to these strange complaints. Beard associated neurasthenia with the stresses of urban civilized life in the 19th century, but he went even further by narrowing down the causes to a quaint list of five particularly harmful factors: steam power, the telegraph, science, the press and an increase in the mental activity among women.
Today, we would call these women depressed, and Addams was one of them. She thought medical school would give relief from her malaise by providing something useful to do, but after six months at the Woman’s College of Pennsylvania, she dropped out. Next she sought help from Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, whose fashionable Philadelphia clinic drew neurasthenics from around the world, including the writers Edith Wharton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Mitchell’s “rest cure treatment” relied on putting patients to bed for several weeks and banning all visitors and activities, even reading and letter writing.
Jane spent six weeks at Mitchell’s clinic, but when she left, she was worse than when she’d arrived. There was no science of psychology in the 1890s, and no Prozac. Addams had to overcome her malaise with sheer force of courage and will. It took her eight years, but she managed to triumph over the invalidism that ruled the lives of vast numbers of Victorian women. She transformed herself into an international celebrity, worked tirelessly to rid America of the worst abuses of industrialization and wrote best-selling books that became bibles of reform during the Progressive Era. Though her ardent pacifism caused her popularity to plummet during World War I, the pendulum eventually swung back and, in 1931, four years before her death, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. (The last decades of her life are chronicled in a separate volume, “The Second Twenty Years at Hull-House,” published in 1930.)
Today, Addams is widely recognized as a key figure in our nation’s history, one of a roster of great Americans, including Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., who profoundly influenced the course of social justice. Like Lincoln and King, she believed passionately in the ideal of civic equality set down in the Declaration of Independence. "[T]he good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain, is floating in mid-air until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life,” she wrote in “Twenty Years.”
Addams produced her memoirs in mid-life--she was 45--because she was eager to explain to the public exactly what her settlement did. (There were 400 such settlement houses across the nation by 1910.) Working with Ellen Gates Starr, a college friend, and with financial support from some of Chicago’s richest women, Addams rented a run-down mansion on Halsted Street in the middle of a fetid immigrant ghetto, fixed it up and opened her settlement in September 1889. From its earliest days, Hull-House was a refuge for the neighborhood’s poor, who represented myriad nationalities--the American melting pot in microcosm. Addams offered a full schedule of classes, lectures and social clubs modeled on London’s Toynbee Hall, the world’s first settlement. Every week she added programs to meet the needs of the neighborhood. In an era before Social Security, workers’ compensation and welfare, settlements did much of the work now handled by the government, and Addams provided day care, an informal employment bureau, a “diet kitchen” that provided cheap take-out meals, counseling services and garbage collection.
But in addition to explaining these settlements to the public, as Addams noted in her preface, she also hoped to start a “backfire” to extinguish two biographies being written about her, one of which “made life in a settlement all too smooth and charming.” The distortions, obfuscations and self-serving stories that seem built into the autobiographical form are evident in places in “Twenty Years.” But, on the whole, the book is an honest account, one that reveals the intelligence and empathy that made Addams such a powerful presence.
The first part of “Twenty Years,” and in many ways the most compelling, is devoted to Addams’ childhood. From the start she was exceptional, a bright, soulful child hobbled by chronic back pain, caused by tuberculosis of the spine, and an image of herself as an ugly duckling. Her mother died when she was 2, and she grew extremely close to her father. John Addams was a prosperous miller in Cedarville, Ill., and an admired state senator. In Springfield, the Illinois capital, he befriended a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln, who often wrote him letters beginning, “My dear Double-D’ed Addams.”
Throughout “Twenty Years,” Addams draws connections among her father, herself and Lincoln. “I never heard the great name without a thrill,” she writes. “The memory of Lincoln . . . came like a refreshing breeze from off the prairie.” After the book was published, very few accounts of Addams’ life failed to remark that she was a “female Lincoln,”’ raised, like the martyred president, in rural Illinois and, like him, a symbol of integrity and honesty--the Mother-Emancipator who would deliver poor immigrants into the mainstream of American life. It was a self-image that she treasured and that she came to depend on as the years went by, particularly during World War I, when she was vilified for her pacifism.
Though she adored her father, the relationship was complex. “Twenty Years” does not explore the serious dispute she had with him over her future, a conflict that was not resolved at the time of his death in 1881 and that contributed to her eight-year depression. After high school, she had wanted to go to Smith College in Northampton, Mass., one of a handful of new women’s schools offering a rigorous education on a par with that offered to men. Her father, though, thought Smith was too far from home. He insisted on Rockford Female Seminary, a backward religious school that didn’t even offer college degrees, where he was a trustee. Though he was proud of his daughter’s intellect, he didn’t approve of too much independence for women, once denouncing a group of suffragists as “abominable, ugly women.”
The memoir is similarly circumspect about Addams’ stepmother, Ann Haldeman. Ann raised Jane from age 8, but they stopped speaking after Jane moved to Chicago, an estrangement that lasted for years. Ann disapproved of Hull-House and refused to give money to the settlement.
The most startling omission, however, is any serious discussion of Mary Rozet Smith, the willowy aristocrat to whom Addams considered herself “married” for 40 years. Addams writes of “Miss Smith” (without revealing her first name) only in the context of a trip they took to Europe in 1895. There is no mention of the tens of thousands of dollars Smith poured into Hull-House or of the “healing domesticity,” as Addams put it, that she provided as Addams stepped into the limelight, a new position for a woman.
Addams’ relationship with Smith was conducted with such scrupulous privacy that it is nearly impenetrable today. But from their few surviving letters and the reminiscences of friends, it seems likely they shared a classic “romantic friendship"--a same-sex bond common to Victorians, intensely emotional but devoid of sex.
Addams’ natural reserve and the era’s notions of privacy would have inhibited any discussion of her personal life. (Henry Adams’ autobiography, “The Education of Henry Adams,” which was written around the same time as Jane Addams’ memoir--though not published until 1918--fails to mention his wife’s suicide.) Also, “Twenty Years at Hull-House” was written at a time when romantic friendship was beginning to be suspect. The early 20th century writings of Freud, Havelock Ellis and others suggested that women who loved women were not “beautiful friends” but “abnormal inverts"--exactly the sorts of characterization that would have horrified Addams.
When it comes to her motives for starting Hull-House, however, Addams is more forthcoming. She admits she began the settlement as much to save herself as to save the poor. (She called her twin impulses “the subjective and objective necessity of settlements.”) She grew up at a time when women had virtually no status in public life, when submissive marriage or retiring spinsterhood were their only options. Against terrible odds, she found a way to fit into society. The aching dissatisfaction she felt as a young woman at loose ends was a forerunner of “the problem that has no name,” which Betty Friedan addressed in her classic 1963 bestseller, “The Feminine Mystique.” Friedan argued that women’s core problem was the “stunting or evasion of growth that is perpetuated by the cultural ideal of women as solely sexual and domestic beings.” This is in essence what the educated women of Addams’ generation suffered from as well: the stifling demands of “True Womanhood,” the Victorian code demanding piety, purity and docility.
Addams overcame these limitations in a stunning burst of courage and will. While Addams was helping the poor, she also was saving herself and other young women. Hull-House depended on the services of an army of volunteers, most of whom were idle, educated women who, as Addams wrote in her memoirs, had been “smothered and sickened with advantages.” Hull-House gave them a chance to be “useful,” a buzzword of the era.
Yet Addams nearly failed. The conflict between her internal drive to power and the stultifying demands of her parents, the dreaded “family claims” that she writes about movingly in “Twenty Years,” tormented her for years.
She linked her powerlessness as a woman to the powerlessness of the poor. This gave her a sense of solidarity with those she called “the submerged tenth” and fed her commitment to them. Soon after Hull-House opened, Addams embarked on aggressive activism. She worked tirelessly to abolish child labor, sweatshops, tenements, unsafe factories, filthy streets and prostitution. Her stories about the triumphs and tragedies of the poor are full of sharp observations and telling details and are as moving today as they were 88 years ago. Describing the aftermath of a police raid on a house of prostitution, for example, Addams writes that one forlorn little girl “was clutching a battered doll which she had kept with her during her six months of an ‘evil life.’ ”
Though not a particularly original thinker, Addams was acutely sensitive to the currents of thought flowing around her, and she was a gifted speaker and writer. She traveled the country preaching her “social gospel,” demanding justice for all and writing several books that helped set the liberal agenda for the 20th century.
Addams had a broad vision of how the roots of poverty grew from deep injustice. By contemporary standards, some of her ideas seem hopelessly romantic. She did not have to cope with AIDS, crack addiction or gun-wielding teenage gangs, and most of the Hull-House neighbors were first-generation immigrants who had stronger families and healthier cultures than today’s underclass. Yet the poor immigrants seemed as scary and hopeless to the upper classes then as the slum poor do now.
“Twenty Years at Hull-House” did not highlight the destructive behavior of the poor or pass judgment on their morals. Addams’ poignant stories about battered wives, drunken husbands and dying children seemed to symbolize the failure of American democracy. For Addams, industrialization offered an opportunity to expand the nation’s sense of civic responsibility. No matter how bad things seemed, life was improvable, she believed. At heart, “Twenty Years” is deeply optimistic: a book about hope and courage, about the yearning for equality and the yearning for peace. To a remarkable extent, Jane Addams’ dreams were the same as our own.