Bookblogging: 20 Years at Hull House

I was having a conversation the other night with someone who said, sort of apologetically, "I was an English major, but there are huge gaps in my reading." I think at this point this is the occupational hazard of, well, almost anyone. The pile of books on my shelves that I really ought to have read grows faster than I can attack it.

In a small effort to rectify this, I'm reading Twenty Years at Hull House, Jane Addams' account of her Chicago settlement house. I thought I'd blog it as I go along.

The first thing that strikes you is her hero-worship of her father. Modern people don't write like this; we want to see parents as people. In Addams' portrayal, her father comes across as a sort of Christ-like figure--endlessly patient, kind, generous, modest, and so forth. The childhood she describes in a small Illinois town is so perfectly idyllic that you can't help but wonder what dark secret she was hiding.

The other thing that you notice is how willing she is to castigate herself for her moral failings, but how much she shies away from discussing any other sort of pain. It's rather Calvinist--all her suffering comes about from her lapses in virtue.

But she was a frail woman, afflicted with a congenital spinal deformity about which we hear only once. She never married (Hull House was founded when she was twenty nine), which must have been a severe blow for a woman of that era. She clearly suffered from major depression, along with her health worries, but she attributes her depressive episodes to the squalor of the poor, and her failure to help them. I have no doubt that these things morbidly afflicted her while she was down--but I have a hard time believing that the mere sight of poverty (which after all, was also present in American cities) was itself enough to send her into a morbid fit.

The whole thing is cast along the lines of the sort of saccharine Victorian literature that is now blessedly forgotten. Yet it's absolutely gripping. Her motives are opaque, her grasp of economics abysmal, and her description of the people around her annoyingly scant--but she has an amazing eye for the world she lived in, and the fervor of a zealot.