Twenty Years at Hull House

Jane Addams

Book cover

As with all of my very favorite books, it’s difficult for me to put into words what “Twenty Years at Hull-House” meant to me.

Although I am not generally a big annotator, I was kicking myself for checking this out of the library and not having bought my own copy so that I couldn’t underline, write notes, etc. At the same time, I couldn’t keep myself from reading it until I bought a copy. All in all this was not too upsetting, because I definitely intend to read this book again in the future, probably more than once.

The clearest thing that I can say is that Jane Addams is the first historical figure I have ever encountered who I really consider to be a role model. There are plenty of historical figures who I admire, respect, or even look up to, but what makes JA different for me is that I see in her the best possible version of my own type of character. She is someone who I feel I can truly aspire to be like because to be like her wouldn’t require any fundamental changes to my values, beliefs, or circumstances; only to make the most of them. When I read her writing, on nearly every subject, I find myself both agreeing and feeling like she is expanding my understanding, sort of like talking to a good friend.

I would strongly encourage anyone to read this book. It’s actually old enough that it’s in the public domain and available for free online (, but I’ll warn you that you might wish you had a margin to take notes in. I’d also encourage reading the entry on her in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy online, which was the first place where I really encountered her (

She speaks much more eloquently for herself, but I’ll give a little description of what I find so compelling here. She lived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and founded a “settlement” called Hull-House in the immigrant slums of Chicago. It’s not easy to give a concise definition of a settlement, because part of what’s important is that it be multifarious and always open to experimentation, but at its most basic the idea is that it is a place where people from privileged backgrounds live in an underprivileged neighborhood, hopefully to the benefit of both. Hull-House was a center for all sorts of social, intellectual, and artistic programs, really an innovator in many things that have today the government has taken on.

I like JA for her pragmatism. She spends a fair amount of time in the book talking about Tolstoy, who took a much more extreme position on poverty (and walked the walk), but ends up finding herself parting ways with him. I also like her for her commitment to applied work. In some ways this may have been forced on her by cultural circumstances (being a woman in the early twentieth century), but I also think it’s an important part of her character. As the SEP article shows, she was an accomplished philosopher in her own right, as creative a thinker as her friend John Dewey (for example). In my opinion she walked the perfect line between intellectual and practitioner.

Aside from my deep admiration for JA herself, I also took away from this book an interesting perspective on American history. Much of her writing on social issues seemed almost shockingly modern to me in its concerns–for instance the passages on public education. She also spends a significant amount of time writing about Abraham Lincoln, who was a major intellectual and character influence on her, and this section drew for me a sense of continuity from Lincoln and abolitionism through the Progressive era that I had never seen or thought about before.

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars