Jane Addams and Literature

Jane Addams wrote her 1910 book, “Twenty Years at Hull House”, in the form of a memoir. Education deserves this kind of treatment when what is being laid out is an experimental approach based on institutional innovation. Indeed, many of the writers in the Reform education movement of the Sixties and the Seventies, such as Jonathan Kozol and Herbert Kohl, pursue that same genre: how I came, in my own experience of the world of education and the people I met there, and the programs in which I took part, to develop my ideas about education. Addams supplies a biography of the institution she founded along with the interesting people she met there in addition to a good deal about herself: how she was as a little girl frightened at night and it was only the soothing voice of her father that calmed her down, which is very much the recipe she wants to apply to the poor. This shared writing strategy may be the result of the fact that educational reforms are always in the making, hardly ever completed and, by the way, almost inevitably disappointing, in that success stories don’t manage to get themselves replicated, and so you point out the success story as long as that lasts, rather than tell the statistical story which documents that success rarely lasts very long.

The line of imagination that redefines deviant groups and results in Jane Addams’ notion of the anonymous poor gathering together in settlement houses for services and solace is clear. It begins with Jane Eyre, a book which combines the Gothic tale of wonder at the malevolent with the high Victorian concern about social class. An orphan is trained as a servant and goes off to a manor where there is a madwoman in the attic and a soon to be blinded aristocrat to be cared for. Charlotte Bronte had not invented residential institutions to care for the mentally ill and the otherwise infirm, but she had engaged with the experience of what we now call “the single bed nursing home”, something difficult to manage and nowadays ever more prevalent.

Much of the High Victorian is about people who are forced for one reason or another to take care of someone else, to become the person in charge of their lives. In Dickens, this trope rivals for primacy the image of the prison house, within one of which Amy Dorrit takes care of her father, as Fagin takes care of his urchin thieves in his own way. Most profoundly, Pip is taken care of in Great Expectations by someone he did not expect to be his benefactor, and then he is the one who looks out for the interests of Magwitch, even while, all the time, Pip had thought he was being cared or looked out for by a very different set of people, neglecting to notice the extent to which others were also looking out for him. People select their benefactors from those they would like to play that role rather than recognize those who do play that role as doing so. Class issues reach very deeply into the hearts of people, but this burden is carried out, according to Dickens, one on one, except when “good deeds” are done by those rude and perhaps unscrupulous people in England who raise money for charities.

Charlotte Bronte had discovered a new category of difference, just as Dickens had not exactly invented the poor and the criminal and the bankrupt as people to gain our attention, but also the frightened intellectual who will be sacrificed in A Tale of Two Cities, become overbearing in Hard Times and, finally, will come to no good in Our Mutual Friend. And, of course, Wilkie Collins turns the person of uncertain sexuality in Woman in White into a fledgling Feminist. Charlotte Bronte’s great discovery is the clear focus on the disabled and diseased: the dead brother, the madwoman in the attic, the soon to be blind romantic interest. It is a relief when Lord Rochester goes blind in the fire because then his dependence is out in the open, an overt disability, and so Jane Eyre can switch from governess to nurse, never mind what goes on in the dark. Jane Eyre can work among the disabled, even if in this case it is only the one, and keep her own self-respect. That resolution points forward to the philanthropic work performed on a much grander scale by Florence Nightingale, Clara Barton and, eventually, Jane Addams. It is quite an achievement for a novel that it helps to invent a new kind of social role.

The next iteration of this progress in how people look out for people who are disabled or otherwise unfortunate or require assistance, as all of us do, just to make our way in our careers or personal lives, is Anne Sullivan, the woman who taught Helen Keller how to think (and maybe did a lot of her thinking for her, once she had established this profoundly disabled person in the national spotlight). Sullivan, born less than twenty years after the publication of Jane Eyre, is also the product of an orphanage who is given the job of tutor to Helen Keller only because Alexander Graham Bell, the great benefactor and researcher for the deaf, has to find a place for her so that this woman with damaged sight can make some kind of independent life for herself, it being the purpose of those who deal with the first discovery of a new category of person, whether the poor or the native or the disabled or the ex-slave, to rescue some few of them to the ordinary world so as to show that it can be done, that these people are therefore part of humanity however much separated by circumstances from their fellows. Paul Laurence Dunbar was treated as a great credit to his race because he was so dark, and ttherefore a phenomenon, rather than a white man with a trace of black blood, before he became part of the Harlem Renaissance.

There is much to be said for women like Anne Sullivan who knew their lives were forged by themselves out of the remnants of the maiden aunt and the new education, their lineage stretching back to Elizabeth I and Jane Austen herself, who probably never married because she was so off putting as someone superior in every way except beauty to her suitors, and knowing it (that also being the curse of some of her major heroines—except that they got their men through some contrivance that went against the odds.)

This is the literary context into which to place Jane Addams, who is very self-conscious about the traditions she can mobilize to help explain this new occupation of social work that she has invented. She does not turn to Dorothea Dix, who was interested in the residential segregation of unfortunates so that they could be cared for more humanely than would otherwise be the case, but with establishing what we might call community houses, where people remained living in their own homes but could avail themselves of services and opportunities and simply a place to co-mingle. Nor was this an extraordinary opportunity available only to a few, in that Helen Keller came from a rich family that could afford one on one mentorship so as to prove to the world that at least some of the disabled are so extraordinary that they can live what seems to be a “normal” life. Rather, the community house could be established in any number of places to serve any number of anonymous people, people who would remain autonomous and so part of their own ongoing lives and not just wards of the community house until such time as they could be released into the public. They were always living their lives rather than waiting to be treated so as to be restored to their lives. It should be noted that Freud did not take up the Addams model. Even the individual who went to the consulting room for some hours a week might be living at home but her life there was on hold in that everything that happened at home was grist for the analytic mill, an experiment in living in the past rather than in living itself. The poor crafted their lives at the settlement house by doing the things they were supposed to do as well at home: sew and cook and discuss how to raise children.

Settlement houses were called that because they were like frontier settlements: they were encampments in the midst of a wilderness, this time an urban slum, and served as an enclave of civilization that would serve to enlighten the surrounding community. The name of this new enterprise was a way to understand that what had to happen in cities was similar to what was happening, what had happened, on the Western frontier. The city was the new object of growth, this time full of immigrants rather than wild Indians. They were, therefore, unlike the parks, such as Central Park, which had been established a generation before so as to bring some of the benefits of nature to people who were too much trapped in the cities. Civilization rather than nature was the problem and the solution.  

The settlement houses, and not just the one that Jane Addams established in Chicago, can best be understood as forms of schooling because they did many of the things that school did, except not for an age graded population, but for families: for the young people, the adults, the old people, the troubled. Addams can be regarded, as someone who knew Dewey during his days at the University of Chicago, as also interested in improving the lot of the poor and the immigrant. In her case, pragmatism meant the invention of the settlement house rather than the reform of public school education. The settlement house is her laboratory in the amelioration of the wages of poverty, full of experiments and exercises and individual activities that are meant to change the perspectives of the poor about their lot, not just make them more content or willing to bear their lots in life.        

It is also important to note that to do so Addams had to invent social work as a profession. That meant that hers was not directly a political movement. That could be left to the unions and the Progressive politicians. It rather was a follow up on the major sources of change and power in the society, such as business and government. It stipulated that that the power structure would be what it would be and that her job was to improve individual lives by providing people with services, contacts for jobs and benefits, and personal counseling.    

That Addams is to be understood as an educator as well as the inventor of social work is based on more than the fact that she knew John Dewey when he was at the University of Chicago. It is based on the idea, prevalent at the time, what with Chautauqua talks, the development of the YMCA, and numerous other institutions that were providing versions of education outside the purview of the school system, that development very well documented in Lawrence Cremin’s American Education: The Metropolitan Experience. Education is today regarded, to the contrary, as a service to be provided by the teacher and the parent rather than entrusted to the student to forage around wherever he or she may go to find sources of instruction. The idea, however, that education is what takes place wherever structured instruction is to be found allows the inclusion within education of forms of education that do not take place in schools. A grand tour of Europe was and remains a structured form of education. It is planned with an educational goal in mind, as is an apprenticeship, or sleep-away camp, or piano lessons, or lessons in knitting taken at the local YMCA. That broader sense of education is one of the legacies of Jane Addams.