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Friday, January 14, 2011

January 14, 2011: To Hull and Back

It’s been too long since I nominated another very worthy figure for Ben’s Hall of American Inspiration. Not that many of the folks on whom I have focused since the last official nomination (Ely Parker) don’t qualify, of course; in fact, almost every post has included at least one such figure, as I try (you might have noticed) to find pockets of inspiration in even some of our darkest national histories and stories. But it’s also true that few of those posts have dwelt at length on a single figure, and what in particular makes him or her such an inspiring American. Given that an especial emphasis of my Hall is to highlight folks who have been unjustly forgotten or elided from our national narratives, it might seem strange that my next nominee was the first American woman (and only the sixth American period) to win the Nobel Peace Prize (in 1931). But despite that prestigious international recognition, I believe that Jane Addams (1860-1935) is indeed greatly underrated in our collective memories and identity.
Like my prior subject John Dewey (who certainly has his own plaque in the Hall), Addams emblematizes the turn-of-the-20th-century Progressive movement, in many ways but most overtly in the striking breadth and depth of her pursuits and passions and achievements. She won the Nobel first and foremost for her efforts on behalf of international peace, work she began during the early years of World War I (including stints as both the national chairperson of the Women’s Peace Party and the president of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom), continued even after the United States had entered that war (which required no small measure of courage, since it was during World War I that the kinds of criticisms of and attacks on anti-war activists with which we are now very familiar truly began), and expanded throughout the subsequent decades. But Addams was just as active on the homefront, and for a wide variety of causes, from women’s suffrage and politics (she helped found the Progressive Party in 1912) to the needs of American children (including the dangers of child labor and the benefits of playgrounds and early education) and the development of the discipline of sociology (for which Addams did at least as much as any other American philosopher and teacher).
But what makes Addams truly inspirational is, to my mind, one unique and amazing American place: Hull House. Addams and her life partner Ellen Gates Starr co-founded Hull in Chicago in 1889 as the first “settlement house,” a space in which Americans of different levels of class, education, and opportunity could live together and come to know and understand (and hopefully influence) each other more fully. Within a few years, and for many decades thereafter, Hull’s identity and role had greatly expanded; it came to include, among many other things, adult education courses (some of the very first predecessors of modern night school), a kindergarten (in an era, as per the Dewey post, when they were not at all common), a public kitchen, a library, performance and exhibition spaces for art, drama, and music, and (at the height of Hull’s expansion and influence) a playground and summer camp. Despite, or rather alongside, this breadth of services, Hull and Addams likewise became centrally focused on its neighborhood’s and city’s large and growing immigrant communities; many of its courses and spaces were dedicated to the needs of these newest Americans, and, in an era defined by anti-immigrant sentiment both legal (such as the Chinese Exclusion Act) and otherwise (such as the pervasive hostilities toward the Jewish immigrants who comprised much of the waves of the 1880s), Hull and Addams were entirely and genuinely inclusive and welcoming.
Addams’ memoir of Hull, Twenty Years at Hull-House (1910), is, like the era’s Progressive moment overall, not without its moments of condescension or paternalism toward some of these less well-educated and prosperous fellow Americans. What’s striking, however, is not the presence of such moments—they make Addams human—but rather how fully, and in how many ways, Addams was able to transcend any and all of the weaknesses that can divide and limit us, and in that transcending become and model the most truly inspiring kind of American life and identity. More tomorrow, a pseudo-guest post (in honor of last week’s great first one and the many great ones to come) on one of the most singular and impressive scholarly and American voices I’ve had the good fortune of knowing.
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      Hypertext of Twenty Years:
2)      The pretty cool site for the pretty cool Hull House Museum:
3)      OPEN: Any nominees for future Hall entries?


  1. Hi Ben,
    Sorry this is late. Stuck on the couch with a serious case of the flu--feel as if I've been hit by a truck.
    But since I have crept out of sleep enough to check on other life, there is no way I could pass this chance up. I have to nominate Clara Barton.
    Since I lived the summer of Clara Barton in 2010, thanks to my niece, I not only learned about her, but also learned that I think we, as a nation, don't understand the importance of her getting the United States to sign on to Conventions of Geneva--and thus become party to the International Red Cross. We often sort of reduce that down to saying she founded the American Red Cross, which is quite true, but it is worthwhile to think about what the IRC was at the time. It had laid out rules for how those wounded in battle were to be treated, as well as those captured in battle. All signatory countries agreed that any soldier would be treated medically and compassionately (no desecrating of bodies, etc.) The US was not too interested in signing any international treaties at the time--we were coming out of the Civil War and didn't feel that Europe's problems were our own. Barton had the foresight and tenacity to realize the bigger implications of it all. Indeed--the arguments of today over how to treat enemy combatants and anytime you hear the phrase "Geneva Conventions," you should thank Clara Barton.

    Of course, I'm not even mentioning her ground-breaking approach to treatment of wounded soldiers in the Civil War or later, how she led the American Red Cross, almost single-handedly at first, to some of America's worst disaster areas--such as the Johnstown Flood. Anytime you see ARC asking for blood or leading the way to another disaster, thank Clara Barton.

    Finally, because she was able, intelligent, and didn't take crap from others, she was pushed out of her own organization. The typical American story--a precursor to Steven Jobs!

    I could go on and on. The irony is that my niece made her presentation for all of 25 points!--my summer for 25 points. And two other kids in her class read books on Princess Diana. Sigh.

    I need more jello and then back to bed. I will try to stop invading your blog soon!


  2. Hi Ben,
    Sorry this is so late--have the flu and feel as if I've been hit by a truck.
    But it wouldn't be me if I didn't harp on my summer of Clara Barton and nominate her.
    I don't think that most people realize how important it was for America when she convinced us to sign on the Treaty of Geneva--thus joining the International Red Cross. By joining, and thus creating the American Red Cross, we as a country agreed to a number of things, such as how soldiers who are wounded or killed in combat are treated. The idea is that when soldiers are found, they are treated the same, regardless of uniform. And POWs are treated humanely. If this sounds familiar, it should. Barton got America to sign on to what are now easily referred to as The Geneva Conventions. This is, quite simply, huge. After the Civil War, America wasn't too interested in signing any treaties--we didn't think Europe's skirmishes mattered to us. She convinced our government that they did. Today, when ideas are debated about treatment of enemy combatants, etc. thank Barton.

    I'm not even mentioning her new approaches to treating wounded soldiers during the Civil War, her ground breaking work in identifying those killed in Andersonville, and how she lead the American Red Cross, single-handedly at first, into disaster zones, such as the Johnstown Flood.
    America being what it is, she was also pushed out of the ARC by the end of her life, probably because in her time, most Americans weren't ready to deal with a smart, spunky, dogged woman. In any case, she is precursor to Steven Jobs.

    With that, I'm eating some jello and back to bed with serious joint and muscle pains.