July 8, 2008

Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democraxy

An intelligent and readable survey of Jane Addams' thought. Jane Addams created Hull House, the most famous and most successful settlement house and long the model for urban reform and renewal throughout the world. After World War II, though, critical details of Addams' thinking were lost, and social services came increasingly to be delivered to clients. Addams never thought of her neighbors as clients; they were friends, they were all invited to dinner, to tea, to whatever entertainment she happened to have arranged that evening. If Miss Addams happened to have a larger house than the neighbors, that was simply the same sort of chance that gave the Romano’s more boys than the Schwartz's downstairs, and so a little more spending money than nice old Mrs. O'Reilly who lost her husband to the fever in '96.

Elshtain teases out the philosophy, moral and theoretical, that underpins the Addams approach. She chooses not to look too closely at Addams personal relationships with her fellow residents at Hull House. I have some sympathy for Elshtain's belief that the private sex life of such a relentlessly public person is beside the point, but Elshtain drives this point home at the cost of largely ignoring the personalities of the other residents and indeed the specificity of the place. For Hull House was, literally, a house; I’d like to know more about the routines, the sounds and smells, about what people ate for dinner and with whom.