September 5, 2011
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A striking feature of early accounts of Hull House, the Chicago settlement house founded by Jane Addams in 1889, are the visitors who came to dinner. Chicago was to the late 19th century world what so much of China is today: a new and vast city in which Modernity could be seen clearly and Money could be made abundantly. Addams wrote widely and well, and soon a steady stream of visitors were coming to dinner to meet Addams and her fellow workers and some of the Halsted Street neighbors. At this time, Halsted was one of the world’s longest city streets, and along its length you’d see street signs in Polish, Swedish, Yiddish, Russian, Bulgarian, Italian, French, Chinese, and English.

So it’s not surprising that so many writers, artists, playwrights and scholars would come to Chicago. But how did they find their way to Hull House, a small private poverty-fighting NGO run by some moderately wealthy American ladies?

They came, I think, because they were asked, and because at Hull House they met crusaders – and they also met poor people – who read their work and wanted to learn from their ideas.

It seems to me that we travel the world a lot these days, but dinner tables like Jane Addams’s are rare. Why should this be? We’re always rushing to conference and symposia, and there we meet our colleagues and their most dedicated students. But we seldom see an undergraduate, and we never meet interested amateurs, or even practitioners or their managers.

Now, some of this might arise because the Settlement House movement has pretty much expired, and some of this may be laid at the grave of the Public Intellectual. The ease of travel makes it harder to take time.

But there was something nobly and distinctively American at that dinner table, the idea that a famous European actress or a controversial Black scholar would have something interesting to say to a recent immigrant from Minsk and an undergraduate from Carbondale – and might well hear something from them worth knowing.