As a young woman, the great social reformer Jane Addams despaired over having too much academic learning, instead of real-world experience. She saw a clear dichotomy between the abstract world of books and contemplation, and the often gritty lives of real people in the everyday world.
Prior to founding Hull-House, the pioneering social reform project in Chicago, Addams toured Europe in part to review social conditions there. As she recounts in her 1910 memoir, Twenty Years at Hull-House, she was horrified by the slums of East London, most memorably the sight of poor and hungry people aggressively bidding with street vendors for rotting vegetables; this would take place late on Saturday nights, as the vendors were not allowed to sell on Sundays and knew their decaying wares would be completely unsellable by Monday morning. Despite the shoddiness of the food and the vendors being highly motivated sellers, the poor were still desperate to buy whatever they could:
They were bidding their farthings and ha’pennies for a vegetable held up by the auctioneer, which he at last scornfully flung, with a gibe for its cheapness, to the successful bidder. In the momentary pause only one man detached himself from the groups. He had bidden in a cabbage, and when it struck his hand, he instantly sat down on the curb, tore it with his teeth, and hastily devoured it, unwashed and uncooked as it was.
But even as she witnesses such deplorable conditions, she can’t help viewing her surrounding through the abstract prism of literature. Looking down an East London street from a bus, she suddenly remembers Thomas De Quincey’s “The Vision of Sudden Death” in which that writer recounts riding through rural England on a mail coach, which in its hellbent pace nearly runs over a pair of young lovers. Although he saw the couple in time to warn the driver, De Quincey is unable to shout out, as his mind was absorbed in trying to recall lines from The Iliad which described Achilles’ warning cry. Addams recognizes De Quincey’s paralyzed inability to boldly act to help others (“when suddenly called upon for a quick decision in the world of life and death, he had been able to act only through a literary suggestion”) and immediately sees bitter irony in the fact that her first response to the degradation of East London was not to take action, but instead to remember De Quincey’s written account of his own intellect-induced paralysis.
This is what we were all doing, lumbering our minds with literature that only served to cloud the really vital situation spread before our eyes…In my disgust it all appeared a hateful, vicious circle which even the apostles of culture themselves admitted, for had not one of the greatest among the moderns plainly said that “conduct, and not culture is three fourths of human life.”
Later in Germany, from her hotel Addams witnesses women brewery workers carrying tanks of hot brew on their backs, like pack mules, across the town square. Indignant over their plight, she marches across the square to confront the brewery owner, whose bland indifference sends her, exasperated, back to the hotel.
I went back to a breakfast for which I had lost my appetite, as I had for Gray’s “Life of Prince Albert” and his wonderful tutor, Baron Stockmar, which I had been reading late the night before. The book had lost its fascination; how could a good man, feeling so keenly his obligation “to make princely the mind of his prince,” ignore such conditions of life for the multitude of humble, hard-working folk.
Again and again the young Addams questions the value of pursuing abstract learning, at the expense of tangible, useful work. Quoting Tolstoy, she cites “the snare of preparation,” the practice of subjecting young people to extended academic preparation at the critical point in their lives when they are energized and eager to venture out into the world.
It’s a timeless concern, something that many people still face today. And while Addams focused on the education-versus-action question, even within the education camp – those who pursue the intellectual life – there often seems to be a further distinction between those who read fiction (often denigrated as made-up fantasy) instead of the tangible, real-world realm of nonfiction. Fiction is often seen as folly, while nonfiction is vital. One can easily imagine Addams becoming even more distraught over a passion for reading novels, instead of helping the poor and neglected.
Yet it’s interesting to note that during the early days of Hull-House, some of the most popular programs involved literature: a discussion group for George Eliot’s Romola, which not only inspired animated talks but also brought in outside guests, who then stayed for dinner and even helped to wash dishes afterward; and a series of readings from the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, given by an older woman who once knew the great novelist personally. As Addams concludes:
We thus early found the type of class which through all the years has remained most popular – a combination of a social atmosphere with serious study.
Thus, instead of being a hindrance to Hull-House’s social mission, the study of literature – and fiction in particular – was beneficial in bringing the residents in closer contact with outsiders, with the goodwill generated undoubtedly aiding Hull-House’s acceptance within the greater community which Addams and her colleagues had so avidly pledged to serve.
That’s a lesson all of us can learn from. Instead of mere escape, literature can be an effective way of engaging with the world. It exposes us to a vast array of people and places that we probably wouldn’t otherwise experience, helps us understand and interpret unfamiliar situations, and reach outside of ourselves. Only with a better understanding of other people are we able to lend a hand. Literature helped Hull-House reach outward a hundred years ago, just as it helps us do so today.