Twenty Years at Hull-House is an autobiographical account of 20 years of outreach work, from 1889 to 1909, in Chicago's poorest areas. Jane Addams was from a well-to-do family and financially independent, but she chose to live in the slums of Chicago and dedicate her life to charitable works.
Oddly enough, she doesn't really seem to conceive of her efforts as charity. Hull House, the institution she founded, is part of the 'Settlement movement', in which college educated people moved into poor neighborhoods in an effort to encourage social intercourse between the classes. Nonetheless Hull-House was responsible for a great deal of improvement in the neighborhood, politically and in every other way.
There is vivid description here of the desperate poverty, filth, and disease that immigrants lived in. It was oddly cheering - though sometimes it feels like the US is going down the crapper today, really, things are much better now than they used to be. We have decent labor laws and public sanitation and public education and a high literacy rate and all sorts of good stuff.
Much of the book is dedicated to explaining the theory behind her work and to pathetic examples of suffering. I got the feeling that the among the greatest struggles she faced was that of convincing people that such work was actually necessary, and that poverty was not deserved for one reason or another.
I was quite surprised when I reached the part where, during a visit to Europe, she visits Tolstoy in Russia. Little did I know that the author of War and Peace was something of a revolutionary, with anarchistic and socialist ideas. Tolstoy, I have since discovered, was the direct inspiration for Gandhi's philosophy of non-violent resistance. He worked alongside his workers in the fields, ate what they are, and asked some of his family members to do the same. His theory (as reported by Ms. Addams) was that if everyone would do the physical work which was required to sustain himself daily, the world's problems would be solved.
Jane Addams received the Nobel Peace Prize later in life for her anti-war efforts and from reading this slim and modest account of her works I think it was well deserved. There are really too many complex subjects covered for me to do them justice. Highly recommend.