Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Other Half

The Other Half: The Life of Jacob Riis and the World of Immigrant America by Tom Buk-Swienty, translated by Annette Buk-Swienty

When Jacob Riis died in 1914 he was considered a hero and mourned by millions, including his personal friend and fellow reformer Theodore Roosevelt. But how many of us today know who Jacob Riis was or what he did to gain such a reputation?
In his very readable and fascinating biography Tom Buk-Swienty has brought the story of Jacob Riis back to life. "As if plucked from a variant Horotio Alger novel, his is the story of a poor young Dane from the isolated yet picturesque medieval town of Ribe who immigrates to the United States in 1870 because of broken heart, nearly starves during his first months there, and is so despondent that he nearly dies. He then goes on to live what can only be described as the proverbial American dream: He starts at the bottom, struggles mightily, and then makes a living as an iron salesman. Once again, though, he loses all; then by chance he gets a job as a low-paid journalist and, in a few years, becomes a star police reporter and, finally, the author of a resounding best seller and classic, How the Other Half Lives. At the same time he practically invents modern photojournalism, is knighted by the Danish King, and becomes a close friend of Theodore Roosevelt. Together they fight police corruption and work to eradicate the worst slums in New York City, their herculean efforts succeeding beyond anyone's expectations." (xv)
In short, Riis was an early progressive reformer and muckraking reporter before the term muckraker had even been coined. This poor Danish immigrant became one of the biggest social reformers of the day, campaigning successfully against the slums and tenements. Riis' work brought massive reforms including the destruction of some of the worst slums in New York Cty. Mulberry Bend was once an infamous slum and is today known as Columbus Park due to the efforts of Riis. Jacob Riis made it impossible for the wealthy and middle class Americans of the day to keep ignoring the poor and destitute living amongst them. Riis photographs, taken with a revolutionary new flash, literally brought the dark and dank slums to light.
Tom Buk-Swienty's biography does an excellent job of telling Jacob Riis' story, from his early life in Denmark, his heartbreak over the love of his life (and the amazing turn around that actually leads to him getting the girl), his early destitute days in America and his, eventual, dedicated hard work that led to him becoming a famous reporter and reformer. The book also provides an excellent look at life in New York City at the turn of the century and the break with old Victorian standards towards the poor and charity. A very compelling biography.Here are some links to more information about Riis:
-If you've got a few minutes, watch this video clip from a documentary about Riis. It showcases many of his photographs.
-An NPR article about Riis and Buk-Swienty's biography.

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