Riis, Jacob 1849-1914
(Jacob August Riis) American social reformer, journalist, autobiographer, and biographer.
Through such works as How the Other Half Lives (1890), journalist Riis exposed Americans to the miseries endured by New York City's slum residents. His was not the first writing on the living conditions of the urban underclass, but among that literature it was original in its use of the relatively new photographic medium to illuminate its text. Even more significant was the fact that Riis did not merely draw national attention to tenement conditions: he offered recommendations for their remedy. Principal among his solutions was housing reform, not just the making of laws to limit the number of people who could be crammed into a given living space, but also the destruction or renovation of old buildings. Individually, and as a leader in a larger social reform movement that included such pivotal figures as Jane Addams, Riis would have an enormous impact on urban life in America. During his time, he saw the passing of numerous zoning laws and initiatives such as New York state's Tenement House Law of 1901, as well as the demolishing of thousands of tenements and other run-down areas, and the building of new structures. In part because of Riis, a century later the cities of the United States would have more parks, more safe and well-lit buildings, and more space per person than they did in the late 1800s.
Riis was born the son of a schoolteacher in the town of Ribe, Denmark, about which he would later reminisce in The Old Town (1909). At the age of twenty-one, in 1870, he emigrated to the United States and spent the next seven years wandering the northeastern part of the country. He barely made a living during that time, and his career as such did not begin until 1877, when he obtained a job as a police reporter for the New York Tribune. In 1888, he took a position with the Evening Sun. Through his newspaper work, Riis became closely acquainted with New York's poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods. This became the impetus for his first and most famous book, How the Other Half Lives, a landmark in the history of slum reform. On the popularity of his book and his own growing reputation, Riis became a well-known lecturer and activist who called for childlabor reform, creation of school playgrounds, improvements in the city water supply, and new housing. His activities brought him into contact with the city police commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt, and the two became lifelong friends. Throughout the 1890s, Riis continued to publish books, conduct lectures, and engage in reform activities that included a position as secretary of the New York City Small Parks Commission. In 1899 he retired from newspaper work, though he continued his other activities up to the time of his death in 1914.
By far the most significant of Riis's books was his first, How the Other Half Lives. In it he presented what would become familiar themes and images, most notably that of the dark, dirty, and dangerous tenement house. Such dwelling spaces produced children deprived of typical childhood pleasures through overwork, neglect, and other forms of abuse, and these unfortunate children assumed almost as much significance in Riis's studies of the urban underbelly of the Gilded Age. Thus his second major work was The Children of the Poor (1892). In A Ten Years' War (1900) and The Battle with the Slum (1902), Riis presented a record of his own activities to combat the disastrous conditions of the poor neighborhoods. With The Making of an American (1901), he took the autobiographical approach a step further, in a presentation of his whole career as an American success story and an example of a European immigrant's assimilation into the larger culture of the New World. His last major work, The Old Town, focused on one aspect of his biography in its portrayal of his Danishhome. With Theodore Roosevelt, The Citizen (1904), Riis offered a largely uncritical portrayal of his well-known friend.
How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York (journalism) 1890
The Children of the Poor (journalism) 1892
A Ten Years' War (journalism) 1900
The Making of an American (autobiography) 1901
The Battle with the Slum (journalism) 1902
Theodore Roosevelt, The Citizen (biography) 1904
The Old Town (memoirs) 1909
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SOURCE: "Flashes from the Slums: Pictures in Dark Places by the Lighting Process," in Photography: Essays & Images, edited by Beaumont Newhall, The Museum of Modern Art, 1980, pp. 154-57.
[In the following essay, which originally appeared in the New York Sun, Riis comments on some of his photographs.]
With their way illuminated by spasmodic flashes, as bright and sharp and brief as those of the lightning itself, a mysterious party has lately been startling the town o' nights. Somnolent policemen on the street, denizens of the dives in their dens, tramps and bummers in their socalled lodgings, and all the people of the wild and wonderful variety of New York night life have in their turn marvelled at and been frightened by the phenomenon. What they saw was three or four figures in the gloom, a ghostly tripod, some weird and uncanny movements, the blinding flash, and then they heard the patter of retreating footsteps, and the mysterious visitors were gone before they could collect their scattered thoughts and try to find out what it was all about. Of course all this fuss speedily became known to THE SUN reporters, and equally as a matter of course they speedily found out the meaning of the seeming mystery. But at the request of the parties interested the publication of the facts was delayed until the purpose of the expedition was accomplished. That has now been done, and its history may now be...
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SOURCE: A review of The Making of an American, in The Dial, Vol. 32, January 1, 1902, pp. 8-10.
[In the following essay, Dunton presents a review of Riis's autobiography.]
Jacob Riis, reporter, philanthropist, reformer, author of How the Other Half Lives, needs no introduction to the nation whose ideals he could scarce honor more highly than he has done in calling his autobiography The Making of an American.
The most striking quality of his book is undoubtedly its artless frankness, which is at first in equal measure appalling and delightful. But before one has read far, he agrees unqualifiedly with that wise friend of Mr. Riis's who told him, when he was hesitating over the first chapters of his reminiscences, "to take the short cut and put it all in." She evidently knew her man, understood the absolute unity of purpose that ran through every act of his life, and felt how fatal it would be should his readers miss seeing that here is a man whose house of life has no back doors and no alley windows. The whole of Mr. Riis is in his book, then, and the real Mr. Riis. He is "speaking right on" in words that have no fictitious limelight glare about them, and little of the grace of artful manipulation; but they are plain-speaking words, whose charm is that they are instinct with the thrill and throb of life, with the joy of labor and the pathos of joy. The Making of an...
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SOURCE; A review of The Battle with the Slum, in The Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 11, March, 1903, pp. 334-35.
[In the following essay, West reviews The Battle with the Slum.]
This latest work of Mr. Riis [The Battle with the Slum] supplements his How the Other Half Lives and A Ten Years' War, and completes the history of a struggle to improve conditions in the tenement-house districts of New York city. The book describes the work of the Tenement-House Commissions of 1894 and 1900, and the voluntary citizens' committee of 1898, which led up to the creation of the present Tenement-House Department; but it is far from being a statistical report. It is rather an intimately personal account of the awful conditions which prevailed in the tenement-house districts, with their population of over two millions, and of what has been done, and against what odds, to purge the city. Such triumphs as the razing of Mulberry Bend, the opening of various small parks and playgrounds, the model tenements, the Mills hotels, the vacation schools—all these make a story not often exceeded in interest. The Battle with the Slum illustrates many important civic truths, not the least of which is that sometimes a made American may be worth a great many of the indigenous variety.
The book is enlivened with anecdotes, and contains many telling reproductions...
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SOURCE: A review of The Battle with the Slum, in The Nation, Vol. 76, No. 1973, April 23, 1903, pp. 338-39.
[In the following essay, a reviewer for The Nation offers a critique of The Battle with the Slum.]
This book [The Battle with the Slum] would have attracted more attention than it has, but for the fact that most, if not all, of it is a republication. After writing How the Other Half Lives, the author published, three years ago, A Ten Years' War, a series of papers intended to account for the progress of "the battle with the slum" since the first volume appeared. Since that time, as he hints in his preface, a good many things have happened, and he has been occupied, not only in the conflict itself, but incidentally in writing about it. In the present volume he has passed the later stages of the conflict in review, "retaining all that still applied of the old volume and adding as much more." The "stories" are reprinted from the Century, and these, he adds, are fact, not fiction. The volume is copiously illustrated, and has plenty of real interest without the pictures.
This interest centres about two points: first, the author, and, secondly, what it is the fashion to call the "point of view" of the cause he advocates. Mr. Riis is, of course, an enthusiast, and in his enthusiasm fails to see that a much more restrained way of writing would be...
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SOURCE: "Brief Articles and Notes: The Sources of Stephen Crane's Maggie," in Philological Quarterly, Vol. XXXVIII, No. IV, October, 1959, pp. 497-502.
[In the following essay, Gullason identifies writers—among them Riis—who influenced Stephen Crane's novel Maggie.]
For over a half-century, Stephen Crane's Maggie (1893) has been linked with European naturalism, particularly with Zola's L'Assomoir.1 A single recent critic, Marcus Cunliffe, admits that while one can draw parallels between Maggie and L'Assomoir the most obvious place to search for possible sources "is not Europe but America: not Zola's Paris but Crane's New York." He points to such things as the social consciousness of The Arena (to which Crane contributed two propagandistic tales, "The Men in the Strom," and "An Ominous Baby"); Charles Loring Brace's The Dangerous Classes of New York; and Thomas DeWitt Talmage's sermons. With no definite proof that any of the above-mentioned are influences, Cunliffe concludes: "So, when young Crane writes with would-be savage candor of the slums, the preachers have been there before him. He cannot help borrowing some of their material."2
I suggest that much of Stephen Crane's materials for Maggie did come from two ne ver-mentioned sources: his father, the minister Jonathan Townley Crane; and the...
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SOURCE: An introduction to How the Other Half Lives, by Jacob Riis, edited by Sam Bass Warner, Jr., Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of HarvardUniversity Press, 1970, pp. vii-xix.
[In the following essay, the editor's introduction of How the Other Half Lives, Warner discusses Riis's classic work.]
This is one of the great books of American journalism. Published in 1890, early in the era of muckraking, How the Other Half Lives stands with Lincoln Steffens' Shame of the Cities (1904) and John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939) for its impact on its own generation and for its lasting ability to secure a reader's emotional assent to the vision of the author. Today the book is in continuous use by historians seeking evidence of our urban past and by all students of America's reform tradition.
With this book Riis succeeded in doing what every newspaperman dreams of. At just the right moment in our history—when the tide of immigration was reaching its flood, and many Americans had grown fearful of foreigners; when the new rings of growth of the American metropolis first fully separated city dwellers into a core of poverty and suburbs of success; when a generation of health and charity studies of poverty filled a bookshelf with neglected expertise; and when American cities themselves had grown huge and ominous—Jacob Riis fashioned a portrait of our largest...
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SOURCE: "Social Workers, Reformers, and the City, Jane Addams and Jacob Riis," in From Main Street to State Street; Town, City, and Community in America, Kennikat Press, 1977, pp. 80-93.
[In the following excerpt, Goist compares and contrasts Riis's formative experiences with those of another social reformer, Jane Addams.]
The emphasis of the urban novels written by Hamlin Garland, Theodore Dreiser, and Henry Blake Fuller was essentially on the consequences of city living for individuals. In Garland there is some notice taken of a limited social network in which Rose Dutcher attempts to find her place. In Fuller's novel the Marshall family, though badly weakened by events, still plays some role. But the real concern of these novelists is with the individual. This is even more noticeable, of course, in Dreiser's work. Here the focal point is entirely on the unattached individual; no sustained social group ties or family bonds are enjoyed by the lonely characters in Sister Carrie. The perspective of the early urban novelists focused, then, on the impact upon the indivudal of the urban milieu.
Contemporaneous with this emphasis on the individual was a growing consciousness among middle class reformers of the important role played in cities by groups. Theodore Brower's proposed justice center for the poor, the settlement work of Isabel Herrick's university friends, even Jane...
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SOURCE: "Jacob Riis and the Jews: The Ambivalent Quest for Community," in American Studies, Vol. 20, No. 1, Spring, 1979, pp. 5-24.
[In the following essay, Fried examines Riis's interest in, and study of, eastern European Jews.]
There have been few figures in American immigrant history who more tirelessly expounded upon the nature of Americanization than Jacob Riis. Against the steady growth of a disenchanting critical realism assessing the costs of estrangement in American life, Riis continually pointed out how the immigrant's past could comport well with his present. Riis' very achievements—and they surely were no mean ones—led him as well as such differing figures as Theodore Roosevelt, Lincoln Steffens, and Jane Robbins to see his life invested with a culturally significant form, one worthy of emulation.1 As James Lane, Riis' most recent and astute biographer, has suggested, his importance can be traced to his bridging "the gap between the two Americas that he confronted as an immigrant";2 he had hoped that a divided America, one rich and one poor, could "evolve into an organic unity."3
Riis' works can be read to indicate that such a hope was not delusive. His studies of the slums (How the Other Half Lives, 1890; A Ten Years' War, 1900; The Battle with the Slum, 1902), his portrayal of and tales about tenement youth (The Children of the...
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SOURCE: "Jacob A. Riis: Christian Friend or Missonary Foe? Two Jewish Views," in American Jewish History, Vol. 71, No. 1, September, 1981, pp. 29-47.
[In the following essay, Gurock takes a close look at Riis's relationships with Jews.]
I. JACOB RIIS ATTACKED AND DEFENDED
A. The Lucas-Riis Letters
On August 14, 1903, the American Hebrew excitedly reported that "a particular settlement house on the lower East Side. . . . that has attracted much attention in the past few years, mainly owing to the fact that one of its patrons is a gentleman of international repute as an advocate and friend of the poor" was not living up to its announced "high and commendable purpose." Its work, they declared, "has not been of a strictly non-sectarian character, as has always been supposed. Children have gone to their homes singing religious hymns in honor of the Christ and the Virgin" taught to them by "Christians carrying on proselytizing work under our noses." They did not identify the patron or his mission by name but did record his following "passion(ate)" response to a reporter's query:
Yes, the house is a Christian settlement . . . We have nailed the Cross to the door and it is going to remain there. If your Jewish mothers don't know where they are sending their children, it is about time that Christian influence stepped in...
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Fried, Lewis and John Fierst. Jacob A. Riis: A Reference
Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1977, 168 p.
A comprehensive listing of writings about Riis from 1899 to 1975, with extensive reference to his collected papers housed in the Library of Congress.
Goist, Park Dixon. "Social Workers, Reformers and the City: Jane Addams and Jacob Riis." In From Main Street to State Street: Town, City, and Community in America, pp. 80-93. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1977.
Presents Riis's career alongside that of his contemporary and fellow social reformer Jane Addams of Chicago, with a portrayal of both similarities and differences in their activities.
Madison, Charles A. "Preface to the Dove Edition." In How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York, by Jacob Riis, pp. v-viii. New York: Dover Publications, 1971.
The story of the means by which Riis came to write How the Other Half Lives, along with brief comments on the photography and other aspects of his most well-known book.
Owre, J. Riis. "An Epilogue by J. Riis Owre." In The Making of an American, by Jacob A. Riis, pp. 285-237. London: MacMillan, 1970.
Riis's grandson offers his own, and other family members ', very personal...
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