Jacob Riis Critical Essays

Introduction

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.