The slum is the measure of civilization…Jacob Riis


The same man who wrote those words was also able to say, Some defeats are only installments to victory.

While the photographs in this entry paint a bleak picture of the squalor of New York at the turn of the 20th century most of the children and grandchildren of those pictured would realize some modicum of the American dream. What makes some rise above adversity and others remain in the fell clutch of circumstance? It can not be genetic and therefore can not be an issue of race – no one is naturally indolent or ignorant or incapable but everyone has the potential to be those things just as everyone has the potential to be hard-working, intelligent and successful.

The reasons must be environmental – and by this we mean the man-made environment – if you need workers to do menial tasks and are unwilling to pay them to do more complex tasks you need to prevent them from gaining the ability to do the more complex tasks. If you are a politician who depends on the votes of these undereducated workers you have the same interests as the industrialists who don’t want their work force tampered with. The king who rents out his serfs to his barons is nothing new and the idea that America would present an escape to the huddled masses yearning to be free diminishes with each passing day.

There was a time when the idea of human progress seemed possible. It began with Jefferson’s yeoman farmer and continued through Theodore Roosevelt’s new American immigrants. It is expressed in the ideas of optimism and exceptionalism and still rears its head and roars when a leader like Ronald Reagan gives it voice. It has been silent for nearly a quarter of a century and longs for a new champion.

The other half : the life of Jacob Riis and the world of immigrant America New York : W.W. Norton & Co., c 2008 Tom Buk-Swienty ; translated from the Danish by Annette Buk-Swienty Riis, Jacob A. (Jacob August), 1849-1914 Hardcover. Ideelle amerikaner. English xvi, 331 p., [32] p. of plates : ill. ; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 307-310) and index.  Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG  

Social reformer Jacob Riis made it impossible for Americans to look the other way; now this inspiring biography restores his greatness.

Drawing on previously unexamined diaries and letters, The Other Half marvelously re-creates the moving story of Jacob Riis, the legendary Progressive reformer and photographer. Born in 1849 in rural Denmark, Riis immigrated to America in 1870. Penniless and starving, Riis stumbled into journalism, eventually becoming a charismatic police reporter for the New York Tribune, where he befriended Theodore Roosevelt and witnessed firsthand the appalling tenement conditions of late nineteenth-century New York.

His resulting exposé, How the Other Half Lives, was the first major American photo journalism book. It brought Americans in touch with their lost humanity, establishing a precedent for Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Jane Addams, and Upton Sinclair. Described by Roosevelt as “the ideal American,” Riis died in 1914, mourned by millions, a celebrated hero.

Tom Buk-Swienty’s long-awaited biography, an evocation of the era, is a compelling work, designed with 55 haunting images from Riis’s own photographic oeuvre.

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