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Jacob Riis—The Guardian of Immigrant America

Tom Buk-Swienty’s The Other Half: The Life of Jacob Riis and the World of Immigrant America shows the professional life of Jacob Riis in great detail as well as his personal life. The first half of the book rarely shows any of Riis’s work but rather focuses on his hometown, love, and his survival in New York as a lower class man. Buk-Swienty’s biography is unique in that it concentrates so much on Jacob Riis’s personal life; even when his works are discussed, it shows how his personal life affected his works. The book not only shows what he did but also who he was.

Jacob Riis was born in Ribe—often referred to as the “Old Town”—on May 3rd, 1849. Ribe is a small town located in Denmark. Born to Niels Edvard and Caroline Riis, Riis grew up with eight siblings; although Niels Edvard and Caroline Riis gave birth to thirteen children, four of them died shortly after birth and including Jacob, only three of the remaining children lived to their adulthood—the rest all died of tuberculosis. Jacob Riis remembers a humorous episode related to his numerous siblings as he recalls his younger siblings getting numbered instead of being named; “the sixth child was named Peter Vilhelm Sextus and the ninth, Carl Edvard Nonus.”1 As a young boy, Riis was very stubborn and determinant. His headstrong character earned him the nickname Jacob the Delver. One tragic event Jacob Riis hates to remember happened in 1860 summer; his brother Theodore was caught by a river stream and lost. Eight days later, the searchers found Theodore’s nearly decomposed body and this event put the entire family into a great depression. Although Caroline Riis lost many children in her life, Theodore’s death was particularly tragic to her because he would have made it to adulthood had it not been for the accident. This event remained as one the most tragic moments in Jacob Riis’s childhood. When he became fifteen, he was to experience the pain of his first love. The girl who took his heart was Elisabeth Dorothea Nielson, or Elisabeth Giortz since her foster father was Balthasar Giortz, the employer of the Riises. Elisabeth’s parents divorced only when she was three, and her aunt and uncle, the Giortzes, adopted her. Because she did not remember her childhood, she was told that her father died when she was young, and that her mother forcedly gave her up. Elisabeth did not know the truth for the rest of her life, and lived as the foster daughter of the Giortz family. Back to Jacob Riis, he fell in love with Elisabeth the moment he saw her. Series of events that occurred when Riis saw Elisabeth proves it. First time he saw her, he was wielding an ax, and the presence of her made him so nervous that he sliced his shin with it. Second time, he chopped off tip of his forefinger that, although reattached, remained stiff and unbendable for the rest of his life. Third time, he fell off a scaffold and twisted his arm. Although Jacob Riis was madly in love with Elisabeth, daydreaming about marrying her someday, she never seemed to even notice him. To Elisabeth, Jacob was just the son of his dad’s employee. Such identity did not grasp the eyes of Elisabeth, who was, after all, the daughter of the richest man in town. Jacob Riis’s “heartache,” (the title of Chapter 3) is humorously depicted of the time he visited the Giortzes and left his gloves there on purpose so he can visit them again. Unfortunately, the gloves were returned by a courier the next day. When He turned twenty, Jacob Riis decided to ask Elisabeth to marry him by writing a letter to her. However, her mother read the letter and simply told Elisabeth, “I don't have to tell you that your father and I will not agree to this marriage until Jacob can provide properly for a family.”2 When Jacob received the reply from Elisabeth, he was trembling with hope and fear. As Riis later wrote, “Elisabeth’s neat handwriting, crushed all my hopes and dreams for the future,” as it said, “Jacob, I will never be able to love you.”3 This event devastated Riis, as well as his family, who had hoped for marriage between the two. Unable to bear the sadness, Riis makes a decision that changes his life: he decides to go to America.

There are two main reasons Jacob Riis immigrates to America. For one, he could not bear the stress back in Denmark, where the Giortzes were. Secondly, he knew Elisabeth’s mother opposed the marriage for his inability to provide for a family. It is very ironic that he wanted to leave Denmark to forget about Elisabeth, and at the same time, he wanted to go to America to be successful and ultimately ask her again for marriage. Jacob Riis reached the promise land on June 5th, 1870. Amazed by the different life at New York, Riis knew he had to survive in order to succeed. Due to enormous number of immigrants, competition for jobs had skyrocketed and Riis soon found himself as a jobless, homesick immigrant. In 1872, he finally found a job as a telegrapher. Although it was not the best job, it was enough to keep Riis in America. Just as he thought he going towards his goal, however, Panic of 1873 broke out, putting Riis out onto the streets. Meanwhile, back in Denmark, Elisabeth had fallen in love with a military officer named Raymond Baumann. To her, he seemed to be everything Riis was not: “mature, charismatic, manly.”4 The two fell immediately in love with each other and they were soon engaged. His father, Edvard, delivered the story of this news to Riis in New York. Although Riis was working desperately hard to succeed in New York ultimately for Elisabeth, the news somewhat freed him from her. Things started to change, however, when Baumann began suffering from illness. He recovered several times, but was soon affected by the same disease again. As it happened, parents of Elisabeth, who were initially supportive of the marriage, began showing signs of disapproval. When Baumann’s sickness got worse, they decided to call off the engagement. However, Elisabeth did not listen to them. She wanted to stay loyal Baumann and disobeyed her parents for the first time. Furious with her actions, Elisabeth’s father warned her that if she disobeyed him, she would not be part of the family anymore. Elisabeth stood by Baumann yet again. Unfortunately, Baumann died later that year, leaving Elisabeth with nothing. When Riis heard this news, he called it a miracle. He suddenly saw a reason to be economically independent again. This event led to Riis’s purchase of the South Brooklyn News and he began working day and night, slowly increasing the number of subscriptions. Writing every article and story for his paper and keeping two printers busy all the time, he gained respect throughout New York. When he became stable enough, he proposed to Elisabeth again, and this time, she said yes.

Jacob Riis and Elisabeth Giortz were married on March 5th, 1876. In New York, Riis looked for a job at the New York Tribune, but the editor William Shanks rejected him for not having enough experience. Truth was that Shanks was unfamiliar with the Southern Brooklyn News and did not know that Riis published the newspaper himself without any staff. When Shanks figured it out, he immediately hired Riis as the general manager. In one incident, Riis was running in order to get his copy into the machine on time and knocked down Shanks accidently. Shanks was initially upset. He demanded to know what was making Riis rush. When Riis told him the truth, Shanks was touched by Riis’s passion for his work. With Shanks’ help, Riis was able to get a job as the police reporter, which became his “lifework.”5 As the police reporter of the New York Tribune, Riis took many cases and revealed many truths from his persistent work. He was soon known as the best police reporter in the city and was respected more and more. The fame and respect opened new doors to Riis and he was soon involved with the slums of New York. He disclosed many problems the lower class faced and reported them furiously. As time went by, the city’s awareness increased, Making Riis as a hero for the poor immigrants. His mainly driven by the desire to help the immigrants just like him in the past—jobless, homeless, and hopeless. Riis was soon referred to as a reformer along with many others. He focused on the lives on poor immigrants who were barely surviving everyday. Riis showed the entire city of New York under different perspective. Many wealthy class people, even middle class people were shocked with the reality of America that strangled millions of immigrants.

In March 1888, it seemed to be a normal day in New York. But suddenly, the nice weather turned into a violent one as it threatened the city. Blizzard soon paralyzed the city and people panicked. As a reporter, however, Jacob Riis stayed calm and began reporting and taking pictures. The most important picture came when a tiny flower in the midst of blizzard caught Riis’s attention. To him, the flower showed unbelievable strength, staying up in the midst of a blizzard. When he put that picture on the papers, it was seen as the American spirit of persistence. With all the pictures of slums he had taken, Jacob Riis published a book titled How the Other Half Lives. In it, he vividly described what it is like to live in the slums. His passionate voice and writing swept across the nation as his book got very popular. In 1884, Jacob Riis gains what he later calls a “priceless happening”. He meets Theodore Roosevelt. Due to Riis mentioning Roosevelt as a reformer who could change the corrupt police force, their friendship began. They soon become irreplaceable friends that share opinions and debate for hours. After reading Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives, Roosevelt regarded Riis as a significant figure that could battle against poverty in the slums. Strangely these two men seemed very unlikely to be friends. Contrary to Jacob Riis, who grew up poor and built all his reputation on his own, Theodore Roosevelt was born to a one of the oldest and wealthiest family in New York. He was attending “Harvard, while Riis was living as a tramp on the streets of New York.”6 These two men with opposite backgrounds shared one dream of helping the poor. Roosevelt worked politically while Riis worked on the newspaper to influence the public’s mind. These two “brothers,” as they later refer to each other as, worked together as partners to fight poverty in not just New York, but in all of America. When Riis died of heart disease, Roosevelt showed his greatest grief by saying that he had lost his brother.

Buk-Swienty focuses mostly on the personal life of Jacob Riis but does not leave out any important events or works he had done. His story of Riis’s life helps the readers understand why Riis did certain works and how it affected his life.

There are many significant relationships between Tom Buk-Swienty and Jacob Riis. As it written in the preface, they are both Danish immigrants. Buk-Swienty’s situation is different of course from that of Riis’s, but nevertheless they have the same ethnical background, which is significant. Surprisingly, the author is a history major and yet that did not make his analysis textbook style or formal. Buk-Swienty’s approach to Jacob Riis is unbiased.

In her review, Barbara Spindel claims the importance of flashlight to Jacob Riis’s career. She says that the flashlight “illuminate[d] dark alleyways.” Spindel also points out on the first half of the book, which consists only of Riis’s personal life and not his work, is overly long. Spindel makes an interesting comment on Elisabeth’s acceptance of Jacob Riis after Baumann dies. She says that is “shows how very limited women’s options were back then.”7 It is a well-known fact that Riis believed once the upper class saw the lives of the lower class, they would be compelled to help as Christians. She believes this idea is a very rational one and that Riis was no radical.

Another critic is Steve Weinberg. He claims that Riis was one of the first, if not first, photojournalist. He focuses mostly on how went from “muck to muckraker.”8 He further moves onto say that the term “other half” is still valid, since the other half of the world right now is still starving. Weinber makes one point. We must continue what Jacob Riis started, in order to get rid of that “other half” of extreme poverty.

The biography of Jacob Riis by Tom Buk-Swienty really shows Riis as a humanitarian and believes his works are worth being kept and preserved. Buk-Swienty glorifies Riis’s work not in an ornate way, but more in a stark way, supporting his ideas with facts rather than emotional elements. This casual analysis of Riis is a much-needed one, because it is very important to see him exactly as whom he is and not glorify anything; he was a photojournalist, and just as his photos did, we must see only what he shows. That is the best way to understand who Jacob Riis really was.

Jacob Riis’s work fits into American art not in the traditional way. Because he was the first photojournalist and a muckraker, he almost creates a new genre in the American art. Riis’s work is so important because of its political impact. It showed everyone of the true face of New York. It may have been an ugly side of the city, but he was not criticizing it, rather, he was trying to change it through reforms and help of the upper class. The effect Riis’s work had politically is unbelievably significant because he also influenced Theodore Roosevelt to think as a progressive and help the slums of New York.

The biography of Jacob Riis by Tom Buk-Swienty tells the story of not only his works, but also his personal life and how it affected his work. Biography like this was needed for Riis because his humanitarian works were based off of his personal life; his experience as a jobless immigrant inspired him to work for the immigrant even after his success. The Other Half: The Life of Jacob Riis and the World of Immigrant America is an excellent biography that helps the readers understand Riis’s life as the guardian of immigrant America.

1. Buk-Swienty, Tom. The Other Half: The Life of Jacob Riis and the World of Immigrant America. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008.22.
2. Buk-Swienty, Tom. 27.
3. Buk-Swienty, Tom. 43.
4. Buk-Swienty, Tom. 90.
5. Buk-Swienty, Tom. 140.
6. Buk-Swienty, Tom. 246.
7. Spindel, Barbara. "The Other Half: The Life of Jacob Riis Review." The Barnes & Noble Review., 3 Sept. 2008. Web. 04 June 2012.