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METHODS AND MOTIVES OF A MUCKRAKER: A BIOGRAPHY OF JACOB RIIS

By Peter Kupfer

SAN FRANCISCO, 16 JANUARY 2009 - As the son of an African immigrant prepares to assume the highest office in the land, Tom Buk-Swienty's portrait of muckraking journalist and reformer Jacob Riis is both instructive and inspiring. Through his ground-breaking articles, lectures, books and - most famously - photographs, Riis exposed the abysmal living conditions suffered by tens of thousands of immigrants in New York in the early 1900s and played a pivotal role in efforts to reform the city's obsolete housing and health codes.

Riis knew all too well the harsh realities of immigrant life. A native of Denmark, he came to the United States in 1870, at the age of 21, to escape a disastrous love affair and quickly fell upon hard times. At his lowest ebb, he was no better off than the "unwashed poor" he would later write about - a vagabond who slept in alleyways and begged for food at the back doors of restaurants. Only a chance encounter with a businessman saved him from the ignominious fate of many other immigrants - a short, hard life followed by an anonymous burial in the potter's field on Hart Island.

Given Riis' made-for-Hollywood story (a story that, surprisingly, Hollywood has yet to make), it would have been tempting to romanticize his life. Fortunately, Buk-Swienty, a Danish historian and journalist, resists that temptation. While Riis is presented in a largely positive light, the author does not shy away from revealing his warts.

We learn, for example, that Riis was not above embellishing news stories - a not uncommon practice among journalists of the day (indeed, the intense competition between newspapers in turn-of-the-century New York gave rise to the term yellow journalism). A newspaper article Riis wrote about Coney Island during one of the worst blizzards in New York history described how a cat and a dog survived the storm by sailing out to sea on a wooden plank. In fact, Buk-Swienty points out, Riis never made it to Coney Island that day (the ferries were out of service) and the story was based on second-hand accounts. "Either Riis' subjects had exaggerated and he had not challenged their hyperbole, or he had given rein to his own imagination," the author observes.

Nor was Riis likely to win the Mr. Congeniality award. "His personal mannerisms could be off-putting. He spoke loudly and animatedly when he was excited, and he could be curt and arrogant when displeased," Buk-Swienty says. Ironically, although Riis was an ardent advocate for immigrant families, he was not very attentive to his own family. "He put his heart and soul into his work, often at the expense of his family life," the author notes. "Despite his public outrage over the fact that the children in the slums were denied schooling, he did not participate actively in his own children's education."

Worse still, Riis' views of immigrant groups could be narrow-minded and even racist. Of Jews, he wrote: "Money is their God. Life itself is of little value compared with even the leanest bank account." Italians are described as "swarthy" and "hot-headed," Germans as "heavy-witted," and blacks as lacking "moral accountability." As for the Chinese, Riis opined, "There is nothing strong about him except his passions when aroused."

In Riis' defense, Buk-Swienty points out that he was a product of his time, a period when the ruling class in New York believed that people who were not Protestant, Anglo-Saxon and from northern Europe existed on a lower rung of civilization. "Riis was a typical Victorian moralist who would never have dreamed of questioning the superiority of Christian values and who saw himself as superior to people of color," the author says.

The Other Half (W. W. Norton, 448 pages) is more than a compelling portrait of a pioneering journalist, it is an illuminating social history of New York during a turbulent period in the city's history. New York around the turn of the 20th century was truly a tale of two cities. Immense wealth and abject poverty existed side by side, but rarely did the two worlds intersect. While the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, J.P. Morgans and other robber barons were throwing lavish parties in their opulent mansions uptown, more than half the city's population lived in crowded, crime- and disease-ridden tenements downtown.

It was Riis, more than any other journalist, who exposed this netherworld and helped persuade city officials to clean it up. Using a vivid, lively writing style reminiscent of Dickens, he took his readers on sometimes harrowing tours of the slums. Here's his account of a police raid on a "stale beer" dive:

"[We] groped [our] way in single file through the narrow rift between slimy walls to the tenements in the rear … A room perhaps a dozen feet square, with walls and ceiling that might once have been clean - assuredly the floor had not in the memory of man, if indeed there was other floor than hard-trodden mud - but were now covered with a brown crust that, touched with the end of a club, came off in shuddering showers of crawling bugs, revealing the blacker filth beneath. Grouped about a beer keg that was propped on the wreck of a broken chair, a foul and ragged host of men and women, on boxes, benches, and stools. ... In the center of the group a sallow, wrinkled hag, evidently the ruler of the feast, dealt out the hideous stuff."

Although Riis was primarily a print journalist, he is perhaps best known for his powerful photographs of tenement life. Indeed, he is widely regarded as the first photojournalist. He was the first reporter to use flash photography to capture images of the dark, squalid precincts of the poor. It was these images, even more than his writings and lectures, that helped persuade authorities to adopt new housing legislation. Ironically, Buk-Swienty point out, many of these now-classic images were probably taken by other members of his entourage.

The Other Half starts slowly. The first 50 pages or so, describing Riis' early years in Denmark and his romantic obsession with the young woman he eventually marries, are rather dull and clichéd. It is only after he arrives in New York that the book comes to life. It's well worth the wait.

The Other Half: The Life of Jacob Riis and the World of Immigrant America
By Tom Buk-Swienty
Annette Buk-Swienty (Translator)

Hardcover: 448 pages
W. W. Norton (August 2008)
ISBN-10: 0393060233
ISBN-13: 978-0393060232
$27.95

Peter Kupfer is a former editor on the National / Foreign desk at The San Francisco Chronicle. His freelance articles on the arts, travel and technology have appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Asian Art News and other publications. He last wrote on Dying Darfur: Sudan Genocide for Culturekiosque.com

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