The Other Half: The Life of Jacob Riis and the World of Immigrant America


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 muckraking photographer. Born in 1849 in rural Denmark, Riis immigrated to America in 1870 following a devastating romantic breakup. Penniless and starving, Riis stumbled into ...

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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 muckraking photographer. Born in 1849 in rural Denmark, Riis immigrated to America in 1870 following a devastating romantic breakup. 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 muckraking 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, a superb evocation of the muckraking era, is a compelling work, designed with 55 haunting images from Riis's own photographic oeuvre.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

In this immigrant saga, Danish historian Buk-Swienty delves into the life of one of his most famous countrymen, the photographer Jacob Riis (How the Other Half Lives), whose seminal photographs exposed the deplorable conditions of New York City's tenement housing. After an unhappy love affair, Riis (1849-1914) abandoned comfort and Denmark for poverty and America; he spent three years wandering from town to town, often on the verge of starvation, often contemplating suicide until chance employment as a journalist saved him. This skilled translation superbly demonstrates how Riis drew upon his own experiences as a newly landed immigrant in documenting tenement life and how he developed his craft without formal training or cameras adequate enough to capture images in the darkness of the slums. Buk-Swienty masterfully contextualizes Riis's crucial role in the development of investigative reporting and analyzes the various dilemmas confronting him as he shed his reporter's objectivity to become a committed reformer of socioeconomic ills. Embedded in the gritty narrative is also a touching love story-as the once-rejected Riis manages to win over-and marry-his boyhood love. (Aug.)

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Library Journal

Historian Buk-Swienty (Univ. of Southern Denmark), a former U.S. correspondent for several Danish newspapers, here examines the life and impact of Progressive reformer and muckraker Jacob Riis (1849-1914), arguably the inventor of photojournalism. This is the first monographic study of Riis since Alexander Alland's Jacob A. Riis: Photographer & Citizen, James B. Lane's Jacob Riis and the American City, and Edith Patterson Meyer's Not Charity, But Justice: The Story of Jacob Riis-all published in 1974, the 60th anniversary of Riis's death. Buk-Swienty brings his own insights as well as his essential language skills to the task of evaluating Riis's early, turbulent life as detailed in archives in Denmark and to reading Riis's diaries, held at the New York Public Library and translated from Danish by Annette Buk-Swienty. New to most social historians is material from many previously unpublished letters and journals. Illustrated with lesser-known photographs from Riis's collections (another bonus), this felicitously written study of a consequential reformer (and friend of Theodore Roosevelt) is relevant today as immigrants and the poor strive for more equitable treatment in postindustrial countries. Recommended for both professional historians and the general public.
—Frederick J. Augustyn

Kirkus Reviews
Solid though blandly written biography of the pioneering investigative journalist. Buk-Swienty (Journalism/Univ. of Southern Denmark) recounts the remarkable story of how Jacob Riis (1849-1914) rose from humble beginnings in Denmark, arrived in the United States virtually penniless and after a series of odd jobs became a reporter specializing in crime and poverty. His seminal work, How the Other Half Lives, is still read today, offering a demonstration of how much worse things were a hundred years ago for those on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. Though generally admiring, the book does not gloss over its subject's flaws, which included a weakness for sensationalist prose, a hefty ego and prejudiced attitudes toward blacks and Jews. "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," Buk-Swienty writes. The author goes on to chronicle the reporter's collaborations with Theodore Roosevelt and other like-minded reformers to improve housing, health and sanitary conditions in New York City's tenements. Riis opened Roosevelt's eyes to the conditions endured by the truly needy and helped reinforce some of the future president's already strong progressive instincts. While it doesn't break much new ground, this admirable biography will reintroduce Riis to modern readers, many of whom know him only from passing references in history books. Unfortunately, the book's appeal is limited by Buk-Swienty's uninspired prose (assuming it's fairly translated) and poor organizational skills. He has a tendency to go off on tangents like a two-page discourse on the history ofphotography, and he spends nearly 100 pages on Riis's early life before getting to his more important years as a journalist. An exhaustive portrait of the man responsible for shining a light on the lives of the poor in late-19th-century New York City.
The Barnes & Noble Review
One fall day in 1887, Jacob Riis read a short news item in the morning paper and immediately grasped its potential to alter his life's work. The dispatch described two German chemists who had discovered a way "to take pictures by flashlight." As a journalist, Riis had for years been writing articles documenting the squalor of New York City's slums, hoping to mobilize his readers to social action, but he had found words inadequate to the task.

As Tom Buk-Swienty writes in The Other Half, an admiring and engrossing new biography of Riis, the advent of flash photography allowed the Danish immigrant to shine a light on the bleakest corners of his adopted city: "The flashlight could illuminate dark alleyways and penetrate filthy, poorly lit tenement garrets. It could expose basement dives and overcrowded five-cent lodging houses, show the trash heaps where tramps had dug caves to shield themselves from the elements." Three years after reading the article, Riis published his pioneering work of photojournalism, How the Other Half Lives, which became a bestseller and made him famous.

Buk-Swienty, himself a Danish journalist and onetime resident of New York (the book is translated from the Danish by the author's wife, Annette Buk-Swienty), takes his time arriving at this seminal moment in his subject's life. Readers first have to wade through an overlong section on Riis's youth, which reveals early evidence of social conscience but focuses primarily on his obsession with Elisabeth Giortz. She was just 12 years old when Riis first spotted her in their hometown of Ribe and became instantly enamored. For years he pursued her single-mindedly, and his behavior (he once leaped from the audience onto the stage during a play to "save" an imperiled actress who resembled Elisabeth) would, these days, more likely result in a restraining order than a marriage license.

She refused his first proposal in no uncertain terms, writing in a letter, "Jacob, I will never be able to love you." The rejection was momentous, for it prompted the young and poor Riis to move to America in 1870, at age 21, where he hoped that by escaping the strictures of the European class system he would be able to earn his fortune and win over his beloved. But arriving in New York, he had trouble feeding and clothing himself and was, according to his diaries, at times close to suicide. Riis tried out all kinds of jobs before falling into a career as a journalist and finally achieving stability, but he was crushed to learn that Elisabeth had by then fallen in love and become engaged. When her fiancé succumbed to tuberculosis, however, Elisabeth wrote to Riis and accepted his proposal. (This either suggests that there was some charm to his extreme courtship that's lost on contemporary readers or, more likely, shows how very limited women's options were back then.)

"Curiously, Elisabeth almost disappears from Riis' life story once she becomes part of it," Buk-Swienty writes, although their long union seems to have been a happy one. Settled in New York, the energetic and ambitious Riis applied the same intensity he had devoted to wooing Elisabeth to his newfound -- and certainly loftier -- mission, alleviating the harsh conditions of the city's poor, his sensitivity to their plight honed by his brief period living among them. As a police reporter for the New York Tribune, Riis tirelessly made nightly rounds of the city's most dangerous and impoverished blocks, writing urgently about the need for reform. (For a period in the 1890s, he was often accompanied by Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, who became a lifelong ally and friend and once referred to Riis as "New York's most useful citizen.")

More than 50 million Europeans immigrated to America between 1870 and 1920. Manhattan's Lower East Side became the most densely populated area in the world: by 1880 its slums contained one million residents -- a total, as Buk-Swienty notes, "[e]qual to the city's entire population only a decade earlier." The dangerously overcrowded tenements were especially vulnerable to epidemics of typhus, cholera, smallpox, and other diseases, and infant and child mortality rates were extremely high.

Riis was no radical. He believed firmly that if the middle and upper classes of New York were made aware of the wretched conditions in the slums, they would be compelled, as Christians, to help. He feared communism and often warned readers that ignoring the plight of the poor would undermine American values and lead to revolution and anarchy. Buk-Swienty includes a number of fascinating excerpts from Riis's newspaper articles, many of which were clear attempts to humanize the poor even as -- early in his career especially -- they suffered from the sensationalism conventional to journalism during that period. "While his wife and boy were keeping a loving watch for him at the window he was LYING STARK AND a dead dog, as little thought of," Riis wrote of a subway cleaner killed on the job. The Other Half also reproduces a selection of Riis's photographs, and the haunting, arresting images still retain their impact more than a century later.

The great success of How the Other Half Lives increased Riis's influence, and he was eventually more Progressive reformer than muckraking journalist. He achieved a number of victories, most notably the destruction of the infamous Mulberry Bend slum, reborn as a park in 1897. In speculating why Riis, celebrated during his own lifetime, is not more widely known today -- he is virtually forgotten in his native Denmark -- Buk-Swienty explains that Riis's racial and ethnic stereotyping ("All attempts to make an effective Christian of John Chinaman will remain abortive in this generation," went one typical passage) caused How the Other Half Lives to be stricken from curricula after the 1960s.

Of course such crude stereotyping was as conventional at the time as was Riis's sensationalist writing style, and Buk-Swienty is correct in arguing that it shouldn't obscure Riis's importance in the histories of both photojournalism and Progressive-era social reform.

There is a further criticism to be made of Riis's writing: he was an unabashed romantic. He often waxed nostalgic about his childhood in Ribe, despite the cruel fact that ten of his siblings died before reaching adulthood. Buk-Swienty suffers from the same malady, admitting, "The biographer risks romanticizing the life of a subject who himself was prone to the same pitfall as a writer." This caveat hardly makes up for the treacly conclusion that follows: "Still, one may venture that Riis' life is primarily a story of love." Elsewhere, in describing the surprise success of Riis's 1901 autobiography, The Making of an American, Buk-Swienty declares that because of the book, "readers from New York to California fell in love with [Elisabeth] just as Riis had." Riis was most useful when his focus on love was replaced by a focus on work; the same is true of this biography. --Barbara Spindel

Barbara Spindel has covered books for Time Out New York,, Details, and Spin. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393060232
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 8/24/2008
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 714,700
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Tom Buk-Swienty, a Danish historian, has been the U.S. correspondent for several major Danish newspapers. A former Fellow at the Cullman Center of the New York Public Library, he now teaches at the University of Southern Denmark.

Annette Buk-Swienty lives in southern Denmark with her husband, historian Tom Buk-Swienty, and their two children.

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