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

Article excerpt

Buk-Swienty, Tom. The Other Half: The Life of Jacob Riis and the World of Immigrant America. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2008. 349 pp. $27.95.

The author of this book, like the subject about whom he so eloquently writes, is from Denmark; yet, as he mentions in the preface, he had never heard of Jacob Riis until he was a Danish exchange student at the University of California-Santa Barbara. "It was 1989, and I was taking an American history course on the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era. . . . The professor spoke at length about a Danish American journalist, one Jacob Riis, who had been one of the first muckrakers . . . and had written a groundbreaking book about the deplorable living conditions in New York City's tenements called How the Other Half Lives." Tom Buk-Swienty discovered that Riis was relatively unknown in his native country and, desiring to learn more about him, read his book and then saw his photographs in a museum. He purchased Jacob A. Riis: Photographer & Citizen, read the chapter on his life, and decided that he would write a complete biography of him.

This book presents the life of Riis, who was born in Ribe, Denmark, in 1849 and immigrated to the United States in 1870. Although he focuses primarily on his life in the United States, Buk-Swienty discusses Riis' life in Ribe, a small town next to the Ribe River. His father did not earn much of a living, and indeed, the family experienced hardship more than once. Several members died after birth, and several died from tuberculosis.

Riis was exposed to journalism when he helped his father publish a weekly newspaper. Later, he spent four years in Copenhagen apprenticing to a carpenter and hoped to make catpentry his career when he set sail for the United States. However, the United States was experiencing a weak economy, and he could not find employment as a carpenter and grew homesick. In order to survive, he took various jobs and slept in alleys, barns, and police stations, journeying from New York City to Philadelphia to Dexterville, New York, where he lived with a family from Denmark. After several miserable years, he found employment with the New York News Association. …