Jacob Riis: Social Reformer

By Dewey, Donald | Scandinavian Review, Autumn 2006 | Go to article overview

Jacob Riis: Social Reformer


Dewey, Donald, Scandinavian Review


The Danish-born journalist's campaign to clean up the slums of New York City owed as much to a brutally slain dog as to moral principles.

EVEN THOSE WHO KNOW MORE ABOUT JACOB RIIS THAN the parks and housing developments named after him in New York City rarely see him in color. He is one with the black-and-white photographs he took of the city's slums at the end of the 19th century, indivisible from his grim newspaper and book denunciations of official indifference toward people reduced to living in soleless shoes. But in fact the Denmark-born muckraker was the first to admit that two vital propellents for his campaigns against such social blights as hovel living, child labor and sweatshops, and the collusive role of political and police corruption in all of them, were melodramatically technicolor emotions- his transatlantic love for a woman and his resolve to avenge the brutal killing of a dog.

This is not to suggest that Riis was a romantic. To the end of his life (1849-1914), he remained skeptical of the permanence of the reforms he himself had been so instrumental in bringing about. With a couple of conspicuous exceptions, he trusted the powerful only to be powerful, their altruistic gestures the afterthoughts of political guile. Asked once about the prospects for a landlord tax that would help finance the hiring of more health workers, he replied sarcastically that he was pessimistic about any measure that did "violence to the Anglo-Saxon reverence for property." But his despair-tinged experiences on two continents had also exposed him to the credo that tomorrow had to make up for today, no matter how many tomorrows it took. As he once confessed: "When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before." Love and vengeance were equally belated payoffs, though in neither case exactly how he had anticipated. Riis matriculated in many of his adult concerns while growing up in the southwestern Danish city of Ribe. Being the third of 14 children (plus a cousin from a deceased aunt), he learned quickly about living in crowded conditions. He also learned about tragedy when, except for two sisters, all his siblings died before completing adolescence, six of them because of tuberculosis. While the family usually scraped by shy of impoverishment, there was seldom little left over from the earnings of Riis's school teacher father Niels, a stern man with strong Lutheran beliefs who sought to supplement his income by editing the local newspaper. One winter even that wasn't enough, and the family was forced to endure the Nordic cold without overcoats. (Jacob's resilient response was to challenge his school friends to join him in a Spartan Club where none of the boys wore heavy clothing.)

A MEDIOCRE STUDENT OTHERWISE, RIIS DISCOVERED IN RIBE two foreign novelists who would exert heavy influences on him-James Fennimore Cooper, whose American Indian characters stirred a fascination for the United States, and the master chronicler of the needy, Charles Dickens. There, too, he came across his first tenement. As he described what was known locally as Rag Hall: "It was a ramshackle, two-story affair with shiftless tenants and ragged children. . . . I think it likely it was the contrast of its desolation with the green hills and fields I loved, of its darkness and human misery and inefficiency with the valiant fighting men of my boyish dreams, that so impressed me."

Riis was so impressed that he donated all his Christmas gift money at the age of 12 to a poor Ribe family. It wasn't his only surprise move as a preteen. Just as his father was deciding Jacob's infatuation with Cooper and Dickens earmarked him for a literary career, the boy announced he wanted to be a carpenter. This didn't sit too well with the elder Riis, whose teaching and editing were as close as he had gotten to his own writing aspirations, but he couldn't deny the practicality of the career choice. …

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