Jacob Riis and Double Consciousness: The Documentary/Ethnic "I" in How the Other Half Lives

By Hug, Bill | Ethnic Studies Review, January 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Jacob Riis and Double Consciousness: The Documentary/Ethnic "I" in How the Other Half Lives


Hug, Bill, Ethnic Studies Review


"Contradictory" is the watchword in scholarship on Danish-American photojournalist Jacob Riis. "Wildly contradictory, morally schizophrenic": so Keith Gandal describes Riis' work (18). "A deeply contradictory figure [...] a conservative activist and a skillful entertainer who presented controversial ideas in a compelling but ultimately comforting manner": such is the assessment of Riis offered by Bonnie Yochelson and Daniel Czitrom (xv). "The typical Victorian moralist," but also the Progressive-so Tom Buk-Swienty proclaims him (239, XIII).

These assertions point up perhaps the central issue in the relatively small amount of scholarly work on Riis since his rediscovery by Alexander Alland in 1947. How does one resolve the contradictions, in his photos and texts, between protest of the plight of the ethnic urban poor and acceptance of pejorative nativist assumptions about them? Until the 1980s, scholars usually did so by emphasizing the apparent haziness of Riis' thought. According to Roy Lubove in The Progressives and the Slums, Riis' social theorizing was "unsystematic[...] almost impressionistic"(49); Charles Madison, editor of the 1 970 Dover edition of How the Other Half Lives, calls Riis' sociological thought "relatively unsophisticated and[...] limited"(vii). To these scholars, Riis seems oblivious to the conflicting portrayals of the poor in his works.

Recent commentators have sometimes been harsher, seeing the tensions as reflections of Riis' systematic efforts to project himself as spokesperson for the emerging American middle class. Scholars such as Maren Stange, Sally Stein, and Gandal regard Riis' work as canny exercises in definition by opposition: by portraying the ethnic tenement dwellers from the smugly condescending standpoint of the American middle class, the writer affirms their status, authority, and Christian charity, and-most importantly-his own affiliation with them. For Maren Stange, Riis is the "consummate publicist" for the American bourgeoisie, eager to ally himself with them (5). Sally Stein is more blunt, portraying Riis as "one of a long succession of professional informers manufacturing vast amounts and kinds of information [about the urban poor] to assuage and intensify [middle class] fantasies" (10). Gandal's conception of Riis presents a variation on this theme. He describes Riis' social vision as the mixture of two opposed but complementary ethical approaches: one, the traditional Protestant commitment to moral principle maintained through discipline (personal as well as institutional); the other, a modern, technology-andmedia-based promotion of "spectacle," the American public's emerging preoccupation with looking at others and being looked at themselves. In other words, tenement dwellers' eagerness to be seen, reflected in their frequent desire to be photographed, might well be employed to promote their own moral development. While this conception of Riis treats his contradictions in more sophisticated and perhaps more plausible ways than do those of Stange or Stein, Gandal still perceives Riis in essentially the same fashion as these other scholars- -as a writer eager to promote the middle class and his membership of it. If earlier commentary portrays Riis as a naif, unaware of his own contradictions, these contemporary scholars depict him as a bourgeois assimilationist.

While both approaches offer important information, both represent Riis in terms that are rather simple and narrow intellectually, psychologically, and, above all, rhetorically; terms that do not account adequately for the individual and his work. Perhaps the major flaw in both is the overly simple reading of the "I" who speaks for Riis throughout his works. Proponents of both conceptions assume that Riis, in all his first-person commentary on the tenement poor, is oblivious to the ambiguities in his own self- portrayal. From this perspective, Riis' narrative "I" lacks any capacity for self -detachment: his "I" speaks merely as Jacob Riis, in an ingenuous fashion free of conscious artifice, dissimulation, ambiguity, and, certainly, of irony. …

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