JACOB RIIS AND THE AMERICAN CITY by James B. Lane

JACOB RIIS AND THE AMERICAN CITY

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KIRKUS REVIEW

An earnest, straightforward biography of Jacob Riis and his lifelong efforts to focus attention on the plight of urban slum dwellers. Riis, a Danish immigrant who spent several years living from hand to mouth and working at a series of manual jobs, became fascinated and appalled by New York's Lower East Side tenements when he became a police reporter for the Herald working out of Mulberry Street. In 1890 he published How The Other Half Lives, a stark and moving account of the overcrowded, unsanitary and rat-infested tenements where babies died of malnutrition and exposure. A muckraker before the word was coined, Riis was convinced that environment, not innate vice, caused urban crime and depravity. Yet he was a product of his age, sharing the prejudices of reformers and Progressives of the day. Lane admires him but recognizes his ""partial acceptance of racial stereotypes"" -- he slandered the Chinese in particular -- and his middle-class burgher values which stressed hard work and self-help. (""As to the man who will not work, let him starve."") As portrayed by Lane, Riis was a contentious, effusive but compassionate man who mixed sentimentality and outrage in about equal portions. Like his friend Teddy Roosevelt he was a strong nationalist who believed in the Americanization of the polyglot population of New York. Oddly, given Riis' apparently pugnacious and emotional personality, the book, rather like Justin Kaplan's biography of Lincoln Steffens, is somewhat lackluster and one dimensional. Lane does almost nothing with his private life and Riis, the social conscience of New York, is inescapably dated.

Pub Date: Aug. 3rd, 1974
Publisher: Kennikat Press