THE OTHER HALF by Tom Buk-Swienty


The Life of Jacob Riis and the World of Immigrant America
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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 of photography, 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.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-393-06023-2
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 2008


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