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Review: Tom Buk-Swienty details life of journalist/reformer Jacob Riis in 'The Other Half'

It is difficult to resist a biography about an iconic muckraker when its prologue ends by promising the story "of how a young man, a poor carpenter from a small, isolated medieval town in Denmark . . . left his homeland because of a disastrous romance, only to become one of the most well-known and most admired reformers in the United States — in fact, 'the ideal American,' in the words of a great president . . ."

Tom Buk-Swienty, a Danish historian, has composed this immigrant saga focusing on one of his most famous countrymen, Jacob Riis (1849-1914).

Although he became famous in the United States upon publication of his book How the Other Half Lives in 1890, Riis has been largely forgotten in this country and had never achieved renown in Denmark. Buk-Swienty had never heard of Riis until becoming an exchange student at the University of California-Santa Barbara in 1989.

Later, as a journalist covering the United States, Buk-Swienty received an assignment from Copenhagen to write about an exhibition of Riis' photographs at the Museum of the City of New York. He began to delve deeply into the life of the man whose words and photographs indelibly exposed the deplorable conditions in New York City's tenement housing.

Riis lived a relatively comfortable life in Denmark, but traveled to the United States in 1870 primarily because of his despair at failing to win the love of a teenage girl named Elisabeth Nielsen.

Riis was fluent in English but failed to grasp the difficulty of earning a living wage in the United States. For nearly three years, he wandered from town to town, sometimes nearing starvation or death from exposure, even considering suicide.

When he unexpectedly obtained a job as a journalist in New York City, Riis began to stabilize his life. The skilled translation of Buk-Swienty's Danish manuscript yields a compelling account of how Riis frequently put his life in danger on the New York City police beat, venturing into high-crime territory inhabited by desperate men, women and children.

A special strength of the narrative is the explanation of how Riis became a first-rate photographer despite a lack of formal training and the inadequacies of equipment to capture images in the darkness of the tenements.

Buk-Swienty offers excellent context about Riis' role in the development of what today is called investigative reporting. The book also grapples successfully with the conundrums of a reporter shedding objectivity to become a committed reformer of socioeconomic ills.

When the narrative is not gritty, it is frequently touching. Not only did Riis achieve fame and influence as a writer, he also eventually married Elisabeth and brought her from Denmark to the United States, where they became parents of a large family.

Steve Weinberg is author, most recently, of "Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller."

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

Tom Buk-Swienty, translated by Annette Buk-Swienty

W.W. Norton, 448 pages, $27.95

Review: Tom Buk-Swienty details life of journalist/reformer Jacob Riis in 'The Other Half' 08/20/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 2, 2010 1:26pm]
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