Corruption With A Growl

Excerpted from Jacob Riis’ autobiography, The Making of an American, ©1901:

You bring up the people slowly to a reform programme, particularly when it costs money. They will pay for corruption with a growl, but seem to think that virtue ought always to be had for nothing. It makes the politicians’ game easy. They steal the money for improvements, and predict that reform will raise the tax-rate. When the prophecy comes true, they take the people back in their sheltering embrace with an “I told you so!” and the people nestle there repentant.

When the investment bankers manipulated the market for their personal gain, requiring a trillion dollars in bailout money to cover their losses, there was no real debate:  the money was instantly available.

People are dying and going bankrupt  from lack of affordable health care, but that, we are told, costs too much money.

Jacob Riis, buried more than a century ago, would not be surprised.

All of his books are in the public domain and may be downloaded freely from Project Gutenberg, HERE.

(One question I am seldom asked is, “So, what are you reading these days?”)


“Joyless children do not make good men.”

One of the causes Jacob Riis championed was building playgrounds for New York’s children:

I wanted the sunlight in there, but so that it might shine on the children at play. That is a child’s right, and it is not to be cheated of it. And when it is cheated of it, it is not the child but the community that is robbed of that beside which all its wealth is but tinsel and trash. For men, not money, make a country great, and joyless children do not make good men.

His autobiography, The Making of an American– and all of his books– are in the public domain and may be downloaded from Project Gutenberg, HERE.

Loving Sympathy

“What if, when the poor leper came to the Lord to be healed, he had said to Peter, or some other understrapper, ‘Here, Peter, you go touch that fellow and I’ll pay you for it’? Or what if the Lord, when he came on earth, had come a day at a time and brought his lunch with him, and had gone home to heaven overnight? Would the world ever have come to call him brother? We have got to give, not our old clothes, not our prayers. Those are cheap. You can kneel down on a carpet and pray where it is warm and comfortable. Not our soup–that is sometimes very cheap. Not our money–a stingy man will give money when he refuses to give himself. Just so soon as a man feels that you sit down alongside of him in loving sympathy with him, notwithstanding his poor, notwithstanding his sick and his debased, estate, just so soon you begin to worm your way into the very warmest spot in his life.” ~Dr. Charles H. Parkhurst, as quoted by Jacob A. Riis in his autobiography The Making of an American

Two Pins

Jacob A. Riis writes in his autobiography of his life of poverty upon arriving as an immigrant in America, and how it affected his decision later in life to become a newspaper reporter:

It was under such auspices that I made the acquaintance of Mulberry Bend, the Five Points, and the rest of the slum, with which there was in the years to come to be a reckoning. For half a lifetime afterward they were my haunts by day and by night, as a police reporter, and I can fairly lay claim, it seems to me, to a personal knowledge of the evil I attacked. I speak of this because, in a batch of reviews of A Ten Years’ War [Footnote: Now, The Battle with the Slum.] which came yesterday from my publishers to me there is one which lays it all to “maudlin sensitiveness” on my part.

“The slum,” says this writer, “is not at all so unspeakably vile,” and measures for relief based on my arraignment “must be necessarily abortive.” Every once in a while I am asked why I became a newspaper man. For one thing, because there were writers of such trash, who, themselves comfortably lodged, have not red blood enough in their veins to feel for those to whom everything is denied, and not sense enough to make out the facts when they see them, or they would not call playgrounds, schoolhouses, and better tenements “abortive measures.” Some one had to tell the facts; that is one reason why I became a reporter. And I am going to stay one until the last of that ilk has ceased to discourage men from trying to help their fellows by the shortest cut they can find, whether it fits in a theory or not. I don’t care two pins for all the social theories that were ever made unless they help to make better men and women by bettering their lot. I have had cranks of that order, who rated as sensible beings in the ordinary affairs of life, tell me that I was doing harm rather than good by helping improve the lot of the poor; it delayed the final day of justice we were waiting for. Not I. I don’t propose to wait an hour for it, if I can help bring it on; and I know I can.

The Making of an American, A Ten Years’ War,  and all of Jacob Riis’ other books, are in the public domain and may be downloaded from Project Gutenberg, HERE.

Blue Overcoat

In this excerpt from his autobiography, The Making of an American ©1901, Jacob Riis recalls an incident as a young man in Denmark:

The third day after I reached the capital, which happened to be my birthday, I had appointed a meeting with my student brother at the art exhibition in the palace of Charlottenborg. I found two stairways running up from the main entrance, and was debating in my mind which to take, when a handsome gentleman in a blue overcoat asked, with a slight foreign accent, if he could help me. I told him my trouble, and we went up together.

We walked slowly and carried on quite an animated conversation; that is to say, I did. His part of it was confined mostly to questions, which I was no way loath to answer. I told him about myself and my plans; about the old school, and about my father, whom I took it for granted he knew; for was he not the oldest teacher in the school, and the wisest, as all Ribe could testify? He listened to it all with a curious little smile, and nodded in a very pleasant and sympathetic way which I liked to see. I told him so, and that I liked the people of Copenhagen well; they seemed so kind to a stranger, and he put his hand on my arm and patted it in a friendly manner that was altogether nice. So we arrived together at the door where the red lackey stood.

He bowed very deep as we entered, and I bowed back, and told my friend that there was an example of it; for I had never seen the man before. At which he laughed outright, and, pointing to a door, said I would find my brother in there, and bade me good-by. He was gone before I could shake hands with him; but just then my brother came up, and I forgot about him in my admiration of the pictures.

We were resting in one of the rooms an hour later, and I was going over the events of the day, telling all about the kind stranger, when in he came, and nodded, smiling at me.

“There he is,” I cried, and nodded too. To my surprise, Sophus got up with a start and salaamed in haste.

“Good gracious!” he said, when the stranger was gone. “You don’t mean to say he was your guide? Why, that was the King, boy!”

I was never so astonished in my life and expect never to be again. I had only known kings from Hans Christian Andersen’s story books, where they always went in coronation robes, with long train and pages, and with gold crowns on their heads. That a king could go around in a blue overcoat, like any other man, was a real shock to me that I didn’t get over for a while. But when I got to know more of King Christian, I liked him all the better for it. You couldn’t help that anyhow. His people call him “the good king” with cause. He is that.

All of Jacob Riis’ books are in the public domain and may be downloaded freely from Project Gutenberg, HERE.

“A Great Doer”

Photographer Jacob A. Riis published his autobiography, The Making of an American, in 1901.  He died 13 years later in 1914, and a eulogy written by Theodore Roosevelt was included as an introduction when the book was republished in 1924.

I think this says a lot about both men:

It is difficult for me to write of Jacob Riis only from the public standpoint. He was one of my truest and closest friends. I have ever prized the fact that once, in speaking of me, he said, “Since I met him he has been my brother.” I have not only admired and respected him beyond measure, but I have loved him dearly, and I mourn him as if he were one of my own family.

But this has little to do with what I wish to say. Jacob Riis was one of those men who by his writings contributed most to raising the standard of unselfishness, of disinterestedness¹, of sane and kindly good citizenship, in this country. But in addition to this he was one of the few great writers for clean and decent living and for upright conduct who was also a great doer. He never wrote sentences which he did not in good faith try to act whenever he could find the opportunity for action. He was emphatically a “doer of the word,” and not either a mere hearer or a mere preacher. Moreover, he was one of those good men whose goodness was free from least taint of priggishness or self-righteousness. He had a white soul; but he had the keenest sympathy for his brethren who stumbled and fell. He had the most flaming intensity of passion for righteousness, but he also had kindliness and a most humorously human way of looking at life and a sense of companionship with his fellows. He did not come to this country until he was almost a young man; but if I were asked to name a fellow man who came nearest to being the ideal American citizen, I should name Jacob Riis.

~From  The Outlook, June 6, 1914

Jacob Riis’ books are in the public domain and may be downloaded freely from Project Gutenberg, HERE.

¹Today we we would use the word “impartiality.”