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?”)
Jacob Riis on faith:
I had the feeling, and have it still, that if you are trying to do the things which are right, and which you were put here to do, you can and ought to leave ways and means to Him who drew the plans, after you have done your own level best to provide. Always that, of course. If then things don’t come out right, it is the best proof in the world, to my mind, that you have got it wrong, and you have only to hammer away waiting for things to shape themselves, as they are bound to do, and let in the light. For nothing in all this world is without a purpose, and least of all what you and I are doing, though we may not be able to make it out. I got that faith from my mother, and it never put her to shame, so she has often told me.
Or, to rephrase it into the parlance of my youth, “Keep On Truckin’.”
This was excerpted from his autobiography, The Making of an American ©1901, which may be downloaded for free from Project Gutenberg.
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.
“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
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.
I’m reading Jacob Riis autobiography and came to a part where he mentioned knowing Hans Christian Anderson. I was amazed- then I remembered that when he wrote this book in 1901 he was already an old man, recounting a story from his youth. It’s written in such an easy, conversational style that I lost track of the centuries:
Speaking of Hans Christian Andersen, we boys loved him as a matter of course; for had he not told us all the beautiful stories that made the whole background of our lives? They do that yet with me, more than you would think. The little Christmas tree and the hare that made it weep by jumping over it because it was so small, belong to the things that come to stay with you always. I hear of people nowadays who think it is not proper to tell children fairy-stories. I am sorry for those children. I wonder what they will give them instead. Algebra, perhaps. Nice lot of counting machines we shall have running the century that is to come! But though we loved Andersen, we were not above playing our pranks upon him when occasion offered. In those days Copenhagen was girt about with great earthen walls, and there were beautiful walks up there under the old lindens. On moonlight nights when the smell of violets was in the air, we would sometimes meet the poet there, walking alone. Then we would string out irreverently in Indian file and walk up, cap in hand, one after another, to salute him with a deeply respectful “Good evening, Herr Professor!” That was his title. His kind face would beam with delight, and our proffered fists would be buried in the very biggest hand, it seemed to us, that mortal ever owned,–Andersen had very large hands and feet,–and we would go away gleefully chuckling and withal secretly ashamed of ourselves. He was in such evident delight at our homage.
The Making of an American— and all of Jacob Riis’ other books– are in the public domain and may be downloaded from Project Gutenberg, HERE. Hans Christian Anderson’s parable of the Christmas Fir is online HERE.
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.”