Review: How the Other Half Lives

Review: How the Other Half Lives

How the Other Half LivesHow the Other Half Lives by Jacob A. Riis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Millions of immigrants came to the United States during Jacob Riis’s lifetime, and a great many of them landed on an island: Manhattan. Sadly, thousands of these hopeful souls ended up on another island: Hart Island, New York City’s potter’s field, where the indigent dead are buried.

This island is still in use, by the way. Twice a week, a ferry comes bearing corpses in simple pine coffins, which are buried in mass graves dug out by bulldozers, with prisoners paid fifty cents an hour acting as pall-bearers. It was only in 2015, almost 150 years after the island began being used as a cemetery, that relatives were given permission to visit the island. Before that, the bodies disappeared completely—off limits to the public, isolated by the sea, out of the sight and out of mind. (Click here to see the New York Times’s excellent story about the island.)

I mention Hart Island, not only because it was already in use back in Jacob Riis’s day (he took a seminal photo of a burial there), but because it is a perfect example of how the city’s poor can be made invisible. In writing this book, Jacob Riis explicitly tried to combat this invisibility. He wanted to bring home to middle-class readers just how bad life in the tenements could be.

Riis was a precursor to the muckraking journalism made famous by Upton Sinclair and his ilk, who came a generation later. In Riis’s case, the term “muckraker” is almost literally accurate, since it was grime he was trying to document. Immigrants from all over the world were pouring into New York City, many of them desperately poor, and housing simply did not keep up with the need. And because there were few building regulations on the books, this resulted in squalid and unsanitary tenements—shabby and dark (many rooms had no windows), and totally packed as families took on lodgers to afford the rent. The overcrowding not only made the buildings fire hazards, but also centers of disease.

Jacob Riis first experienced the plight of the poor when he arrived in New York City fresh from Denmark, aged twenty-one, trying to find work as a carpenter. He struggled for years to get by, occasionally sleeping in police lodging houses alongside beggars and street urchins. When he eventually found his vocation as a journalist, he wound up accompanying the police in nightly patrols of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. He wrote articles about what he saw; and one of them was so successful that he eventually expanded it into How the Other Half Lives.

I must say that this book is not a very compelling read. The prose is fine, but Riis is not a natural story-teller. The writing drifts on in an aimless, impressionistic way, never quite cohering into a cogent overview of the situation. The book itself is somewhat jumbled, with each chapter focusing on one aspect of the poor neighborhoods—stale-beer dives, lodging houses, “street Arabs,” paupers, and so on. You quickly learn that, however indignant Riis may be on behalf of the poor, he is not above racial bigotry. He has an unkind word for nearly every group—Italians, Irish, Jews, Chinese. To his credit, however, he is relatively progressive on the subject of the color line between blacks and whites.

I don’t know if this is true, but I quickly got the impression that Riis never actually spoke with the poor people he took upon himself to document. He mentions a few casual conversations, but no distinct individual emerges. To Riis, the poor seem to be nameless masses, with an ethnicity but not an identity. You occasionally wonder whether Riis is outraged by the injustice of the situation or is simply disgusted by the filth. This complete lack of individual stories contributes to the book’s underwhelming impact. Probably I am judging this book a little harshly, though, since I read this book concurrently with Sinclair’s The Jungle, and the comparison is not flattering for Riis.

There was one area, however, in which Riis excelled: photography. This edition has over one hundred of his photographs, and they are stunning. Riis was able to capture things nobody had before, since he was one of the first field journalists to use flash photography. The early generation of flash cameras used a pistol-like device that was extremely loud and fairly hazardous; twice Riis set fire to the room he was in. Later, he switched to a method that required him to heat the flash powder in a frying pan. The world before smart phones was harsh indeed. Considering these technical limitations, Riis’s photographs are all the more remarkable: candid, dramatic, and sensitive.

It is all too easy to criticize this book from the perspective of the present. Really, Riis is impressive by any measure. He learned English late in life and writes better prose than most of us. He was a brilliant pioneer of photography, and of muckraking journalism. He even had a small hand in the construction of the New Croton Aqueduct, since he documented unsanitary water supplies, as well as the New York Subway, since he was among the reformers who advocated for improved transportation to lessen population density in the slums. Most importantly, despite his flaws, he believed that society had an obligation to its least privileged members, and could not avert its eyes with a clear conscience.

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Review: The Jungle

Review: The Jungle

The JungleThe Jungle by Upton Sinclair

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Every day in New York they slaughter
four million ducks
five million pigs
and two thousand doves for the pleasure of the dying,
a million cows
a million lambs
and two million roosters,
that leave the sky in splinters.

—Federico García Lorca

I expected to dislike this book, because it is a book aimed at provoking outrage. Outrage is a species of anger, and, like all species of anger, it can feel oddly pleasurable. True, anger always contains dissatisfaction of some kind; but anger can also be an enormously enlivening feeling—the feeling that we are infinitely right and our opponents infinitely wrong. Outrage joins with this moral superiority a certain smugness, since we feel outrage on behalf of others, about things that do not affect us personally, and so we can feel satisfied that we would never do something so egregious. Judging from how ephemeral public outrage tends to be, and how infrequently it leads to action, outrage can be, and often is, engaged in for its own sake—as a periodic reminder to ourselves that we are not villains, since villains couldn’t feel so angry at injustice inflicted on so distant a party.

In a way, the history of this book justifies my suspicion. Upton Sinclair spent seven weeks working in the meatpacking industry in Chicago, and wrote a muckraking novel about the experience. An avowed and proud socialist, his aim was to raise public awareness of the terrible conditions of the working poor—to write the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin of wage slavery,” as Jack London called the book. The book did cause a lot of outrage, but not for the intended reasons. The public interpreted the book as an exposé on the unsanitary conditions in the meat factories; and the legislation that resulted was purely to remedy this problem. As Sinclair himself said, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” This is one of those ironies of history that make you want to laugh or cry: a book aimed to publicize the plight of the working poor made an impact solely in the way that working conditions affected the middle class.

About halfway through, I had decided that this was a brilliant piece of journalism and a mediocre novel. But the second half made me revise my opinion: it is a surprisingly decent novel, too. This is impressive, since fiction is not Sinclair’s strength. His characters are, for the most part, one-dimensional and static; in this book they serve as mere loci of pity. Furthermore, they never really come alive, since Sinclair writes almost no dialogue. In the first half, when the protagonists are at work in the yards, the plot is drearily predicable: things go from bad to worse; and, as Shakespeare reminds us, every time you tell yourself “This is the worst,” there is worse yet still to come. But after Jurgis, our hero, finally leaves the meat factories, the novel really comes alive. Things still go from bad to worse, for the most part, but there are some surprising reversals and exciting adventures.

In any case, this book is primarily a work of journalism, and on that level it is absolutely successful. Sinclair is an expert writer. He deploys language with extreme precision; his descriptions are vivid and exact. And what he describes is unforgettable. His portrayal of grinding poverty, and the desperation and despair it drives people to, is almost Dostoyevskyan in its gruesomeness. And unlike that Russian author, Sinclair is very clear that the problem is systematic and social—how decent and hardworking people can fall into an economic trap with no options and no escape. He shows how and why the working poor are free only in theory, how and why the oppressed and exploited are virtually owned by their bosses. And it must be said that his descriptions of factory processes are viscerally disgusting—so disgusting that they do distract a little from Sinclair’s message. The meat factory is the book’s central metaphor: a giant slaughterhouse where hapless animals are herded and butchered. As becomes painfully clear by the end of the book, the working poor are hardly in a better situation than the pigs.

By the end, Sinclair succeeds in producing that rare sensation: reasoned outrage. For there are, of course, situations in which outrage is the only logical response—monstrous injustice and inhuman cruelty—and the working and living conditions in the meatpacking district was one of them. Sinclair succeeds in this by relating facts instead of preaching. (Well, he does some preaching at the end, but it is forgivable.) He does not sentimentalize his characters or exaggerate their nobility; they are ordinary and flawed people. He does not use mawkish or cloying language; his narrative voice is pitiless and cold, like the world he describes. This book is a testament to the positive potential of outrage. The world needs more muckrakers.

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