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Erik Visits an American Grave (X)

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Underneath this rock is buried Jacob Riis. A Danish immigrant, Riis became one of the leading muckrakers of the Progressive Era, exposing the terrible conditions of immigrants and the urban poor in his extremely influential How the Other Half Lives, published in 1890. Particularly important were his photographs of children on the streets. While one might think that rich citizens would have seen these images with their own eyes walking or riding through the city, the reality was that the citizens of rich and poor neighborhoods generally didn’t interact very much. The other half might live 1/2 mile away, but that was another world. Riis himself had several hard years after immigrating to the U.S. in 1870. Poverty was something he understood personally, not just as a sociological abstract. The book caught the attention of Theodore Roosevelt and the two became fast friends. Riis’ ideas became highly influential in the world of Progressive reform, which blossomed nationally after the ascendancy of Roosevelt to the presidency in 1901. Riis retired to a farm near Barre, Massachusetts in 1905 after his first wife died and he remarried. He died in 1914.

Jacob Riis is buried at Riverside Cemetery, just off a dirt road in the hills outside of Barre, Massachusetts.

The other half may live one way, but we all end up the same in the end.

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  • jim, some guy in iowa

    Roosevelt seems like such a contradictory kind of guy- on the whole you (I) would expect him to say the poor were just weak, and let them rot

    the last line reminds me of something a neighbor said about one of the big-time operators who was busy buying up farms: “we all end up with the same amount of land in the cemetery”

    • Well, guys like Roosevelt grew up in a generation where their parents were actually saying “let the poor rot.” And they saw the societal instability that created. In many ways, Progressives were acting to correct the mistakes of their parents in order to create a smoothly ordered modern capitalism, fearing that not doing so would allow radicalism to fester.

      Progressivism is of course more complicated than that, but in short, it’s accurate.

      • N__B

        I agree with your point in general, but wasn’t TR’s father somewhat better than that? Philanthropist or some such?

        • They were old money and there was more of that than among the Rockefellers and such, yes.

          • N__B

            Yeah, Dutch-ancestry NYers tend to be very old money.

            I guess my reaction stems from the fact that I prefer paternalistic philanthropy to the robber baron mentality. And it seems to me that those were the two choices on offer in the mid- and late-1800.

      • jim, some guy in iowa

        self defense rather than a home grown version of the white man’s burden, I take it

        been a long time since I read any bio of Roosevelt and I’m sure whatever serious discussion of his politics there was went over my head

        • On a personal level, TR is a complex, weird, and deeply disturbed individual. Quite possibly he had untreated mental disorders. He very much enjoyed killing.

          • heckblazer

            And yet his Teddy Bear still managed to outlast Taft’s Billy Possum.

    • muddy

      He was sickly as a child, probably gave him empathy he might not have otherwise had in his station.

  • Redbeard

    There was a short story by Tolstoy, I think, titled “How Much Land Does A Man Need?”
    And the final sentence is much like the final sentence in this post.

    Thanks for pointing this out. In the past, I’ve bought food from a farm in Barre. It might be worth taking a look at the Riis grave next time I’m there.

  • Woodrowfan

    and “How the Other Half Lives” is still in print.

    • joe from Lowell

      It was a textbook in an AmCiv class I took as an undergrad.

  • slothrop

    Tusind tak, Prof. Loomis.

  • joe from Lowell

    While one might think that rich citizens would have seen these images with their own eyes walking or riding through the city, the reality was that the citizens of rich and poor neighborhoods generally didn’t interact very much. The other half might live 1/2 mile away, but that was another world.

    We learned about this in city planning school. The Gilded Age cities would feature vibrants storefronts along the commuter routes that the street cars would use, with the poor neighborhoods behind on the sides streets.

  • furred fury

    ‘When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at
    his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it.
    Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two,
    and I know it was not that blow that did it,
    but all that had gone before.’
    — Jacob Riis (1849 – 1914)

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