Wednesday, February 16, 2011
February 16, 2011: Half Lives
I’ll be the first to admit that I have a hard time wrapping my own head around, much less writing about or teaching, the depths of poverty in which so many Americans have lived throughout our existence and continue to live today. That difficulty is at least a bit ironic, since as a professor of (among other things) Ethnic American Literature I spend quite a bit of time teaching and writing about authors and communities whose American identities and experiences are, despite shared and core similarities for which I will argue until my last breath, quite distinct from my own in many ways. And yet while I would never claim to be able to speak for what a Frederick Douglass, a Sarah Winnemucca, a Gloria Anzaldúa experienced or lived, it is for whatever reason with significantly more hesitation still that I write about the identities and worlds of those (of any race or ethnicity, any gender, any community) in the American underclass.
Part of the reason, I think, is that it’s so hard, for those of us who have been fortunate enough not to experience poverty in our own lives and who likewise have not in our professional careers engaged in any specific or experiential way with these harshest economic realities, not to speak in abstractions or generalities, not to lapse into politics or sociology. There’s no one surefire way to counter that tendency, short of going to live for a month at a homeless shelter or the equivalent (and even then, it seems to me that living in poverty as an experiment is as different from living in it as a swimming pool is from the Pacific); but certainly it helps, from an AmericanStudies perspective at least, to turn to those American authors and artists and reformers who have worked to depict with particular sensitivity and accuracy these most desperate and difficult conditions and existences. And near the top of that list by any measure has to be the Danish American reformer, journalist, and photographer Jacob Riis (1849-1914), and most especially his complex but indispensable masterwork How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (1890).
Riis, who immigrated to the US at the age of 21 and worked for many years as a journeyman laborer, experiencing significant poverty in his own right, before making his way into the newspaper trade, is a worthy nominee for the Hall of American Inspiration for sure. He was a pioneer of the use of flash photography in America, was one of the first muckraking social journalists and a model for many Progressive writers of the next generation, and fought for poor and working Americans and for relevant necessary urban causes and reforms throughout his career and life. But even if he were only to be remembered for Other Half, it should be sufficient to ensure him a place in our national narratives and histories. The book is not without its flaws, most especially in its stereotyping portrayals of ethnic minorities such as the Chinese. But in its incredible depth and density of detail, its painstaking accuracy about places and living conditions (including extensive sketches and layouts produced on site by Riis), its use of photographs to ground that work in images as well as words more than in any prior American text, and, perhaps most impressively, in Riis’s ability to push past whatever generalities and images and narratives existed in his own head about these communities and lives and to engage with and represent the realities of their existences on their own terms (again, not for every community with equal success, but for most of those on wfhich he focuses), the book stands alone, in its own era and in many ways into the century and a quarter that has followed.
A former colleague of mine used to note how much more easily we Americanists engage with issues of race and ethnicity than we do those of class, and to push me to include the latter more fully in my understandings and analyses of our national culture and histories and identities. As we move ever more fully into what must be called—and I’m always wary of historical comparisons and analogies, but I find this one entirely convincing—another Gilded Age, I have to say that he was and is right. I can’t pretend to know much of what it means to be part of the “other half” in 2011, but I can do the best I can to remember and understand and (ideally and crucially) empathize with those lives; and Riis remains a very meaningful voice in that process. More tomorrow, on two underrated 21st century films that, taken together, depict the most ideal and most tragic realities of immigration and America.
PS. Three links to start with:
1) The full text of Other Half: http://www.bartleby.com/208/
2) A great slideshow of Riis’s photographs: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma01/davis/photography/images/riisphotos/slideshow1.html
3) OPEN: Any voices or texts that you’d say can help in that process?