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How the Other Half Lives: The Portrayal of Jacob Riis’ Essay

The portrayal of Jacob Riis’ views through his book ‘How the Other Half Lives,’ is conveyed by storytelling and is largely made of logos, however the key component is actually ethos, like a politician running a campaign, Jacob Riis’s uses logos and pathos to create a persona of authority on the topic of the poor in New York City. I am going to look in depth on how Riis uses different approaches to convey his views to his audience: why does do some of Riis’ key texts contradict each other? Is he conscious of if? Is it brilliant?

Infested with experiences and resentment like the rats in the tenements of contemporary New York City, Riis argues that the other half: the good living half; does not care about the struggles of the other half: who are poor and unfortunate. Riis says, “Long ago it was said that ‘one half of the world does not know how the other half lives.’ That was true then. It did not know because it did not care. The half that was on top cared little for the struggles and less for the fate of those who were underneath,” Riis argues that contemporary New York City society lacks fairness, equality of opportunity and sympathy for the other half.

Riis brings to light: the Italians, Chinese, Jews, Blacks and Bohemians in descriptions of their habits, tradition, jobs and wages, rents paid and meals eaten, and explores the effects of crime, poverty, alcohol, and lack of education and opportunity on adults and children alike. Riis says “problem of children…makes one feel aghast”, (135) here he shows personal view and sympathy for children and the future. Riis has shined a light on all these minorities that make up “the other half,” maybe he belongs with the greats like Martin Luther King.

However, after analyzing some key texts, one cannot help but discover that Riis work is rather contradictory. For example Riis says “unlike the German, who begins learning English the day he lands as a matter of duty, or the Polish Jew, who takes it up as soon as he is able as an investment, the Italian learns slowly, if at all” (92), By referring to Italians that way, Riis gives the effect that he holds a grudge against them. Riis’s argument evidently: in his photos and texts, classifies immigrant Italians as one of the victims, but the while achieving that he uses such stereo-typical language towards the Italians. Therefore I have gathered that Riis’s work is wildly contradictory and morally schizophrenic.

While this conception of Riis treats his contradictions in more sophisticated and perhaps more plausible ways than many writers, he is still perceived as a writer eager to promote the middle class and his membership of it. While both approaches offer important information, both represent Riis in terms that are rather simple and narrow intellectually, psychologically, and, above all, rhetorically; terms that do not account adequately for the individual and his work. Perhaps the major flaw in both is the overly simple reading of the “I” who speaks for Riis throughout his works. Proponents of both conceptions assume that Riis, in all his first-person commentary on the tenement poor, is oblivious to the ambiguities in his own self-portrayal.

From this perspective, Riis’ narrative “I” lacks any capacity for self-detachment: his “I” speaks merely as Jacob Riis, in an ingenuous fashion free of conscious artifice, dissimulation, ambiguity, and, certainly, of irony. Whatever tensions or oppositions scholars find are explained as products of his sloppy thinking or of his pandering to the middle class. So, when this “I” speaks of himself and his polite audience as “we” in contrast to the “they” of “the other half,” both sides assume that Riis allies himself consistently and whole-heartedly with his audience.

However persuading a largely hostile audience to take a sympathetic view point toward the immigrant was a daunting task especially since Riis was an immigrant himself. It would require not only a sophisticated awareness of the audience, especially of its ethnic assumptions, but a refined understanding of the writer-audience dynamic and how it operates-more specifically, how it might be manipulated. Therefore because of the success of Jacob Riis one has to wonder maybe he is conscious of his contradictions, maybe he is indeed brilliant.

The extent to which Jacob Riis can be charged with anti-Semitism is really elevated but in the text: Richard Tuerk, “Jacob Riis and the Jews,” But I am not going to talk about that since I made the statement that I made about the success Riis’s of contradictions. But I shall now focus on how Riis uses pathos and logos to address the situation faced by immigrant women. The issue of immigrant women and children is a somewhat sensitive subject to Riis. He discusses the degradation and oppression, and lack of equal rights for immigrant women. Riis’ reworking of the nativist image of the immigrant mother was fundamental to the rhetorical power of his lectures and texts. That reworking was extremely influential.

In battle with the slum, Riis maintained that “there is nothing better in all the world” than “the mother heart” (251) and he defined his task as reformer to be the institution of a normative family life among the immigrants, a task vital to the well-being of the state: “Unsafest of all is anything or deed that strikes at the home, for from the people’s home proceeds citizen virtue, and nowhere else does it live” (7). Suppose a writer can be distanced from writing. Riis’ would take his blank paper, crumble it as a symbol of frustration or resentment or ethos and throw it in the dumpster somewhere in the tenements of New York City as a symbol of evidence or logos. Riis has a connection with home, but more-so home has always had a metonymical connection with mothers.

In Joel Schwartz: “Moral reform and Americas Urban poor,” Riis’ ethnocentrism becomes apparent, perhaps that provides a qualified defense for his attitudes towards immigrants. In a nutshell, Riis’ work is very controversial yet that can be appeased by the positives and the brilliance of the message. There is no perfect man in this world, but the difference that one’s work has in society makes greats like Jacob Riis and his book ‘How the Other Half Lives.’


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