Friday, March 17, 2006

ANIMALCULE AND HOMONOCULUS. Just read How The Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis. Riis is of course well under our American skin by now, partly because of the famous photos he took while assiduously documenting the slum conditions of lower Manhattan as a pioneer photojournalist of the late 19th Century. (One of my old bands, Lancaster County Prison, used his photo of Bandit's Roost for the back cover of our first album.) Riis was Danish, and from all I can tell his English is largely self-taught; his prose is stiff, but his style beautifully suits the earnestness of his mission and temperment. Here is a lovely example from his autobiography, The Making of an American, in which Riis, who flailed through several occupations before dragging himself upon the perch of Reformer, describes the issue of a job peddling furniture in upstate New York:
I got home in time to assist in the winding up of the concern. The iron-clad contracts had done the business. My customers would not listen to explanations. When told that the price of these tables was lower than the cost of working up the wood, they replied that it was none of their business. They had their contracts. The Allegheny man threatened suit, if I remember rightly, and the firm gave up. Nobody blamed me, for I had sold according to orders; but instead of $450 which I had figured out as my commission, I got seventy-five cents. It was half of what my employer had. He divided squarely, and I could not in reason complain.
"I could not in reason complain" -- Riis is an accommodating soul, and as he accommodated his employer's needs with his own, notwithstanding the wretched, disadvantageous state in which that bargain left him, in How the Other Half Lives Riis similarly accommodates the outrage of slum misery to what he takes to be the American bargain, that is, assimilation as the price of human dignity. The inhumanity of the tenement was to Riis a result of disorder, and for him the chief disorder was that of the inchoate, pan-European mob that peopled the Fifth Ward and thereabouts:
The one thing you shall vainly ask for in the chief city of America is a distinctively American community. There is none; certainly not among the tenements. Where have they gone to, the old inhabitants?... They are not here. In their place has come this queer conglomerate mass of heterogeneous elements, ever striving and working like whiskey and water in o glass, and with the like result: final union and a prevailing taint of whiskey.
Riis' characterizations of the various unassimilated downtown ethnics are hard on modern ears. Among the Jews, "The old women are hags; the young, houris... thrift is the watchword of Jewtown, and of its people the world over." The "tractability" of the Italian is noted: "he is welcomed as the tenant who 'makes less trouble' than the contentious Irishman or the order-loving German"; also, "as the Chinaman hides his knife in his sleeve and the Italian his stiletto in the bosom, so the negro goes to the ball with a razor in his bootleg, and on occasion does as much execution with it as both of the others together." In every event these people are pictured as childish and prone to anima that overwhelm common sense, and on those occasions when common sense prevails, Riis sees the victory as much over the man's blood as over himself.

It is plain that Riis saw and drew this little world in the simplest terms, and simple also was his diagnosis and his prescription: he saw the slum itself as an agent of dissolution, and had faith (and some evidence) that the reformation of the slum would lead to the reformation of its inhabitants into something more, as he saw it, American. And lo, his work did help to reform the tenements, and good things did come from that.

Sociologically, we have to see Riis now as a primitive who succeeded, as all scientific pioneers do, by means of metaphor -- like the Leeuwenhoeks who found "animalcules" in water and began to dream of their relationship to the larger world. We who value the metaphor itself, and the record of progress of a human mind struggling to fathom the uncomprehended, can get still more from Riis. His chunky prose is a pleasure to me even when it eddies in sloughs of prejudice, and because its author is a good man looking not to slither comfortably along a Bell Curve but to find the harder way to truth, he often transcends the surly bonds of social work, and ascends to literature, carving a path for Dreiser (another blockish writer), Crane, Algren, Di Donato, and many another:
A man stood at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Fourteenth Street the other day, looking gloomily at the carriages that rolled by, carrying the wealth and fashion of the avenues to and from the big stores down town. He was poor, and hungry, and ragged. This thought was in his mind: "They behind their well-fed teams have no thought for the morrow; they know hunger only by name, and ride down to spend in an hours shopping what would keep me and my little ones from want a whole year." There rose up before him the picture of those little ones crying for bread around the cold and cheerless hearth -- then he sprang into the throng and slashed about him with a knife, blindly seeking to kill, to revenge.

The man was arrested, of course, and locked up. Today he is probably in a mad-house, forgotten. And the carriages roll by to and from the big stores with their gay throng of shoppers. The world forgets easily, too easily, what it does not like to remember.

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