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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Topic: MemoryTopic: ProgressTopic: PeopleTopic: PowerTopic: Empire
Topic: People: Assimilation and the Crucible of the City
Toolbox Overview: The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Resource Menu: People
Text 1. The American Metropolis
Text 2. Coney Island
Text 3. Horatio Alger, Jr., Ragged Dick
Text 4. Lewis W. Hine photographs
Text 5. Jacob Riis, How the Other Lives
» Reading Guide
•  Link

Text 6. Anzia Yezierska, Russians
Text 7. Two Wives
Text 8. Lee Chew, The Biography of a Chinaman
Text 9. Exclusion
Text 10. Zitkala-Sa, Native Americans

RESOURCE MENU » Reading Guide Link

Reading Guide
Bandit's Roost
"Bandit's Roost"
Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York, 1890, Introduction, Ch. 6

Before Hine took his camera to Ellis Island to photograph immigrants who were just arriving, Jacob Riis took his into the tenements of New York to photograph those who had settled in. Riis (1849-1914) came to the United States from Denmark in 1870. He held several menial jobs before embarking on a journalistic career in 1873. Having suffered economic hardship himself, he decided to focus his work on the plight of the poor. In time he became so frustrated with the inability of words to describe the conditions he saw, he turned to photography, using it to particularly dramatic effect at night, when his magnesium flash would temporarily blind his subjects and freeze them in their surroundings. How the Other Half Lives caused an immediate sensation and won for Riis the hearty congratulations of Theodore Roosevelt, then New York City's Police Commissioner, who used it to help make his case for reform. The book is a tour that takes middle-class readers through "back alleys . . . stable lanes and hidden byways" to discover the secrets of New York. We present Riis's introduction and his chapter on the Bend, the "foul core of New York's slums." The introduction offers a sense that New York has crossed a line and become irredeemably corrupt. At times reading "The Bend," you may have to remind yourself that Riis was writing out of sympathy for the immigrants. 8 pages.

Discussion questions
  1. What image of the city does Riis present? Compare it to Alger's.
  2. Compare the way Riis addresses middle class curiosity and animosity with the way Hine does.
  3. Why, according to Riis, should the middle class care about the other half?
  4. What offends Riis most about the Bend?
  5. What solutions does he propose for the problems he discovers there?
  6. What role does light play in How the Other Half Lives?
  7. What relationship does Riis posit between environment and character?
  8. Compare Riis's ideas about the power of environment with those expressed in the town of Pullman (See POWER).
  9. How does Riis view his subjects? What does he assume about their view of themselves?
  10. What does Riis hope to achieve through his use of photography?
  11. Compare Riis's use of photographs with Hine's. How do their strategies of presentation differ?
  12. What does Riis suggest about his subjects' prospects for assimilation?

» Link

Topic Framing Questions
  •  How was the American cultural mainstream defined at this time?
  •  What messages and strategies of socialization did the government and other culture brokers extend to immigrants, African Americans, and Native Americans during this period?
  •  What benefits and costs for these groups were associated with a strategy of assimilation?
  •  How did the city function as a site of assimilation?

Toolbox: The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Memory | Progress | People | Power | Empire

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Revised: May 2005