How the Other Half Lives Essay

During the late nineteenth century as industrialization boomed in the West, immigrants from Europe had begun to migrate to the United States. Although living in the United States gave them a better opportunity to succeed, life was not glorious for the European immigrants. Fighting for a better life their were many barriers to their success. Whether it was not being able to speak English, living in the terrible conditions of tenements, or the limitations of being an immigrant life was difficult for the immigrants. Many Americans were oblivious to the conditions that the immigrants had dealt with until the publishing of How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis. How the Other Half Lives was a book that documented the hardships that immigrants faced living in American cities through pictures and observations. Riis gave Americans an opportunity to see what life was really like for an immigrant in living in America. In How the Other Half Lives, Riis showed how immigrants were not entirely different from Americans and he talked about which groups of immigrants were more suited to succeed by assimilating to the American lifestyle. Even with his limits as an observer, Riis was able to accurately depict the lives of immigrants and give a plausible solution on how they can better their situations by becoming true American citizens.

Jacob Riis was born in 1849 in a small rural town in Denmark. In order to marry the love of his life Riis need to improve is financial value so he moved to the United States to find work. Riis had spent time living and roaming around New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Illinois and in doing so he was able to see many different kinds of Americans. In Riis’ opinion the average American is a hard working Christian, who ultimately ends up living in the suburbs, and is on a quest for truth. All Americans ultimately want to better their situation by receiving better jobs. Riis agrees with the notion that, “Americans were fascinated by the objective quest for truth.” Americans want to find their place in life and create a better life for themselves. They are always striving toward upward mobility and a chance to be successful in life. This desire to succeed and the craving for a better life were shared amongst all immigrants. When coming to America the goal in mind for immigrants was to seek a better life and opportunity. Excluding Jewish immigrants, most immigrants also shared the fact that they had Christian backgrounds. By sharing some of these principles it gives certain immigrants an advantage in assimilating to the American culture giving them a better chance to succeed. One group that is likely to adapt well to American culture and quickly integrate in to society are the Irish. The Irish are likely to mold well with the American lifestyle because they are mostly Christians and because of their willingness for a better life. Riis says, ”The Irishman does not naturally take kindly to tenement life, though with characteristic versatility he adapts himself to its conditions at once.” Due to the fact the Irish are not satisfied with tenement life and they want to do better convinces me that they are likely to become true Americans. Being that the Irish share multiple similarities to Americans it is likely that they can transition to America with more ease. Another group that I believe are more likely to become “American” are the Germans. The reason behind this is that the Germans are also mostly Christian giving them a chance to fit in more with majority of Americans. On top of that Germans are also smart and have a willingness to succeed. Riis says, “Unlike the German, who begins learning English the day he lands a matter of duty…”

The Germans want to succeed and they know in order to do that they must learn English. By learning English they are in a better position to integrate more with Americans. Also Riis says, “The German rag-picker of thirty years ago, quite as low in the scale as his Italian successor, is the thrifty tradesman or prosperous fanner of to-day.” The Germans are able to work and make money in different ways than the average immigrant giving them a chance to be more successful. Germans also saved their money in order to move into a western state where they will eventually begin to thrive. By being smart and willing to work hard in order to move away from the tenement life is why the Germans are also likely to become “American”. Another group of immigrants well suited to become “Americans” are the Jews. Although the Jews are not Christian and that causes a divide amongst most Americans and them they are hard working and have a strong desire to succeed. Riis says, …the Polish Jew, who takes it up as soon as he is able as an investment.” The Jews are willing to do whatever it takes to make it in life such as learning English. This puts them on the right track to becoming an “American” because of they want to learn English. Riis then says, “ …This sweater’s family hoards up thirty dollars a month, and in a few years will own a tenement somewhere and profit by the example set by their landlord in rent collecting.” As shown by this quote, I believe the Jews will likely become “Americans” because of their willingness to succeed, their ability to make money, and make profit. The Jews will adapt to America because they are smarter than most immigrants because they save their money and use it in away where they can have more success down the road. That is why I believe they will likely become true “Americans”. Although groups like the Irish, Germans, and Jews will likely become American; groups such as the Chinese will never truly assimilate to America. The reason for this is their language barrier and their religion barrier. As said by David Leviatin, “In Riis’s mind, the Chinese cannot be converted. Because Riis views conversion to Christianity as the solution to the problems posed by the Other Half, his belief that the Chinese lack the capacity for transformation reveals his hostility to them.” Basically what Riis is saying is that the Chinese’s unwillingness to convert to Christianity is one of the biggest factors that prevent them from becoming “American”. Another reason the Chinese will struggle to become “American” is the stark difference in culture. Riis says, ”… a Chinaman whom we found beating his wife with a broom-handle in a Mott Street cellar. He was angry at our interference, and declared vehemently that she was ‘bad’.” In Chinese culture in this time it was not out of the ordinary for something like this to happen but in America it was wrong. The Chinese were unwilling to embrace American culture, religion, and language.

They chose to stay in their segregated parts of town and be with their own people. They did not show much desire to become “American” and because of this I believe they were destined to never integrate in to America. Another group that is destined to never become American are the Italians. As Riis says, “He not only knows no word of English, but he does not know enough to learn.” The language barrier is too much for the Italians, as they show no desire to learn English and most Italians do not even have the ability to learn it. The Italians are simply not smart enough to become a true “American”. Also the Italians are content with their poor lifestyle. Riis adds, “In the slums he is welcomed as a tenant who ‘makes less trouble’ than the contentious Irishman or the order-loving German, that is to say: is content to live in a pig sty and submits to robbery at the hands of the rent collector without murmur.” The fact that the Italian is satisfied with this life and not trying to improve upon in a vast way shows that the Italians are destined to never become “American”. To become “American” you need to constantly be striving for success and also need to know how to speak English. Considering the Italian does not to move up in social class and is unable to learn English hurts their chances of becoming “American”. A third group that I believe will never become “American” are the Bohemians. Leviatin had said when talking about the Bohemians, “Not only are the workers, primarily Bohemian immigrants of Czech background, forced to work for low wages in poor conditions; they are made to do so in the homes they rent from the landlord who is also their employer. Riis has uncovered a little-known disturbing version of urban sharecropping.” The Bohemians were in a position that they would not be able to succeed. They were stuck working for their landlords, which basically gave them no opportunity to improve upon their life. Most Bohemians worked as a family where they made cigars for a living. It was hard for them to improve on their situation because the father had no time to learn English. The father of the family would be stuck working all day that without a chance to learn English he would not be able to make it anywhere in life. A key factor in becoming an American is learning English. Considering some Bohemians had no time or opportunity to learn English it made it impossible for them to become a true American. Many Bohemians were skilled workers back in Czechoslovakia but they were unable to communicate and get a similar job in America. For example Riis shares a story of man who was a blacksmith but he cannot speak English. Riis says, “He knows of no Bohemian blacksmith who can understand him; he should starve.” This quote shows the importance of learning English and how the fact that Bohemians were unable to do so stalled their upward social mobility. Due to the matter that Bohemians will not have an opportunity to learn English convinces me that they are destined to never become American.

As showcased amongst the different groups of immigrants it is evident that those who are willing and able to learn English and those who are willing to put in the work to succeed are most likely to become American. Therefore I believe that groups such as the Irish, the German, and the Jews are likely to become Americans. While groups such as the Chinese, Italians, and the Bohemians are destined to never become Americans and never find their place in society. While writing and investigating the story of how the other half is living Riis had several limits as a social observer. The biggest limit as a social observer that Riis was his own perception of immigrants. Riis had his own negative opinions about specific groups of immigrants and it is evident throughout the story. In order to make accurate observations you need to remove bias or stereotypes from the situation. I feel that Riis had failed to do so in the writing of his story. For example Riis when talking about the Chinese says, “S’ppose your wifee bad, you no lickee her?” The way Riis words the sentence gives me the impression that he does not like the Chinese. It is insulting how he words the sentence in this manner. Riis then again does this when mocking an Italian speaker when he writes, “Damma man, if you speaka thata way to me, I fira you and your things in the streeta.” I believe that because Riis makes the statements mocking the Chinese and Italian it shows his inability to make fair judgments. Not only does he mock the way they talk but also he calls certain groups by condescending terms such as when he says a “Chinaman”. When he talks about how certain groups are unable to adapt to American culture I believe his opinions are influenced by his views on certain groups. In order to make fair observations you need to remain neutral on all groups and not use bias in the forming of your opinion. I believe that Riis’s judgment was clouded and this limited him as a social observer. Riis also had given multiple solutions on how the poor can better their situations. One solution is to make and save enough money to get out of the tenement life. Riis says in regards to the poor, “They are shiftless, destructive, and stupid; in a word, they are what the tenements have made them.” Riis believes the tenement situation has made the poor worse off. It is for Riis the tenement situation that causes the poor to become poor as he actually says that you are not born poor but certain events cause you to become it. Riis believes that the tenement situations halt progress for the poor and with it you can never truly succeed. For example it is the Germans and the Jews who fight in order to leave their tenement situations and end up being successful. Groups such as the Italians are coping with it and are satisfied living in this situation. That is why groups like the Italians will struggle to succeed while the Germans and Jews continuously prosper. Another way Riis believes the poor can better their situation is by becoming learning English. Riis knows that by learning English there are better job opportunities for the poor immigrants.

Groups like the Germans and Jews want to learn English because they know the benefits of doing so. Riis says, “Unlike the German, who begins learning English the day he lands as a matter of duty, or the Polish Jews, who takes it up as soon as he is able as an investment, the Italian learns slowly, if at all.” The Germans and Jews succeed in life because of their desire to learn English, while the Italians suffer because they simply cannot learn the language. Another group such as the Bohemians do not have the time or resources to learn the language therefore they also suffer to make a living. Due to the fact the Bohemians do not have the chance to learn English they are stuck with the mediocre low paying jobs they have. Riis makes it clear how if you are able to learn English, get a better job, and then move out of the tenements you will succeed in life. The only issue with this notion is the fact that this is not realistic for all that are poor. While the Germans, Jews, and some other groups are able to learn English and move out of tenements some situations are to difficult to get out of. For example the Italians are said to be to dumb and the Bohemians don’t have the time to learn the language . Because the Bohemians and Italians are unable to learn the language it is unrealistic they can ever succeed in life and eventually better their situations. For some groups it is realistic that they can better their lives and succeed but for others it is simply too difficult to improve. In conclusion, Riis was able to give Americans an accurate perception to what life was like for immigrants in the United States. While life was never easy for them and was a constant struggle they worked as hard as they could to better their lives. While some groups such as the Irish, the Germans, and the Jews seem fit to succeed in life, it was never easy. Whether it was the tenement life or language that held back progress there were many obstacles presented to the immigrants. Other Groups such as the Italians, the Chinese, and the Bohemians seemed destined to remain outcasts in the American way of life. Riis definitely had his limits in the writing of How the Other Half Lives but he was still able to give a fair and vivid portrayal of the hardships that immigrants faced. Riis was able to properly analyze their situations and give them and other Americans insight on how to better their situations and succeed in life. Riis’s story was an eye opener and shock for many Americans but it definitely helped improve conditions in city life.