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Jacob A. Riis (1849–1914). The Making of an American. 1901.


The American Made

The Cross of Dannebrog.

LONG ago, when I found my work beginning to master me, I put up a nest of fifty pigeonholes in my office so that with system I might get the upper hand of it; only to find, as the years passed, that I had got fifty tyrants for one. The other day I had to call in a Hessian to help me tame the pigeonholes. He was a serious library person, and he could not quite make out what it meant when among such heads as “Slum Tenements,” “The Bend,” and “Rum’s Curse,” he came upon this one over one of the pigeonholes:—
  • Him all that goodly company
  • Did as deliverer hail.
  • They tied a ribbon round his neck,
  • Another round his tail.
  • With all his learning, his education was not finished, for he had missed the “delectable ballad of the Waller lot” and Eugene Field’s account of the dignities that were “heaped upon Clow’s noble yellow pup,” else he would have understood. The pigeonhole contained most of the “honors” that have come to me of late years,—the nominations to membership in societies, guilds, and committees, in conventions at home and abroad,—most of them declined, as I declined Governor Roosevelt’s request that I should serve on the last Tenement-House Commission, for the reason which I have given heretofore, that to represent is not my business. To write is; I can do it much better and back up the other; so we are two for one. Not that I would be understood as being insensible of the real honor intended to be conferred by such tokens. I do not hold them lightly. I value the good opinion of my fellow-men, for with it comes increased power to do things. But I would reserve the honors for those who have fairly earned them, and on whom they sit easy. They don’t on me. I am not ornamental by nature. Now that I have told all there is to tell, the reader is at liberty to agree with my little boy concerning the upshot of it. He was having a heart-to-heart talk with his mother the other day, in the course of which she told him that we must be patient; no one in the world was all good except God.

    “And you,” said he, admiringly. He is his father’s son.

    She demurred, but he stoutly maintained his own.

    “I’ll bet you,” he said, “if you were to ask lots of people around here they would say you were fine. But”—he struggled reflectively with a button—“Gee! I can’t understand why they make such a fuss about papa.”

    Out of the mouth of babes, etc. The boy is right. I cannot either, and it makes me feel small. I did my work and tried to put into it what I thought citizenship ought to be, when I made it out. I wish I had made it out earlier for my own peace of mind. And that is all there is to it.

    For hating the slum what credit belongs to me? Who could love it? When it comes to that, perhaps it was the open, the woods, the freedom of my Danish fields I loved, the contrast that was hateful. I hate darkness and dirt anywhere, and naturally want to let in the light. I will have no dark corners in my own cellar; it must be whitewashed clean. Nature, I think, intended me for a cobbler, or a patch-tailor. I love to mend and make crooked things straight. When I was a carpenter I preferred to make an old house over to building a new. Just now I am trying to help a young couple set up in the laundry business. It is along the same line; that is the reason I picked it out for them. If any of my readers know of a good place for them to start I wish they would tell me of it. They are just two—young people with the world before them. My office years ago became notorious as a sort of misfit shop where things were matched that had got mislaid in the hurry and bustle of life, in which some of us always get shoved aside. Some one has got to do that, and I like the job; which is fortunate, for I have no head for creative work of any kind. The publishers bother me to write a novel; editors want me on their staffs. I shall do neither, for the good reason that I am neither poet, philosopher, nor, I was going to say, philanthropist; but leave me that. I would love my fellow-man. For the rest I am a reporter of facts. And that I would remain. So, I know what I can do and how to do it best.

    We all love power—to be on the winning side. You cannot help being there when you are fighting the slum, for it is the cause of justice and right. How then can you lose? And what matters it how you fare, your cause is bound to win. I said it before, but it will bear to be said again, not once but many times: every defeat in such a fight is a step toward victory, taken in the right spirit. In the end you will come out ahead. The power of the biggest boss is like chaff in your hands. You can see his finish. And he knows it. Hence, even he will treat you with respect. However he try to bluff you, he is the one who is afraid. The ink was not dry upon Bishop Potter’s arraignment of Tammany bestiality before Richard Croker was offering to sacrifice his most faithful henchmen as the price of peace; and he would have done it had the Bishop but crooked his little finger in the direction of any one of them. The boss has the courage of the brute, or he would not be boss; but when it comes to a moral issue he is the biggest coward in the lot. The bigger the brute the more abject its terror at what it does not understand.

    Some of the honors I refused; there were some my heart craved, and I could not let them go. There hangs on my wall the passport Governor Roosevelt gave me when I went abroad, dearer to me than sheepskin or degree, for the heart of a friend is in it. What would I not give to be worthy of its faithful affection! Sometimes when I go abroad I wear upon my breast a golden cross which King Christian gave me. It is the old Crusaders’ cross, in the sign of which my stern fore-fathers conquered the heathen and themselves on many a hard-fought field. My father wore it for long and faithful service to the State. I rendered none. I can think of but one chance I had to strike a blow for the old flag. That was when in a typhus epidemic I found the health officers using it as a fever flag to warn boats away from the emergency hospital pier at East Sixteenth Street. They had no idea of what flag it was: they just happened to have it on hand. But they found out quickly. I gave them half an hour in which to find another. The hospital was full of very sick patients, or I should have made them fire a salute to old Dannebrog by way of reparation. As it was, I think they had visions of ironclads in the East River. They had one of a very angry reporter, anyhow. But though I did nothing to deserve it, I wear the cross proudly for the love I bear the flag under which I was born and the good old King who gave it to me. I saw him often when I was a young lad. In that which makes the man he had not changed when last I met him in Copenhagen. They told there how beggars used to waylay him on his daily walks until the police threatened them with arrest. Then they stood at a distance making sorrowful gestures; and the King, who understood, laid a silver coin upon the palace window shelf and went his way. The King must obey the law, but he can forget the principles of almsgiving, as may the rest of us at Christmas, and be blameless.

    Of that last meeting with King Christian I mean to let my American fellow-citizens know so that they may understand what manner of man is he whom they call in Europe its “first gentleman” and in Denmark “the good King.” But first I shall have to tell how my father came to wear the cross of Dannebrog. He was very old at the time; retired long since from his post which he had filled faithfully forty years and more. In some way, I never knew quite how, they passed him by with the cross at the time of the retirement. Perhaps he had given offence by refusing a title. He was an independent old man, and cared nothing for such things; but I knew that the cross he would gladly have worn for the King he had served so well. And when he sat in the shadow, with the darkness closing in, I planned to get it for him as the one thing I knew would give him pleasure.

    But the official red tape was stronger than I; until one day, roused to anger by it all, I wrote direct to the King and told him about it. I showed him the wrong that had been done, and told him that I was sure he would set it right as soon as he knew of it. And I was not mistaken. The old town was put into a great state of excitement and mystification when one day there arrived in a large official envelope, straight from the King, the cross long since given up; for, indeed, the Minister had told me that, my father having been retired, the case was closed. The injustice that had been done was itself a bar to its being undone; there was no precedent for such action. That was what I told the King, and also that it was his business to set precedents, and he did. Four years later, when I took my children home to let my father bless them,—they were his only grandchildren and he had never seen any of them,—he sat in his easy chair and wondered yet at the queer way in which that cross came. And I marvelled with him. He died without knowing how I had interfered. It was better so.

    King Christian as I saw him last.

    It was when I went home to mother that I met King Christian last. They had told me the right way to approach the King, the proper number of bows and all that, and I meant to faithfully observe it all. I saw a tired and lonely old man, to whom my heart went out on the instant, and I went right up and shook hands, and told him how much I thought of him and how sorry I was for his losing his wife, the Queen Louise, whom everybody loved. He looked surprised a moment; then such a friendly look came into his face, and I thought him the handsomest King that ever was. He asked about the Danes in America, and I told him they were good citizens, better for not forgetting their motherland and him in his age and loss. He patted my hand with a glad little laugh, and bade me tell them how much he appreciated it, and how kindly his thoughts were of them all. As I made to go, after a long talk, he stopped me and, touching the little silver cross on my coat lapel, asked what it was.

    I told him; told him of the motto, “In His Name,” and of the labor of devoted women in our great country to make it mean what it said. As I spoke I remembered my father, and I took it off and gave it to him, bidding him keep it, for surely few men could wear it so worthily. But he put it back into my hand, thanking me with a faithful grasp of his own; he could not take it from me, he said. And so we parted. I thought with a pang of remorse, as I stood in the doorway, of the parting bow I had forgotten, and turned around to make good the omission. There stood the King in his blue uniform, nodding so mildly to me, with a smile so full of kindness, that I—why, I just nodded back and waved my hand. It was very improper, I dare say; perfectly shocking; but never was heartier greeting to king. I meant every bit of it.

    The next year he sent me his cross of gold for the one of silver I offered him. I wear it gladly, for the knighthood it confers pledges to the defence of womanhood and of little children, and if I cannot wield lance and sword as the king’s men of old, I can wield the pen. It may be that in the providence of God the shedding of ink in the cause of right shall set the world farther ahead in our day than the blood-letting of all the ages past.

    These I could not forego. Neither, when friends gathered in the King’s Daughters’ Settlement on our silver wedding day, and with loving words gave to the new house my name, could I say them nay. It stands, that house, within a stone’s throw of many a door in which I sat friendless and forlorn, trying to hide from the policeman who would not let me sleep; within hail of the Bend of the wicked past, atoned for at last; of the Bowery boarding-house where I lay senseless on the stairs after my first day’s work in the newspaper office, starved well-nigh to death. But the memory of the old days has no sting. Its message is one of hope; the house itself is the key-note. It is the pledge of a better day, of the defeat of the slum with its helpless heredity of despair. That shall damn no longer lives yet unborn. Children of God are we! that is our challenge to the slum, and on earth we shall claim yet our heritage of light.

    Of home and neighborliness restored it is the pledge. The want of them makes the great gap in the city life that is to be our modern civic life. With the home preserved we may look forward without fear; there is no question that can be asked of the Republic to which we shall not find the answer. We may not always agree as to what is right; but, starting there, we shall be seeking the right, and seeking we shall find it. Ruin and disaster are at the end of the road that starts from the slum.

    Perhaps it is easy for me to preach contentment. With a mother who prays, a wife who fills the house with song, and the laughter of happy children about me, all my dreams come true or coming true, why should I not be content? In fact, I know of no better equipment for making them come true: faith in God to make all things possible that are right; faith in man to get them done; fun enough in between to keep them from spoiling or running off the track into useless crankery. An extra good sprinkling of that! The longer I live the more I think of humor as in truth the saving sense. A civil-service examination to hit home might well be one to make sure the man could appreciate a good story. For all editors I would have that kind made compulsory. Here is one chiding me in his paper,—oh! a serious paper that calls upon parents to “insist that children’s play shall be play and not loafing” and not be allowed to obscure “their more serious responsibilities,”—chiding me for encouraging truancy! “We are quite sure,” he writes, “that no really well-brought up and well-disposed boy ever thinks of such a thing.” Perish the thought! And yet, if he should take the notion,—you never can tell with the devil so busy all the time,—there’s the barrel they kept us in at school when we were bad; I told of it before. Putting the lid on was a sure preventive; with our little short legs we couldn’t climb out. Don’t think I recommend it. It just comes to me, the way things will. It was held to be a powerful means of bringing children up “well disposed” in those days.

    Christmas Eve with the King’s Daughters.

    Looking back over thirty years it seems to me that never had man better a time than I. Enough of the editor chaps there were always to keep up the spirits. The hardships people write to me about were not worth while mentioning; and anyway they had to be, to get some of the crankery out of me, I guess. But the friendships endure. For all the rebuffs of my life they have more than made up. When I think of them, of the good men and women who have called me friend, I am filled with wonder and gratitude. I know the editor of the heavy responsibilities would not have approved of all of them. Even the police might not have done it. But, then, police approval is not a certificate of character to one who has lived the best part of his life in Mulberry Street. They drove Harry Hill out of the business after milking him dry. Harry Hill kept a dive, but he was a square man; his word was as good as his bond. He was hardly a model citizen, but in a hard winter he kept half the ward from starving; his latch-string hung out always to those in need. Harry was no particular friend of mine; I mention him as a type of some to whom objection might be made.

    But then the police would certainly disapprove of Dr. Parkhurst, whom I am glad to call by the name of friend. They might even object to Bishop Potter, whose friendship I return with a warmth that is nowise dampened by his disapproval of reporters as a class. There is where the Bishop is mistaken; we are none of us infallible, and what a good thing it is that we are not. Think of having an infallible friend to live alongside of always! How long could you stand it? We were not infallible, James Tanner!—called Corporal by the world, Jim by us—when we sat together in the front seats of the Old Eighteenth Street Church under Brother Simmons’s teaching. Far from it; but we were willing to learn the ways of grace, and that was something. Had he only stayed! Your wife mothered my Elisabeth when she was homesick in a strange land. I have never forgotten it. And you could pass civil service, Jim, on the story I spoke of. I would be willing to let the rest go, if you will promise to forget about that bottle of champagne. It was your doings, anyhow, you know.

    James Tanner.

    Amos Ensign, I did not give you the credit you should have had for our success in Mulberry Street in the early days, but I give it to you now. You were loyal and good, and you have stayed a reporter, a living denial of the charge that our profession is not as good as the best. Dr. Jane Elizabeth Robbins, you told me, when I was hesitating over the first chapters of these reminiscences, to take the short cut and put it all in, and I did, because you are as wise as you are good. I have told it all, and now, manlike, I will serve you as your sex has been served from the dawn of time: the woman did it! yours be the blame. Anthony Ronne, dear old chum in the days of adversity; Max Fischel, trusty friend of the years in Mulberry Street, who never said “can’t” once—you always knew a way; Brother W. W. J. Warren, faithful in good and in evil report; General C. T. Christensen, whose compassion passeth understanding, for, though a banker, you bore with and befriended me, who cannot count; Mrs. Josephine Shaw Lowell, my civic conscience ever; John H. Mulchahey, without whose wise counsels in the days of good government and reform the battle with the slum would surely have gone against us; Jane Addams and Mrs. Emmons Blaine, leaven that shall yet leaven the whole unsightly lump out yonder by the western lake and let in the light; A. S. Solomons, Silas McBee, Mrs. Roland C. Lincoln, Lilian D. Wald, Felix Adler, Endicott Peabody, Lyman Abbott, Louise Seymour Houghton, Jacob H. Schiff, John Finley,—Jew and Gentile who taught me why in this world personal conduct and personal character count ever for most,—my love to you all! It is time I am off and away. William McCloy, the next time I step into your canoe and upset it, and you turn that smiling countenance upon me, up to your neck in the lake, I will surely drown you. You are too good for this world. J. Evarts Tracy, host of my happy days on restful Wahwaskesh! I know of a certain hole in under a shelving rock upon which the partridge is wont to hatch her young, where lies a bigger bass than ever you tired out according to the rules of your beloved sport, and I will have him if I have to charm him with honeyed words and a bean-pole. And Ainslie shall cook him to a turn. Make haste then to the feast!

    “The little ones from Cherry Street.”

    Ahead there is light. Even as I write the little ones from Cherry Street are playing on the grass under my trees. The time is at hand when we shall bring to them in their slum the things which we must now bring them to see, and then the slum will be no more. How little we grasp the meaning of it all. In a report of the Commissioner of Education I read the other day that of kindergarten children in an Eastern city who were questioned 63 per cent did not know a robin, and more than half had not seen a dandelion in its yellow glory. And yet we complain that our cities are misgoverned! You who think that the teaching of “civics” in the school covers it all, I am not speaking to you. You will never understand. But the rest of you who are willing to sit with me at the feet of little Molly and learn from her, listen: She was poor and ragged and starved. Her home was a hovel. We were debating, some good women who knew her and I, how best to make a merry Christmas for her, and my material mind hung upon clothes and boots and rubbers, for it was in Chicago. But the vision of her soul was a pair of red shoes! Her heart craved them; aye, brethren, and she got them. Not for all the gold in the Treasury would I have trodden it under in pork and beans, smothered it in—no, not in rubber boots, though the mud in the city by the lake be both deep and black. They were the window, those red shoes, through which her little captive soul looked out and yearned for the beauty of God’s great world. Could I forget the blue boots with the tassels which I worshipped in my boyhood? Nay, friends, the robin and the dandelion we must put back into those barren lives if we would have good citizenship. They and the citizenship are first cousins. We robbed the children of them, or stood by and saw it done, and it is for us to restore them. That is my answer to the missionary who writes to ask what is the “most practical way of making good Christians and American citizens” out of the emigrants who sit heavy on her conscience, as well they may. Christianity without the robin and the dandelion is never going to reach down into the slum; American citizenship without them would leave the slum there, to dig the grave of it and of the republic.

    Light ahead! The very battle that is now waged for righteousness on the once forgotten East Side is our answer to the cry of the young who, having seen the light, were willing no longer to live in darkness. I know, for I was one of the committee which Dr. Felix Adler called together in response to their appeal a year ago. The Committee of Fifteen succeeded to its work. “What does it all help?” the doubting Thomases have asked a half-score years, watching the settlements build their bridge of hearts between mansion and tenement, and hundreds give devoted lives of toil and sacrifice to make it strong and lasting; and ever the answer came back, sturdily: “Wait and see! It will come.” And now it has come. The work is bearing fruit. On the East Side the young rise in rebellion against the slum; on the West Side the League for Political Education runs a ball-ground. Omen of good sense and of victory! So the country is safe. When we fight no longer for the poor, but with the poor, the slum is taken in the rear and beaten already.

    My Silver Bride.

    The world moves. The Bend is gone; the Barracks are gone; Mulberry Street itself as I knew it so long is gone. Cat Alley, whence came the deputation of ragamuffins to my office demanding flowers for “the lady in the back,” the poor old scrubwoman who lay dead in her dark basement, went when the Elm Street widening let light into the heart of our block. The old days are gone. I myself am gone. A year ago I had warning that “the night cometh when no man can work,” and Mulberry Street knew me no more. I am still a young man, not far past fifty, and I have much I would do yet. But what if it were ordered otherwise? I have been very happy. No man ever had so good a time. Should I not be content?

    Here comes the Baby!

    I dreamed a beautiful dream in my youth, and I awoke and found it true. My silver bride they called her just now. The frost is upon my head, indeed; hers winter has not touched with its softest breath. Her footfall is the lightest, her laugh the merriest in the house. The boys are all in love with their mother; the girls tyrannize and worship her together. The cadet corps elects her an honorary member, for no stouter champion of the flag is in the land. Sometimes when she sings with the children I sit and listen, and with her voice there comes to me as an echo of the long past the words in her letter, that blessed first letter in which she wrote down the text of all my after-life: “We will strive together for all that is noble and good.” So she saw her duty as a true American, and aye! she has kept the pledge.

    But here comes our daughter with little Virginia to visit her grandpapa. Oh, the little vixen! Then where is his peace? God bless the child!

    I have told the story of the making of an American. There remains to tell how I found out that he was made and finished at last. It was when I went back to see my mother once more and, wandering about the country of my childhood’s memories, had come to the city of Elsinore. There I fell ill of a fever and lay many weeks in the house of a friend upon the shore of the beautiful Oeresund. One day when the fever had left me they rolled my bed into a room overlooking the sea. The sunlight danced upon the waves, and the distant mountains of Sweden were blue against the horizon. Ships passed under full sail up and down the great waterway of the nations. But the sunshine and the peaceful day bore no message to me. I lay moodily picking at the coverlet, sick and discouraged and sore—I hardly knew why myself. Until all at once there sailed past, close inshore, a ship flying at the top the flag of freedom, blown out on the breeze till every star in it shone bright and clear. That moment I knew. Gone were illness, discouragement, and gloom! Forgotten weakness and suffering, the cautions of doctor and nurse. I sat up in bed and shouted, laughed and cried by turns, waving my handkerchief to the flag out there. They thought I had lost my head, but I told them no, thank God! I had found it, and my heart, too, at last. I knew then that it was my flag; that my children’s home was mine, indeed; that I also had become an American in truth. And I thanked God, and, like unto the man sick of the palsy, arose from my bed and went home, healed.