From the Bend to Tobacco Road

“The Bend” by Jacob Riis, 1890.

From The Bend to Tobacco Road

The energetic rhetoric of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal has its roots in what Theodore Roosevelt labeled as “muckracking.” Publicizing social issues was the primary tool of the progressive reform movements of the early twentieth century, and the camera was drafted into service quickly. Though he cursed journalism, Theodore Roosevelt embraced some of these efforts, particularly the work of Jacob A. Riis. The partnership is significant, because the relationship was reversed in the 1930s, as photographers and writers moved to support the policies of Franklin Roosevelt. By this time, the confluence of technology and social agenda reached new heights. But the use of text and image combined in books promoting social change was pioneered by Riis’s 1890 publication How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York.

Jacob Riis was born in Ribe, Denmark in 1849. He learned the craft of journalism as a child but apprenticed with a carpenter before departing for the United States in 1870. The US was in the throes of a depression, and Riis spent three years on the streets of America, walking from New York to Philadelphia in search of work. Finally, Riis found work at a news agency in New York, and became a police reporter for the New York Tribune in 1877. His experience as a poor immigrant turned him into a passionate social crusader. The heart of Mulberry Street, known as “The Bend” was the epicenter of the New York slums. Riis wrote:

I got a picture of the Bend upon my mind which so soon as I should be able to transfer to that of the community would help settle that pig-sty according to its deserts. It was not fit for Christian men and women, let alone innocent children, to live in, and therefore it had to go. (vi Preface to the Dover Edition)

It is crucial to examine these bare details carefully to understand how the documentary impulse sprang from passion, with all the attendant possibilities of fallibility. Documentation can only be an evaluative enterprise, subject to assault from any side when judged to be slanted. Riis titled his work carefully as “studies” to give it the aura of dispassionate disengagement. The text is riddled with cultural value judgments which gain support from supposedly “objective” photographic evidence. The function of the text/image combination is to “transfer” the image of Riis’ experience to the “community” to promote change. The Bend had to go.

Collecting the images was the first problem. Riis attempted to enlist the sympathy of local amateur photographers towards his cause, but in the end he had to learn to be a photographer himself. His desire to go inside the tenements complicated things considerably, because he needed to use artificial light. The cartridges he used made explosive noises disrupting the neighborhood, and he twice set fire to the places he visited, once to his own clothes, and almost blinded himself. Technology was a problem at every turn.

Though the technology was not yet in place to effectively circulate images, the impulse to move the community was. The photographs had to be were redrawn as engravings, defusing their impact substantially. The halftones he used were shoddy and gray. However, the book did serve its purpose. It attracted the attention of a president, and the community at large. After years of struggle, the Bend was turned into Mulberry Street Park, and what was later known as the Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood House.

How the Other Half Lives makes every effort to provide “objective” supporting evidence for its evaluations. It uses statistics, floor-plans of tenements, crime statistics. Riis devotes an entire chapter to “The Color Line in New York”— landlords were charging higher rents for colored tenants, resulting in a deepening of the economic slavery. Riis’ book is marked by a notice of multiple cultures and ethnicities, recording that even in abject poverty there is inequality. There is little mention of family groups, and Riis spends much effort documenting the plight of children. His follow up books Children of the Poor in 1892 and Children of the Tenements in 1903 focused entirely on children. The “community” Riis wishes to reach is not clearly defined, except by its ignorance of the problem of poverty.

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, so long as it was able to hold them there and keep its own seat. There came a time when the discomfort and crowding below was so great, and the consequent upheavals so violent that it was no longer an easy thing to do, and then the upper half fell to inquiring what was the matter. Information on the subject has been accumulating rapidly since, and the whole world has had its hands full answering for its old ignorance. (1 How the Other Half Lives)

The roots of this discontent reach deeply back to the romantic age, perhaps to William Blake’s “Holy Thursday” poems and beyond. But as humanity crossed into the twentieth century a new rhetoric of social consciousness and new information technologies knit together disparate genres of representation to a new social purpose. But it seems prudent to take note of Riis’ desire to do away with these appalling conditions. It wasn’t merely the impulse of the recorder, but the impulse of improvement that gathered steam as one crisis after another was exposed to a broader public. Riis’ technique was that of an impassioned sociologist, relying primarily on concrete details to give his text authority rather that narrative testimony to elicit sympathy. This approach was largely left behind as more overtly rhetorical techniques evolved to expose the plight of the poor in America.

One of the most popular and infamous exposés of poverty in the 1930s came in the form of the 1932 novel Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell. The lurid and humorous narrative of life in the rural south was a bestseller, and turned into a long-running Broadway play making Caldwell a commercial success. But there were nagging questions regarding its accuracy, questions that Caldwell sought to answer through his collaboration with Margaret Bourke White in the 1937 text/image synthesis You Have seen Their Faces. The difficulty of representing “the other” as a documentary object became deeply complicated by government complicity, and the rising technology of representation. The appropriation of Tobacco Road as a symbol in the 1960s pop song of the same name echoes Riis’ sentimental recounting of his impulse for social improvement and desire to put an end to the appalling conditions at the Bend:

I was born in a trunk.
Mama died and my daddy got drunk.
Left me here to die alone
in the middle of Tobacco Road.

Growin’ up rusty shack,
all I had was hangin’ on my back.
Only you know how I loathe
this place called Tobacco Road.

But it’s home, the only life I ever known.
Only you know how I loathe Tobacco Road.

Gonna leave, get a job
with the help and the grace from above.
Save some money, get rich and old,
bring it back to Tobacco Road.

But it’s home, the only life I ever known.
Only you know how I loathe Tobacco Road.

Bring that dynamite and a crane,
blow it up, start all over again.
Build a town, be proud to show.
Give the name Tobacco Road.

This country song was written by J.D. Loudermilk in 1962, and became a #5 hit for the Nashville Teens in 1964 during the peak of the civil rights movement in America. However, with only slight changes it could have been the story of Jacob Riis. He rose from the most impoverished sections of the New York tenements to tear them down through forceful use of text and image, forging a path that many followed into the twentieth century. Erskine Caldwell attempted to give a voice to the sharecroppers of Georgia, but unlike Riis, his neighbors didn’t take kindly to it. The other half perceived his efforts as caricature. In Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, the ranting of Jeeter Lester over his failed turnip crop is a long way from the representation of the poor as American heroes in the 1960s, and the heroic call of the popular song:

‘The good Lord knows best about turnips.’ Some of these days He’ll bust loose with a heap of bounty and all us poor folks will have all we want to eat and plenty to clothe us with. It can’t always keep getting worse and worse every year like it got since the big war. God, He’ll put it to a stop to it one of these days and make the rich give back all they’ve took from us poor folks. God is going to treat us right. (10 Tobacco Road)

It wasn’t God that Riis appealed to— Riis appealed to the community. Communities are held together through metanarratives. Caldwell’s turn to narrative as an instrument of social change is as controversial as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Both Twain and Caldwell relied on satire to present a more vivid image to the community at large, and because of this they are easily impugned. However, narrative represents a powerful method of persuasion.

The narrative turn in documentary practice involved changes that were both embraced and rejected by contemporary practitioners. However, before crossing from the Bend to Tobacco Road, the pioneering work of Lewis Hine must be factored in to the evolving rhetoric of social change. The effectiveness of photographic propaganda reached new heights in Hine’s battle against child labor.

Further resources on Jacob Riis include:

1 thought on “From the Bend to Tobacco Road”

  1. I was born in a trailer camp
    Days were cold and the nights were damp
    Incubator baby I was half alive
    I been eating lots of shit and jive.
    As many years (decades now, I reckon) I been listening to Iggy’s “Head On” and some-garage-band’s cover of “Tobacco Road,” I never till now realized how the latter probably influenced the former. Higher education lives!

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