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Excerpts: 'The Other Half'

'The Other Half' book cover

Before Jacob Riis immigrated to America from Denmark in 1870, he had courted Elisabeth Giørtz, but she spurned him.

While Riis spent his time working, Elisabeth took classes in French, German, English, history, biology, and music. She was an accomplished pianist. French conversation was one of her most demanding subjects. Her teacher, Mademoiselle Janoski, from Poland, did not speak any Danish, "so, we really have to work hard in her classes," wrote Elisabeth.

A conscientious student, she always did her homework and managed to make a favorable impression on Nathalie Zahle. In her evaluation of Elisabeth, Zahle wrote: "[she] has always shown a great interest in her classes and worked with increasing diligence. Her fluency in foreign languages is satisfactory, English especially. In history and Danish essay writing, however, her skills are affected by her youth and lack of prior guidance." Zahle concluded by saying, "with her open mind and charming personality, she has been a delightful student to work with, and we [at the school] will always remember her with pleasure."

In her letters home, Elisabeth mentioned many names, old and new, but never Riis, who was simply of no interest to her. Yet he continued to admire and court her, sending her flowers when she was sick—which she promptly discarded to avoid her friends' teasing. Her rebuffs only made her more attractive to him: "She is among the prettiest girls in Copenhagen, which is full of pretty girls." His obsession was so intense that he once interrupted a theater performance because one of the actresses—about to be attacked in the play—bore an uncanny resemblance to Elisabeth. In the audience were King Christian IX and the king of Greece. When Riis leapt out of his seat and onto the stage to save the young woman, he was thrown out of the theater.

Elisabeth finished her schooling in May 1869 and returned to Ribe. Five months later Riis concluded his apprenticeship as a carpenter and hurried home. It was now or never, he decided: Now twenty, he would propose to the seventeen-year-old Elisabeth. It was obviously an absurd plan, but at least he had the sense not to approach her in person. He also knew that the doors to The Castle were closed to him. Instead he declared his intentions in a letter, which his mother delivered on October 17, 1869, to Clara Giørtz, who in turn gave it to Elisabeth with these words: "I don't have to tell you that your father and I will not agree to this marriage until Jacob can provide properly for a family."

The day marked a turning point for Riis, and for many years he believed it to be one of the most consequential in his life. He waited alone, at home, for Elisabeth's reply, pacing up and down the small rooms of the house on Sortebrødregade, lying down on his bed, then getting up again and continuing his pacing. It was as if time had stopped or slowed down. Each tick of the clock, as he wrote one year later, "bruised my heart." He knew she was reading his letter, or maybe she had already read it and dispatched one of the servants with her answer: "It was a terrible time for me. I thought it would never end."

When Elisabeth's response arrived, it was late afternoon and already dark. The messenger handed him a sealed envelope, which he took with trembling hands. Among the thoughts that rushed through his mind, he later wrote, was that her hand had, moments before, touched this paper: "Letter in hand, kissing it, I knelt and prayed. Oh, how I prayed I would read the answer I so desired in that letter."

When he opened the letter a surge of fatigue swept over him.Elisabeth's neat handwriting, he wrote, crushed all his hopes and dreams for the future. She had been moved by his beautiful words, she told him; she had even been moved to tears. But she was never in doubt of her answer—and she was completely honest with him. "Jacob," she wrote, "I will never be able to love you."

For almost five years he had been convincing himself that it was only a matter of time before she would fall in love with him. He had been sure that, once he completed his apprenticeship and got a job, she would say yes. Knowing that he would one day share his life with Elisabeth had been his sole motivation for finishing his vocational training. Incredibly, he was not prepared for rejection.

Riis's parents, too, were devastated. The sympathy displayed even by Niels Edvard, who had admonished his son to give up his hopeless dreams of Elisabeth time and again, was heartfelt and profound.

Riis spent a grim winter in Ribe. Though they could ill afford it, his parents allowed their unemployed son to live at home. With Ribe still suffering economic hardship in the wake of Denmark's lost war, Riis found himself unable to get work. Caroline and Niels Edvard looked on helplessly as he sank into depression. The death of his sister Charlotte Emilie, from consumption, added to the family's heartache. Riis spent much of his time at the local tavern, lamenting his fate to anyone willing to listen. Luckily, he had many caring friends: Making friends had always been easy for him, as people were naturally drawn to his high energy. In the spring, as the days grew lighter, Riis's determination and drive began to resurface, as did his innate restlessness—the restlessness that had made it impossible for him to sit still in school—and the undaunted drive that had given him the resilience to pursue the indifferent Elisabeth for five years.

Years later, after Raymond Baumann, the man she had intended to marry, fell ill and died, she reconsidered her feelings for Riis.

Elisabeth returned to Haderslev. Fall set in with cold, rainy weather and short days. There was little to cheer her up, and she became, in her own words, "a pale, anemic, sorrowful girl to look at." In the evening she tried to busy herself with sewing, but her thoughts wandered. One night, when she was particularly restless, she remembered a conversation she had had with Baumann shortly before his death. He had gently admonished her to marry after his death, even if she did not love the man; it was better to be with a man who truly loved her than to be alone, he had said. Thinking back, Elisabeth wondered if Baumann had not obliquely been suggesting that she marry Riis. At the time Elisabeth had brushed the idea aside, not wanting to contemplate the possibility of Baumann's death. Baumann did not know Riis; Elisabeth had never talked about him. But Baumann had read the congratulatory letter Riis had sent Elisabeth upon their engagement and had surely understood that he loved Elisabeth.

Riis had loved her faithfully for twelve years, Elisabeth realized. By October he was constantly on her mind. She needed, as she wrote Christine, "to be loved. I hope you can understand that when you have been through what I have, it can seem a great gift to be loved by someone whom you may not have appreciated—can you understand this? And can you understand that I think I could be fulfilled by being there for someone who loves me with all his heart and will always be faithful to me?"

One evening in October, Elisabeth found it impossible to sleep before she had imparted her changed position in a letter to Riis.

Dear Jacob,
Please do not be angry with me for writing to you like this after all that has happened between us. But the thing is, my heart is so uneasy, and so many thoughts fill my mind that I simply must speak—please do not think me unwomanly, but hear me out and you will know why I could not have stopped myself from speaking even to save my life. I have not had a peaceful moment since I sent my last letter to you. When I sent it, there was no doubt in my mind as to my answer to your proposal. I knew I did not love you and therefore said no. But the very next day when the letter had been sent, a thought hit me like lightning: I could have said yes, perhaps my feelings for you were not those of a woman in love, but with time I might have learned to love you; you are noble, loving and a good Christian, and you would love me faithfully if I were to become yours. Then I would have someone to live for again, to live the rest of my life for, a wonderful sacrifice, I think. These were my thoughts, Riis, and I could not chase them away, and they kept me awake at night and now, after two weeks of thinking and contemplating, I am writing to you to tell you all, you my childhood friend. You have loved me faithfully for many long years though I have given you no hope, on the contrary I have caused you much pain. If you will have me as I am with the kind of love I can give you, I am yours from this moment on, and I will give you my hand in marriage. I cannot give you beauty, wealth or passion, I can only give you a heart which has loved, been hurt and longs for true love, oh, I will with great joy allow myself to be loved by you. I have been thinking perhaps I will disappoint you when you see me as I really am, but I pray, you will lead and guide me. You are good and strong, and together we will strive for all that is good and noble in life, will we not? I will do all that is in my power to be a good wife to you.

But let us keep this to ourselves for now, do not even tell your mother. I have not told my parents that I am writing these words to you and do not want them to hear of this news from strangers. And I do not wish to tell them before you are here, too. Can you possibly come home this summer? I think I will be in Ribe then, and we could meet and plan everything.

Until then my decision must remain a secret. Write me as soon as you can, and promise me in your letter that you will not breathe a word of this to anyone. And tell me you are happy about the turn of events. Although there is not much to be happy about, I think you might in fact be happy, but be careful that your joy will not be read between the lines of the letters you send home to Denmark, except of course in the letters you send to me. And will you not, please, send me your photo that I might familiarize myself with the way you look now. Me, I am a teacher here, but you probably already know that from your parents, though I will not speak of that just now. I can think of only one thing now, that I am your bride—how mysterious are the ways in which Our Lord works, only a fortnight ago I should have thought this impossible, but I am sure it was God who helped me think of this solution. May He bless our union. Please feel no anger toward me because of the things I wrote in my previous letter, which caused you a disappointment you could have been spared. Listen to me, please, don't be angry. And now farewell, I trust you to keep all this to yourself until we meet. I long to hear from you, and oh, I seem already to miss you. I enclose a little flower for you, and it is this flower that brings you these wonderful tidings from Denmark, and in my thoughts I am also sending you your first kiss from your future bride.


"I came in late from work," Riis wrote in his diary, ". . . and found the letter from Elisabeth which brought joy and sunshine to my heart. God bless her. She is my bride now, and so ends this chapter of my unsettled life with a blessing. In the name of Our Lord, Elisabeth is my bride, my betrothed at last."

That evening and all through the night Riis paced the floor of his small room, too excited to sleep. The landlord, who lived in the apartment below, heard him and, fearing something was wrong, went up to check on him. A jubilant Riis opened the door, and it required only a brief glance at his young tenant's face for the landlord to understand that Elisabeth had finally consented to marry him. Like all of Riis's acquaintances the landlord knew about her. Now he uttered a heartfelt, "Wish you joy, old man."

Excerpted from The Other Half: The Life of Jacob Riis and the World of Immigrant America by Tom Buk-Swienty, translated by Annette Buk-Swienty. Copyright (c) 2005 by Tom Buk-Swienty and Gyldendal. English translation copyright (c) 2008 by Annette Buk-Swienty. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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