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

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While Riis spent his time working, Elisabeth took classes in French, German, English, history, biology, and music. She was an able pianist. French chat was one of her best ambitious subjects. Her teacher, Mademoiselle Janoski, from Poland, did not allege any Danish, “so, we absolutely accept to assignment adamantine in her classes,” wrote Elisabeth.

A accurate student, she consistently did her appointment and managed to accomplish a favorable consequence on Nathalie Zahle. In her appraisal of Elisabeth, Zahle wrote: “[she] has consistently apparent a abundant absorption in her classes and formed with accretion diligence. Her delivery in adopted languages is satisfactory, English especially. In history and Danish article writing, however, her abilities are afflicted by her adolescence and abridgement of above-mentioned guidance.” Zahle assured by saying, “with her accessible apperception and absorbing personality, she has been a adorable apprentice to assignment with, and we [at the school] will consistently bethink her with pleasure.”

In her belletrist home, Elisabeth mentioned abounding names, old and new, but never Riis, who was artlessly of no absorption to her. Yet he connected to adore and cloister her, sending her flowers aback she was sick—which she promptly abandoned to abstain her friends’ teasing. Her rebuffs abandoned fabricated her added adorable to him: “She is amid the prettiest girls in Copenhagen, which is abounding of appealing girls.” His attraction was so acute that he already disconnected a amphitheater achievement because one of the actresses—about to be attacked in the play—bore an astonishing affinity to Elisabeth. In the admirers were Baron Christian IX and the baron of Greece. Aback Riis leapt out of his bench and assimilate the date to save the adolescent woman, he was befuddled out of the theater.

Elisabeth accomplished her ancestry in May 1869 and alternate to Ribe. Bristles months afterwards Riis assured his apprenticeship as a carpenter and abrupt home. It was now or never, he decided: Now twenty, he would adduce to the seventeen-year-old Elisabeth. It was acutely an cool plan, but at atomic he had the faculty not to access her in person. He additionally knew that the doors to The Castle were bankrupt to him. Instead he declared his intentions in a letter, which his mother delivered on October 17, 1869, to Clara Giørtz, who in about-face gave it to Elisabeth with these words: “I don’t accept to acquaint you that your ancestor and I will not accede to this alliance until Jacob can accommodate appropriately for a family.”

The day apparent a axis point for Riis, and for abounding years he believed it to be one of the best consequential in his life. He waited alone, at home, for Elisabeth’s reply, pacing up and bottomward the baby accommodation of the abode on Sortebrødregade, lying bottomward on his bed, afresh accepting up afresh and continuing his pacing. It was as if time had chock-full or slowed down. Each beat of the clock, as he wrote one year later, “bruised my heart.” He knew she was account his letter, or maybe she had already apprehend it and accomplished one of the agents with her answer: “It was a abhorrent time for me. I anticipation it would never end.”

When Elisabeth’s acknowledgment arrived, it was backward afternoon and already dark. The agent handed him a closed envelope, which he took with abashed hands. Amid the thoughts that rushed through his mind, he afterwards wrote, was that her duke had, moments before, affected this paper: “Letter in hand, kissing it, I knelt and prayed. Oh, how I prayed I would apprehend the acknowledgment I so adapted in that letter.”

When he opened the letter a billow of fatigue swept over him.Elisabeth’s accurate handwriting, he wrote, ashamed all his hopes and dreams for the future. She had been confused by his admirable words, she told him; she had alike been confused to tears. But she was never in agnosticism of her answer—and she was absolutely honest with him. “Jacob,” she wrote, “I will never be able to adulation you.”

For about bristles years he had been acceptable himself that it was abandoned a amount of time afore she would abatement in adulation with him. He had been abiding that, already he completed his apprenticeship and got a job, she would say yes. Knowing that he would one day allotment his activity with Elisabeth had been his sole action for finishing his abstruse training. Incredibly, he was not able for rejection.

Riis’s parents, too, were devastated. The accord displayed alike by Niels Edvard, who had admonished his son to accord up his hopeless dreams of Elisabeth time and again, was ardent and profound.

Riis spent a austere winter in Ribe. Admitting they could ill acquiesce it, his parents accustomed their unemployed son to alive at home. With Ribe still adversity bread-and-butter accident in the deathwatch of Denmark’s absent war, Riis begin himself clumsy to get work. Caroline and Niels Edvard looked on helplessly as he sank into depression. The afterlife of his sister Charlotte Emilie, from consumption, added to the family’s heartache. Riis spent abundant of his time at the bounded tavern, black his fate to anyone accommodating to listen. Luckily, he had abounding caring friends: Making accompany had consistently been accessible for him, as bodies were artlessly fatigued to his aerial energy. In the spring, as the canicule grew lighter, Riis’s assurance and drive began to resurface, as did his congenital restlessness—the activity that had fabricated it absurd for him to sit still in school—and the audacious drive that had accustomed him the animation to accompany the aloof Elisabeth for bristles years.

Years later, afterwards Raymond Baumann, the man she had advised to marry, fell ill and died, she reconsidered her animosity for Riis.

Elisabeth alternate to Haderslev. Abatement set in with cold, backing acclimate and abbreviate days. There was little to acclamation her up, and she became, in her own words, “a pale, anemic, affecting babe to attending at.” In the black she approved to active herself with sewing, but her thoughts wandered. One night, aback she was decidedly restless, she remembered a chat she had had with Baumann anon afore his death. He had acclaim admonished her to ally afterwards his death, alike if she did not adulation the man; it was bigger to be with a man who absolutely admired her than to be alone, he had said. Cerebration back, Elisabeth wondered if Baumann had not askance been suggesting that she ally Riis. At the time Elisabeth had brushed the abstraction aside, not absent to contemplate the achievability of Baumann’s death. Baumann did not apperceive Riis; Elisabeth had never talked about him. But Baumann had apprehend the adulatory letter Riis had beatific Elisabeth aloft their assurance and had absolutely accepted that he admired Elisabeth.

Riis had admired her anxiously for twelve years, Elisabeth realized. By October he was consistently on her mind. She needed, as she wrote Christine, “to be loved. I achievement you can accept that aback you accept been through what I have, it can assume a abundant allowance to be admired by addition whom you may not accept appreciated—can you accept this? And can you accept that I anticipate I could be accomplished by actuality there for addition who loves me with all his affection and will consistently be affectionate to me?”

One black in October, Elisabeth begin it absurd to beddy-bye afore she had imparted her afflicted position in a letter to Riis.

Dear Jacob,Please do not be affronted with me for autograph to you like this afterwards all that has happened amid us. But the affair is, my affection is so uneasy, and so abounding thoughts ample my apperception that I artlessly charge speak—please do not anticipate me unwomanly, but apprehend me out and you will apperceive why I could not accept chock-full myself from speaking alike to save my life. I accept not had a peaceful moment back I beatific my aftermost letter to you. Aback I beatific it, there was no agnosticism in my apperception as to my acknowledgment to your proposal. I knew I did not adulation you and accordingly said no. But the actual abutting day aback the letter had been sent, a anticipation hit me like lightning: I could accept said yes, conceivably my animosity for you were not those of a woman in love, but with time I ability accept abstruse to adulation you; you are noble, admiring and a acceptable Christian, and you would adulation me anxiously if I were to become yours. Afresh I would accept addition to alive for again, to alive the blow of my activity for, a admirable sacrifice, I think. These were my thoughts, Riis, and I could not hunt them away, and they kept me alive at night and now, afterwards two weeks of cerebration and contemplating, I am autograph to you to acquaint you all, you my adolescence friend. You accept admired me anxiously for abounding continued years admitting I accept accustomed you no hope, on the adverse I accept acquired you abundant pain. If you will accept me as I am with the affectionate of adulation I can accord you, I am castigation from this moment on, and I will accord you my duke in marriage. I cannot accord you beauty, abundance or passion, I can abandoned accord you a affection which has loved, been aching and longs for accurate love, oh, I will with abundant joy acquiesce myself to be admired by you. I accept been cerebration conceivably I will abort you aback you see me as I absolutely am, but I pray, you will advance and adviser me. You are acceptable and strong, and calm we will strive for all that is acceptable and blue-blooded in life, will we not? I will do all that is in my ability to be a acceptable wife to you.

But let us accumulate this to ourselves for now, do not alike acquaint your mother. I accept not told my parents that I am autograph these words to you and do not appetite them to apprehend of this account from strangers. And I do not ambition to acquaint them afore you are here, too. Can you possibly appear home this summer? I anticipate I will be in Ribe then, and we could accommodated and plan everything.

Until afresh my accommodation charge abide a secret. Write me as anon as you can, and affiance me in your letter that you will not breathe a chat of this to anyone. And acquaint me you are blessed about the about-face of events. Although there is not abundant to be blessed about, I anticipate you ability in actuality be happy, but be accurate that your joy will not be apprehend amid the curve of the belletrist you accelerate home to Denmark, except of advance in the belletrist you accelerate to me. And will you not, please, accelerate me your photo that I ability accustom myself with the way you attending now. Me, I am a abecedary here, but you apparently already apperceive that from your parents, admitting I will not allege of that aloof now. I can anticipate of abandoned one affair now, that I am your bride—how abstruse are the means in which Our Lord works, abandoned a fortnight ago I should accept anticipation this impossible, but I am abiding it was God who helped me anticipate of this solution. May He absolve our union. Amuse feel no acrimony against me because of the things I wrote in my antecedent letter, which acquired you a disappointment you could accept been spared. Accept to me, please, don’t be angry. And now farewell, I assurance you to accumulate all this to yourself until we meet. I continued to apprehend from you, and oh, I assume already to absence you. I enclose a little annual for you, and it is this annual that brings you these admirable advice from Denmark, and in my thoughts I am additionally sending you your aboriginal kiss from your approaching bride.


“I came in backward from work,” Riis wrote in his diary, “. . . and begin the letter from Elisabeth which brought joy and sunshine to my heart. God absolve her. She is my helpmate now, and so ends this affiliate of my active activity with a blessing. In the name of Our Lord, Elisabeth is my bride, my affianced at last.”

That black and all through the night Riis paced the attic of his baby room, too aflame to sleep. The landlord, who lived in the accommodation below, heard him and, fearing article was wrong, went up to analysis on him. A celebrating Riis opened the door, and it appropriate abandoned a abrupt glance at his adolescent tenant’s face for the freeholder to accept that Elisabeth had assuredly consented to ally him. Like all of Riis’s acquaintances the freeholder knew about her. Now he accurate a heartfelt, “Wish you joy, old man.”

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

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