Nonfiction > Jacob A. Riis > The Battle with the Slum > VII. Pietro and the Jew
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Jacob A. Riis (1849–1914). The Battle with the Slum. 1902.
 
VII. Pietro and the Jew
 
WE have seen that the problem of the tenement is to make homes for the people, out of it if we can, in it if we must. Now about the tenant. How much of a problem is he? And how are we to go about solving it?   1
  The government “slum inquiry,” of which I have spoken before, gave us some facts about him. In New York it found 62.58 per cent of the population of the slum to be foreign-born, whereas for the whole city the percentage of foreigners was only 43.23. While the proportion of illiteracy in all was only as 7.69 to 100, in the slum it was 46.65 per cent. That with nearly twice as many saloons to a given number there should be three times as many arrests in the slum as in the city at large need not be attributed to nationality, except indirectly in its possible responsibility for the saloons. I say “possible” advisably. Anybody, I should think, whose misfortune it is to live in the slum might be expected to find in the saloon a refuge. I shall not quarrel with the other view of it. I am merely stating a personal impression. The fact that concerns us here is the great proportion of the foreign-born. Though the inquiry covered only a small section of a tenement district, the result may be accepted as typical.   2
  We shall not, then, have to do with an American element in discussing this tenant, for even of the “natives” in the census, by far the largest share is made up of the children of the immigrant. Indeed, in New York only 4.77 per cent of the slum population canvassed were shown to be of native parentage. The parents of 95.23 per cent had come over the sea, to better themselves, it may be assumed. Let us see what they brought us, and what we have given them in return.   3
  The Italians were in the majority where this census-taker went. They were from the south of Italy, avowedly the worst of the Italian immigration, which in the eleven years from 1891 to 1902 gave us nearly a million of Victor Emmanuel’s subjects. The exact number of Italian immigrants, as registered by the Emigration Bureau, from July 1, 1891, to June 1, 1902, a month short of eleven years, was 944, 345. And they come in greater numbers every year. In 1898, 58,613 came over, of whom 36,086 gave New York as their destination. In 1901 the Italian immigrants numbered 138,608, and as I write shiploads with thousands upon thousands are afloat, bound for our shores. Yet there is a gleam of promise in the showing of last year, for of the 138,608, those who came to stay in New York numbered only 67,231. Enough surely, but they were after all only one-half of the whole against two-thirds in 1898. If this means that they came to join friends elsewhere in the country—that other centres of immigration have been set up—well and good. There is room for them there. Going out to break ground, they give us more than they get. The peril lies in their being cooped up in the city.   4
 
 
Bedroom in the New City Lodging House.
 
  Of last year’s intake 116,070 came from southern Italy, where they wash less, and also plot less against the peace of mankind, than they do in the north. Quite a lot were from Sicily, the island of the absentee landlord, where peasants die of hunger. I make no apology for quoting here the statement of an Italian officer, on duty in the island, to a staff correspondent of the Tribuna of Rome, a paper not to be suspected of disloyalty to United Italy. I take it from the Evening Post:   5
  “In the month of July I stopped on a march by a threshing-floor where they were measuring grain. When the shares had been divided, the one who had cultivated the land received a single tumolo (less than a half bushel). The peasant, leaning on his spade, looked at his share as if stunned. His wife and their five children were standing by. From the painful toil of a year this was what was left to him with which to feed his family. The tears rolled silently down his cheeks.”   6
  These things occasionally help one to understand. Over against this picture there arises in my memory one from the barge office, where I had gone to see an Italian steamer come in. A family sat apart, ordered to wait by the inspecting officer; in the group was an old man, worn and wrinkled, who viewed the turmoil with the calmness of one having no share in it. The younger members formed a sort of bulwark around him.   7
  “Your father is too old to come in,” said the official.   8
 
 
“Are we not young enough to work for him?”
 
  Two young women and a boy of sixteen rose to their feet at once. “Are not we young enough to work for him?” they said. The boy showed his strong arms.   9
  It is charged against this Italian immigrant that he is dirty, and the charge is true. He lives in the darkest of slums, and pays rent that ought to hire a decent flat. To wash, water is needed; and we have a law which orders tenement landlords to put it on every floor, so that their tenants may have the chance. And it is not yet half a score years since one of the biggest tenement-house landlords in the city, the wealthiest church corporation in the land, attacked the constitutionality of this statute rather than pay two or three hundred dollars for putting water into two old buildings, as the Board of Health had ordered, and so came near upsetting the whole structure of tenement-house law upon which our safety depends. Talk about the Church and the people; that one thing did more to drive them apart than all the ranting of atheists that ever were. Yesterday a magazine came in the mail in which I read: “On a certain street corner in Chicago stands a handsome church where hundreds of worshippers gather every Sabbath morning for prayer and praise. Just a little way off, almost within the shadow of its spire, lived, or rather herded, in a dark, damp basement, a family of eight—father, mother, and six children. For all the influence that the songs or the sermons or the prayers had upon them they might have lived there and died like rats in a hole. They did not believe in God, nor heaven, nor hell, other than that in which they lived. Church-goers were to them a lot of canting hypocrites who wrapped their comfortable robes about them and cared nothing for the sufferings of others. Hunger and misery were daily realities.   10
  No, it was not a yellow newspaper. It was a religious publication, and it told how a warm human love did find them out, and showed them what the Church had failed to do—what God’s love is like. And I am not attacking the Church either. God forbid! I would help, not hinder it; for I, too, am a churchman. Only—well, let it pass. It will not happen again. That same year I read in my paper the reply of the priest at the Pro-Cathedral in Stanton Street to a crank who scoffed at the kind of “religion” they had there: kinder-gartens, nurseries, boys’ and girls’ clubs, and mothers’ meetings. “Yes,” he wrote, “that is our religion. We believe that a love of God that doesn’t forthwith run to manifest itself in some loving deed to His children is not worth having.” That is how I came to be a churchman in Bishop Potter’s camp. I “joined” then and there.   11
  Our Italian is ignorant, it is said, and that charge is also true. I doubt if one of the family in the barge office could read or write his own name. Yet would you fear especial danger to our institutions, to our citizenship, from those four? He lives cheaply, crowds, and underbids even the Jew in the sweat shop. I can myself testify to the truth of these statements. A couple of years ago I was the umpire in a quarrel between the Jewish tailors and the factory inspector whom they arraigned before the governor on charges of inefficiency. The burden of their grievance was that the Italians were underbidding them in their own market, which of course the factory inspector could not prevent. Yet, even so, the evidence is not that the Italian always gets the best of it. I came across a family once working on “knee-pants.” “Twelve pants, ten cents,” said the tailor, when there was work. “Ve work for dem sheenies,” he explained.   12
  “Ven dey has work, ve gets some; ven dey hasn’t, ve don’t.” He was an unusually gifted tailor as to English, but apparently not as to business capacity. In the Astor tenements, in Elizabeth Street, where we found forty-three families living in rooms intended for sixteen, I saw women finishing “pants” at thirty cents a day. Some of the garments were of good grade, and some of poor; some of them were soldiers’ trousers, made for the government; but whether they received five, seven, eight, or ten cents a pair, it came to thirty cents a day, except in a single instance, in which two women, sewing from five in the morning till eleven at night, were able, being practised hands, to finish forty-five “pants” at three and a half cents a pair, and so made together over a dollar and a half. They were content, even happy. I suppose it seemed wealth to them, coming from a land where a Parisian investigator of repute found three lire (not quite sixty cents) per mouth a girl’s wages.   13
  I remember one of those flats, poor and dingy, yet with signs of the instinctive groping toward orderly arrangement which I have observed so many times, and take to be evidence that in better surroundings much might be made of these people. Clothes were hung to dry on a line strung the whole length of the room. Upon couches by the wall some men were snoring. They were the boarders. The “man” was out shovelling snow with the midnight shift. By a lamp with brown paper shade, over at the window, sat two women sewing. One had a baby on her lap. Two sweet little cherubs, nearly naked, slept on a pile of unfinished “pants,” and smiled in their sleep. A girl of six or seven dozed in a child’s rocker between the two workers, with her head hanging down on one side; the mother propped it up with her elbow as she sewed. They were all there, and happy in being together even in such a place. On a corner shelf burned a night lamp before a print of the Mother of God, flanked by two green bottles, which, seen at a certain angle, made quite a festive show.   14
  Complaint is made that the Italian promotes child labor. His children work at home on “pants” and flowers at an hour when they ought to have been long in bed. Their sore eyes betray the little flower-makers when they come tardily to school. Doubtless there are such cases, and quite too many of them; yet, in the very block which I have spoken of, the investigation conducted for the Gilder Tenement House Commission by the Department of Sociology of Columbia University, under Professor Franklin H. Giddings, discovered, of 196 children of school age, only 23 at work or at home, and in the next block only 27 out of 215. That was the showing of the foreign population all the way through. Of 225 Russian Jewish children only 15 were missing from school, and of 354 little Bohemians only 21. The overcrowding of the schools and their long waiting lists occasionally furnished the explanation why they were not there. Professor Giddings reported, after considering all the evidence: “The foreign-born population of the city is not, to any great extent, forcing children of legal school age into money-earning occupations. On the contrary, this population shows a strong desire to have its children acquire the common rudiments of education. If the city does not provide liberally and wisely for the satisfaction of this desire, the blame for the civic and moral dangers that will threaten our community, because of ignorance, vice, and poverty, must rest on the whole public, not on our foreign-born residents.” And Superintendent Maxwell of the Department of Education adds, six years later, that with a shortage of 28,000 seats, and worse coming, “it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the insufficiency of school accommodation in New York City is a most serious menace to our universal welfare.” 1 For we have reached the stage again, thanks be to four years of Tammany, when, after all the sacrifices of the past, we are once more face to face with an army of enforced truants, and all they stand for.   15
  He is clannish, this Italian; he gambles and uses a knife, though rarely on anybody not of his own people; he “takes what he can get,” wherever anything is free, as who would not, coming to the feast like a starved wolf? There was nothing free where he came from. Even the salt was taxed past a poor man’s getting any of it. Lastly, he buys fraudulent naturalization papers, and uses them. I shall plead guilty for him to every one of these counts. They are all proven. Gambling is his besetting sin. He is sober, industrious, frugal, enduring beyond belief; but he will gamble on Sunday and quarrel over his cards, and when he sticks his partner in the heat of the quarrel, the partner is not apt to tell. He prefers to bide his time. Yet there has lately been evidence once or twice, in the surrender of an assassin by his countrymen, that the old vendetta is being shelved and a new idea of law and justice is breaking through. As to the last charge: our Italian is not dull. With his intense admiration for the land where a dollar a day waits upon the man with a shovel, he can see no reason why he should not accept the whole “American plan” with ready enthusiasm. It is a good plan. To him it sums itself up in the statement: a dollar a day for the shovel; two dollars for the shovel with a citizen behind it. And he takes the papers and the two dollars.   16
  He came here for a chance to live. Of politics, social ethics, he knows nothing. Government in his old home existed only for his oppression. Why should he not attach himself with his whole loyal soul to the plan of government in his new home that offers to boost him into the place of his wildest ambition, a “job on the streets,”—that is, in the Street Cleaning Department,—and asks no other return than that he shall vote as directed? Vote! Not only he, but his cousins and brothers and uncles will vote as they are told, to get Pietro the job he covets. If it pleases the other man, what is it to him for whom he votes? He is after the job.   17
  Here, ready-made to the hand of the politician, is such material as he never saw before. For Pietro’s loyalty is great. As a police detective, one of his own people, once put it to me, “He got a kind of an idea, or an old rule: an eye for an eye; do to an-other as you’d be done by; if he don’t squeal on you, you stick by him, no matter what the consequences.” This “kind of an idea” is all he has to draw upon for an answer to the question if the thing is right. But the question does not arise. Why should it? Was he not told by the agitators whom the police jailed at home that in a republic all men are made happy by means of the vote? And is there not proof of it? It has made him happy, has it not? And the man who bought his vote seems to like it. Well, then?   18
 
 
The Play School. Dressing Dolls for a Lesson.
 
  Very early Pietro discovered that it was every man for himself, in the chase of the happiness which this powerful vote had in keeping. He was robbed by the padrone—that is, the boss—when he came over, fleeced on his steamship fare, made to pay for getting a job, and charged three prices for board and lodging and extras while working in the railroad gang. The boss had a monopoly, and Pietro was told that it was maintained by his “divvying” with some railroad official. Rumor said, a very high-up official, and that the railroad was in politics in the city; that is to say, dealt in votes. When the job gave out, the boss packed him into the tenement he had bought with his profits on the contract; and if Pietro had a family, told him to take in lodgers and crowd his flat, as the Elizabeth Street tenements were crowded, so as to make out the rent, and to never mind the law. The padrone was a politician, and had a pull. He was bigger than the law, and it was the votes he traded in that did it all. Now it was Pietro’s turn. With his vote he could buy what to him seemed wealth; two dollars a day. In the muddle of ideas, that was the one which stood out clearly. When citizen papers were offered him for $12.50, he bought them quickly, and got his job on the street.   19
  It was the custom of the country. If there was any doubt about it, the proof was furnished when Pietro was arrested through the envy and plotting of the opposition boss. Distinguished counsel, employed by the machine, pleaded his case in court. Pietro felt himself to be quite a personage, and he was told that he was safe from harm, though a good deal of dust might be kicked up; because, when it came down to that, both the bosses were doing the same kind of business. I quote from the report of the State Superintendent of Elections of January, 1899: “In nearly every case of illegal registration, the defendant was represented by eminent counsel who were identified with the Democratic organization, among them being three assistants to the corporation counsel. My deputies arrested Rosario Calecione and Giuseppe Marrone, both of whom appeared to vote at the fifth election district of the Sixth Assembly District; Marrone being the Democratic captain of the district, and, it was charged, himself engaged in the business of securing fraudulent naturalization papers. In both of these cases Farriello had procured the naturalization papers for the men for a consideration. They were subsequently indicted. Marrone and Calecione were bailed by the Democratic leader of the Sixth Assembly District.”   20
  The business, says the state superintendent, is carried on “to an enormous extent.” It appears, then, that Pietro has already “got on to” the American plan as the slum presented it to him, and has in good earnest become a problem. I guessed as much from the statement of a Tammany politician to me, a year ago, that every Italian voter in his district got his “old two” on election day. He ought to know, for he held the purse. Suppose, now, we speak our minds as frankly, for once, and put the blame where it belongs. Will it be on Pietro? And upon this showing, who ought to be excluded, when it comes to that?   21
  The slum census taker did not cross the Bowery. Had he done so, he would have come upon the refugee Jew, the other economic marplot of whom complaint is made with reason. If his Nemesis has overtaken him in the Italian, certainly he challenged that fate. He did cut wages by his coming. He was starving, and he came in shoals. In eighteen years more than half a million Jewish immigrants have landed in New York. 2 They had to have work and food, and they got both as they could. In the strife they developed qualities that were anything but pleasing. They herded like cattle. They had been so herded by Christian rulers, a despised and persecuted race, through the centuries. Their very coming was to escape from their last inhuman captivity in a Christian state. They lied, they were greedy, they were charged with bad faith. They brought nothing, neither money nor artisan skill,—nothing but their consuming energy, to our land, and their one gift was their greatest offence. One might have pointed out that they had been trained to lie, for their safety; had been forbidden to work at trades, to own land; had been taught for a thousand years, with the scourge and the stake, that only gold could buy them freedom from torture. But what was the use? The charges were true. The Jew was—he still is—a problem of our slum.   22
  And yet, if ever there was material for citizenship, this Jew is such material. Alone of all our immigrants he comes to us without a past. He has no country to renounce, no ties to forget. Within him there burns a passionate longing for a home to call his, a country which will own him, that waits only for the spark of such another love to spring into flame which nothing can quench. Waiting for it, all his energies are turned into his business. He is not always choice in method; he often offends. He crowds to the front in everything, no matter whom he crowds out. The land is filled with his clamor. “If the East Side would shut its mouth and the West Side get off the saloon corner, we could get somewhere,” said a weary philanthropist to me the other day, and made me laugh, for I knew what he meant. But the Jew heeds it not. He knows what he wants and he gets it. He succeeds. He is the yeast of any slum, if given time. If it will not let him go, it must rise with him. The charity managers in London said it, when we looked through their slums some years ago, “The Jews have renovated Whitechapel.” I, for one, am a firm believer in this Jew, and in his boy. Ignorant they are, but with a thirst for knowledge that surmounts any barrier. The boy takes all the prizes in the school. His comrades sneer that he will not fight. Neither will he when there is nothing to be gained by it. Yet, in defence of his rights, there is in all the world no such fighter he. Literally, he will die fighting, by inches, too, from starvation. Witness his strikes. I believe that, should the time come when the country needs fighting men, the son of the despised immigrant Jew will resurrect on American soil, the first that bade him welcome, the old Maccabee type, and set an example for all the rest of us to follow.   23
  This long while he has been in the public eye as the vehicle and promoter of sweating, and much severe condemnation has been visited upon him with good cause. He had to do something, and he took to the clothes-maker’s trade as that which was most quickly learned. The increasing crowds, the tenement, and his grinding poverty made the soil wherein the evil grew rank. But the real sweater does not live in Ludlow Street; he keeps the stylish shop on Broadway, and he does not always trouble himself to find out how his workers fare, much as that may have to do with the comfort and security of his customers.   24
  “We do not have to have a license,” said the tenants in one wretched flat where a consumptive was sewing on coats almost with his last gasp; “we work for a first-class place on Broadway.”   25
  And so they did. Sweating is simply a question of profit to the manufacturer. By letting out his work on contract, he can save the expense of running his factory and delay longer making his choice of styles. If the contractor, in turn, can get along with less shop room by having as much of the work as can profitably be so farmed out done in the tenements by cheap home labor, he is so much better off. And tenement labor is always cheap because of the crowds that clamor for it and must have bread. The poor Jew is the victim of the mischief quite as much as he has helped it on. Back of the manufacturer and the contractor there is still another sweater,—the public. Only by its sufferance of the bargain counter and of sweat-shop-made goods has the nuisance existed as long as it has. I am glad I have lived to see the day of its passing, for, unless I greatly mistake, it is at hand now that the old silent partner is going out of the firm.   26
  I mean the public. We tried it in the old days, but the courts said the bill to stop tenement cigar making was unconstitutional. Labor was property, and property is inviolable—rightly so until it itself becomes a threat to the commonwealth. Child labor is such a threat. It has been stopped in the factories, but no one can stop it in the tenement so long as families are licensed to work there. The wrecking of the home that is inevitable where the home is turned into a shop with thirty cents as a woman’s wage is that; the overcrowding that goes hand in hand with home-work is that; the scourge of consumption which doctors and Boards of Health wrestle with in vain while dying men and women “sew on coats with their last gasp” and sew the death warrant of the buyer into the lining, is a threat the gravity of which we have hardly yet made out. Courts and constitutions reflect the depth of public sentiment on a moral or political issue. We have been doing a deal of dredging since then, and we are at it yet. While I am writing a Tuberculosis Committee is at work sifting the facts of tenement-house life as they bear on that peril. A Child Labor Committee is preparing to attack the slum in its centre, as we stopped the advance guard when we made the double-decker unprofitable. The factory inspector is gathering statistics of earnings and hours of labor in sweat shop and tenement to throw light on the robbery that goes on there. When they have told us what they have to tell, it may be that we shall be able to say to the manufacturer: “You shall not send out goods to be made in sweat shop or tenement. You shall make them in your own shop or not at all.” He will not be hurt, for all will have to do alike. I am rather inclined to think that he will be glad to take that way out of a grisly plight.   27
 
 
Label of Consumers’ League.
 
  For he has seen the signs of a flank movement that goes straight for his pocket-book, an organized public sentiment that is getting ready to say to him, “We will buy no clothes or wear them, or any other thing whatsoever, that is made at the price of the life and hope of other men or women.” Wherever I went last winter, through the length and breadth of the land, women were stirring to organize branches of the Consumers’ League. True, they were the well-to-do, not yet the majority. But they were the very ones who once neither knew nor cared. Now they do both. That is more than half the fight. Whatever may be the present results of the agitation, in the long run I would rather take my chances with a vigorous Consumers’ League and not a law in the state to safeguard labor or the community’s interests, than with the most elaborate code man has yet devised, and the bargain counter in full blast, unchallenged, from Monday to Saturday. Laws may be evaded, and too often are; tags betraying that goods are “tenement made” may be removed, and they make no appeal anyhow to a community deaf to the arraignment of the bargain counter. But an instructed public sentiment, such as that of which the Consumers’ League 3 is the most recent expression, makes laws and enforces them too. By its aid we have forced the children out of the factories, the sweat shops out of the tenements, and shut the door against the stranger there. Only to families are licenses granted. By its aid we shall yet drive work out of the home altogether; for goods are made to sell, and none will be made which no one will buy.   28
 
 
Josephine Shaw Lowell, Chairman of the Vagrancy Committee, and one of the Strongest Forces in Charity Organization, the Consumers’ League, and every other Healthy Reform Effort.
 
  Organized labor makes its own appeal its own appeal to the same end. From this year (1892) on, the United Garment Workers of America resolved in national convention to give their stamp to no manufacturer who does not have all his work done on his own premises. If they faithfully live up to that compact with the public, they will win. Two winters ago I took their label, which was supposed to guarantee living wages and clean and healthy conditions, from the hip pocket of a pair of trousers which I found a man, sick with scarlet fever, using as a pillow in one of the foulest sweater’s tenements I had ever been in, and carried it to the headquarters of the union to show them what a mockery they were making of the mightiest engine that had come to their hand. I am glad to believe those days are over for good; and when we all believe it their fight will be won. When the union label deserves public confidence as a guarantee against such things, it will receive it. When I know that insisting on a union plumber for my pipes means that the job will be done right, the I will always send for a union plumber and have no other. That is the whole story, and on that day the label will be mightier than any law, because the latter will be merely the effort to express by statute the principle it embodies.   29
  Stragglers there will always be, I suppose. It was only the other day I read in the report of the Consumers’ League in my own city that “a benevolent institution,” when found giving out clothing to be made in tenement houses that were not licensed, and taken to task for it, asked the agents of the League to “show some way in which the law could be evaded”; but it is just as well for that “benevolent institution” that name and address were wanting, or it might find its funds running short unaccountably. We are waking up. This very licensing of tenement workers is proof of it, though it gives one a cold chill to see thirty thousand licenses out, with hardly a score of factory inspectors to keep tab on them. Roosevelt, as governor, set the pace, going himself among the tenements to see how the law was enforced, and how it could be mended. Now we have a registry system copied from Massachusetts, where they do these things right and most others besides. An index is so arranged by streets that when the printed sheet comes every morning from the Bureau of Contagious Diseases, with name and house number of every case of small-pox, scarlet fever, diphtheria, etc. reported during the twenty-four hours, a clerk can check one off from the other in half an hour, and before noon have every infected flat quarantined. Word is sent to the manufacturer to stop sending any more supplies there, and the garments in the house are tagged till after disinfection. And by the same means all the cards are laid on the table. If a merchant in California or in Florida brags that he buys only factory-made goods, the customer can find out through the Consumers’ League if it is true. If the register shows that the manufacturer has filed lists of the tenements where his goods are made up, it is not true. All of which helps.   30
  But Massachusetts is Massachusetts, and New York is New York. A tenement-house population of more than two millions of souls makes its own problems, and there is no other like it. After all, the chief function of the license must, in the end, be to show that it cannot be done so—safely. Even with the active coöperation of the Board of Health, and with the nearly two hundred tenement-house inspectors that are being turned loose this summer, full of new zeal and desire to make a record, we shall yet be whipping the devil around the stump until the public sentiment fostered by the Consumers’ League and its allies heads him off on the other side. The truth of the matter is that the job is too big for the law alone. It needs the gospel to back it up. Together they can do it.   31

Note 1. Superintendent Maxwell in Municipal Affairs, December, 1900. [ back ]

Note 2. According to the register of the United Hebrew Charities, between October 1, 1884, and June 1, 1902, the number was 539,067, and it is again on the increase. The year 1902 will probably show an increase in this class of immigration over 1901 of quite 15,000. [ back ]

Note 3. The following is the declaration of principles of the National Consumers’ League:—

SEC.1. That the interests of the community demand that all workers shall receive fair living wages, and that goods shall be produced under sanitary conditions.

SEC.2. That the responsibility for some of the worst evils from which producers suffer rests with the consumers who seek the cheapest markets regardless how cheapness is brought about.

SEC.3. That it is, therefore, the duty of consumers to find out under what conditions the articles they purchase are produced and distributed, and insist that these conditions shall be wholesome, and consistent with a respectable existence on the part of the workers. [ back ]


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