There’s a Wisconsin Death Trip flickr? I had no idea.

21 10 2008

And they say reading blogs is just a waste of time.  Vance at the Edge of the American West points me too a flickr set up by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin full of pictures from one of my favorite books, Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy.  Vance’s description is accurate, but it makes the book sound dull:

The book consists largely of clippings from the Badger State Banner, of Black River Falls, Jackson County, WI, and images by Charles Van Schaick, a local commercial photographer.

I prefer Griel Marcus’s description from the NYT in 1999:

Mr. Lesy noticed Van Schaick’s many pictures of dead infants and children, dressed in their christening gowns, now placed in tiny coffins. As he looked for the story behind these photos, he found a tale of plagues: of murder, suicide, farm and business failures, madness, addiction, tramp armies, and the ruin of childhood and the desolation of families by epidemics of diptheria, typhoid, smallpox and flu.

Mr. Lesy made a montage, using items from the local paper, contemporaneous regional fiction and poetry, asylum records and the photographs left by Van Schaick, who in Mr. Lesy’s pages emerges as Arbus’s unknown ancestor. In words, the story was almost too much to take in, the accumulation of awful facts nearly mute in their cacophony. But the pictures spoke. From Van Schaick’s archive Mr. Lesy made a tableau of disassociation, terror and insanity passing for everyday life. It was all in the blank eyes, the frozen mouths in family portraits: those were the ghosts James Marsh saw.

Indeed, it’s the juxtaposition of the strange clips and strange photographs that gives the book its power (and likewise explains why the movie is unwatchable – but that’s a subject for a whole different post).

Vance gets caught up arguing with Lesy’s thesis about Black River Falls being a particularly difficult place to live in the 1890s.  I don’t disagree, but to me making that argument is pointless.  It’s like suggesting that Dr. Johnson wasn’t all that different from the typical 18th Century Briton.  When you find a good cache of evidence, you run with it.

To me the book is a symbol of how death pervaded everything and everywhere in nineteenth century America.  I got the same feeling when I read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals and just about everybody close to all the politicians she profiles died before they did.  [The big exception, of course, was Mary Todd Lincoln.  She just lost her mind.]

Now I can show the same impact with pictures.  I’ve never been so happy to learn that I can make other people so sad.




3 responses

23 10 2008

Hey, glad to have been useful, anyway. It’s great that the Historical Society has just put the stuff up, with a bit of helpful comment on the images, and a reference to the book, but no effort to reproduce the effect of the book. So whatever you make of it all, it’s interesting.

The reference to Diane Arbus gets at our disagreement over the book, I think (or at the disagreement between me now and 30 years ago). I don’t need to try further to convince you — you’re in good company.

23 10 2008

Plus, it’s easy to make the case that Dr. Johnson was extraordinary. Not many people in any age have hangers-on noting all their table talk. OK, I’ll stop now.

23 10 2008
Jonathan Rees


I knew that Dr. Johnson analogy didn’t work, but I couldn’t think of a better way to make the point. If the evidence is interesting, the book will be interesting too practically by default.

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