Friday, May 22, 2009

Wisconsin Death Trip

I mentioned in an earlier post that Robert Golrick's new novel A Reliable Wife was influenced by a photo essay he read in the 1970s called Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy. Golrick's description of the book as "a haunting, cinematic portrait of a small town in Wisconsin at the diseased end of the nineteenth century" really intrigued me. His book left such an impression on me, I was eager to see these images that inspired the story.

Lesy's book consists of photographs that were taken by Charles Van Schaick of the residents of Black River Falls, Wisconsin over the period of 1885 to 1899. According to the introduction, many historians believe that a major psychic crisis was occurring in Americans' lives during the 1890s. There was a surge in suicides, murders, fires, and overall "degeneracy." Lesy includes clippings from the local paper as well as records from the state insane asylum reporting these events. The combination of the photos and the clippings are meant to illustrate the psychology of the people in this particular time and place.

The news clippings are quite extraordinary. So many notices of deaths, murders, suicides, arson, bankruptcies, layoffs, crimes, and people committed to the asylum. It is definitely haunting. What is interesting is how matter-of-fact the notices were. Consider:
"Charles Gregory of Sheboygan Falls, while jumping on a moving freight...was run
over...the top of his head [was] taken off and his brains strewn on the track."
That's it. No added commentary. No interviews with bystanders. When something like that happens today, it's the highlight of the nightly news. Bystanders are interviewed. Experts are questioned. Drama is encouraged. But these notices seem to indicate that these were everyday occurrences and people were not shocked by them. The photos are also fantastic. Women in their austere clothes and hairstyles. Men with their crazy beards and mustaches. I love looking at old photos. While I liked both the photos and the clippings on their own, what I really would have preferred were descriptions of the people in the pictures. Who were these people? What were they doing? Why were they getting their picture taken? Or pictures of the people mentioned in the clippings. What did the window-breaking woman look like? Or how about some pictures of the asylum? Lesy's combination of these particular photos with these stories were not as effective as I had hoped, but still an interesting portrait of life during this time.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wisconsin Death Trip has a documentary as well. Worth checking out.