Man with Small Beard

Would it surprise you to learn that in rural Wisconsin, at the end of the 19th century, there was poverty, failure, vandalism, arson, domestic violence, disease, depression, alcoholism, insanity, suicide, and murder? Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip (1973, reissued 2000) is built on the assumption that it will. 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. After some 200 pages of grim citation, Lesy steps in to comment directly:

Pause now. Draw back from it. There will be time again to experience and remember. For a minute, wait, and then set your mind to consider a different set of circumstances….

The book certainly made a strong impression on me when I saw it as a boy. Reading it now, I have to wonder what the fuss was. The people in the pictures look…pretty much OK. You can see that they lived tough lives (there are some awesome farmer’s tans), but there are hardly any whose faces I now find scary, not even the tendentiously blurred ones Lesy enlarged from group photos. Real people can in fact look pretty strange — take a good look at your fellow passengers on the bus, or in the mirror (or, not to put too fine a point on it, at Lesy today). And in the 1890s, many of us were still new to having our pictures taken. (The nakedness of Julia Margaret Cameron‘s portraits is even stranger, though from a different place and a more privileged social world.)

Similarly, I’m unconvinced that the objective difficulties in Jackson County at that time were historically unusual. (There was an economic depression, certainly, but that was national.) Lesy tries to argue statistically that the area was worse off than its neighbors, considering the suicide rate, economic growth, etc., but his figures are inconclusive. (The suicide rates he cites, for example, are close to that for the US today.) Warren Susman, the Rutgers historian who introduces the book (he was Lesy’s thesis advisor) writes that “Many historians have become convinced that there was a major crisis in American life during the 1890s; some have gone so far as to call it a ‘psychic crisis’…”, but does not explain or offer citations.

The credibility of Lesy’s vision of rural hell is not strengthened by his handling of the text. What he excerpts from the newspaper is principally police-blotter items, briefly recounting murders, deaths, the commitment of the insane to the Mendota asylum, etc.  Beyond that, he uses no other primary or secondary sources (until the epilogue). Instead, he interpolates invented material — passages attributed to  a “Town Gossip” and a “Local Historian”, and excerpts from fiction (Hamlin Garland, Glenway Westcott, and apparently Lesy himself).

What bothers me most about the book now is its treatment of Van Schaick, the photographer. First, the book’s atmosphere of doom severely constrains one’s reading of the photos — it overwhelms the normal liveliness and humanity of such pictures as the young couple laughing, the woman bathing a baby; the handsome young man in a turtleneck, and the men clowning in an office. (OK, I’ll relent — to read that they’re doctors, clowning with electrical shock equipment, makes that last one legitimately ghoulish.) But worse, I think, is Lesy’s strange uncharity toward the man who supplied the meat of the book. In the introduction, Lesy dismisses him as merely conventional, and in the text he gives an anecdote (unsourced, and presumably made up) of Van Schaick’s poor hygiene in old age.

Thirty years after, Lesy gave an interview to Identity Theory, which is quite a bit more gracious and humane. Now he gives Schaick his due, making an apt comparison to August Sander — clearly a stronger image-maker, but likewise an example of how meaning and value in documentary photography are built by serial accumulation. So if I’m ungracious to Lesy now, perhaps I should reflect that my equanimity in the face of the images he assembled is partly owed to the shock they gave, to me and many others, back in the day.

Photos from the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Death Trip Flickr set, used under a Creative Commons license. See also the large Charles Van Schaick archive at the WHS’s own site.

[Updated with some minor corrections.]