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Some very unsettling things were happening in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, from 1890 to 1900: epidemics, insanities, suicides, burnings, bank closings, early deaths. This darker side of life was chronicled in the 1973 book Wisconsin Death Trip, a poetic and disturbing collection of photography and newspaper accounts about life in small-town America.
The tome struck a cord and quickly became a cult classic. And now, 45 years later, the fascination continues. But why? “I’m not really sure,” confesses author Michael Lesy. “The book took on a life of its own for reasons beyond me.” Now a professor of literary journalism at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, the 73-year-old surmises that “maybe it reminds people of their own predicament, this gigantic, relentless nightmare of being alive.”
It all started quite by accident in 1968, when Lesy was a college student in Madison. Bored one day, he found himself at the Wisconsin Historical Society. He remembers the space was dark and empty. Janis Joplin was playing somewhere in the distance. He met curator of iconography Paul Vanderbilt, who introduced him to an archive by turn-of-the-century portrait photographer Charles Van Schaick. “I thought some of the studio portraits were pretty amazing.” Lesy recalls. “The whole experience that day seemed like a separate universe.”
Intrigued by these striking images, he wanted to know more. So he scoured spools of microfilm and read countless newspapers from that time period. What he found were often haunting, dryly written accounts of the harsh existence in this small Wisconsin town: banks closing, children dying of disease, admissions to the local asylum — the American dream gone wrong.
Van Schaick was the ultimate small-town photographer, in the business of creating visual records made to order: births, marriages, families, businesses, homes, even horses as visual proof of their breeding potential. He wasn’t trying to be an artist, just a competent county photographer. His portraits show basic ideas of form and composition but were intended simply to freeze a moment in time, to preserve a likeness. “Commercial photography, as practiced in the 1890s, was not so much a form of applied technology as it was a semi-magical act that symbolically dealt with time and mortality,” Lesy writes in the book’s introduction.
This description is particularly apt when it comes to creating postmortem portraits of children. Heartbreaking images of small babies posed inside their tiny, satin-lined caskets. Even side-by-side coffins of siblings who had died together. Although these images may seem harsh to modern eyes, back then they were acts of love. So many children were dying of diphtheria in the 1890s, and grieving parents wanted physical records that their children had existed. Family snapshots had not yet been invented, so these formal portraits of death were the only visual reminders of what their loved ones looked like.
All told, Van Schaick left behind 30,000 glass plate negatives when he died in 1940. They sat in his studio for 30 years until the Wisconsin Historical Society salvaged 8,000 of them. Of those, Lesy chose fewer than 200 for his book. We see a stern-looking woman with a vacant glare posing in a doorway. Young men in formal suits standing amidst a sea of deer mounts. A young mother’s face with searching eyes. These seemingly timeless visual touchstones are the kinds of images that stay with you. “The idea of trusting what you see is crucial to this kind of work,” posits Lesy. “It’s neurological — registering in the present, but it’s about the past.”
The Written Word
The Badger State Banner was a weekly newspaper tasked with reporting both the mundane and the morose goings-on in Black River Falls and surrounding Jackson County. It was edited by Frank Cooper and his son George. They told their stories in small chunks of copy, written in a pared-down, matter-of-fact style. Nuggets of daily life chronicled tales of arson, murder and madness swirling around this small Northern town.
Often they were turning deeply personal matters like suicide and mental illness into public conversations, confirming the many whispers people had already heard. And yet, these news tidbits were also a way for the community to collectively share in their plight. This weekly dose of reality was delivered in a most distinctive tone. “The major voice that drones throughout the 10 years of loss and disaster — cold, sardonic and clear, like black marble — belongs to Frank Cooper,” Lesy writes in Wisconsin Death Trip. “His blocks of prose are veined here and there by the acute, sensual style of a novelist.”
As it turns out, there were many of these news nuggets from which to choose. All across America, financial difficulties were causing banks to close. This depression hit Black River Falls hard. Area businesses were closing down; people were out of work. The mostly German and Norwegian immigrants endured long, bleak winters in this isolated landscape. And when disease ravaged the community, all seemed hopeless. This was not the new opportunity they had traveled across an ocean to find.
It’s hard to categorize Wisconsin Death Trip. Is it history? Poetry? Photojournalism? There’s something about the way the images and text are combined. We see pages of compelling photography, yet no captions to indicate who these people are. We read newspaper snippets and wonder which faces might possibly connect with which stories, if any at all. It’s all left to our imagination. It’s an “alchemy,” as Lesy calls it, of carefully chosen fragments of history layered together. “It’s a way of using pictures and words to tell a story, a history,” he notes. “I wanted to provide people with an experience.”
The author explains that the book’s overall theme is “death and rebirth.” It’s divided into five distinct parts: The introduction and conclusion have to do with being born and dying young, while the middle three chapters delve into how men and women come together and apart. There are also five distinct voices that guide readers: the father-and-son newspaper editors, a medical-records keeper for the state mental asylum, a town historian and a town gossip. When asked about the book’s title, Lesy pinpoints the phrase to the time period and the counterculture cravings of the 1960s. “Oh yes, my friends and I did drugs, certainly acid,” the author admits candidly. “We all tripped.”
Lesy has always insisted that Wisconsin Death Trip was not just a portrait of one particular town but rather the psyche of a group of people who lived in a certain time and place. “It was the state of the whole region,” the author reminds us.
“The book is about all of us; it’s our shared history — the whole catastrophe.”
In the 45 years since the book was published, he has not returned to Black River Falls. And while it’s been more than a century since these particular inhabitants of this Northern town were alive, he wonders if the emotional history hasn’t lingered all these years later. “All that dreadful stuff is likely still alive and well in terms of trauma memory,” he posits.
There has always been something cinematic about the sequencing of the book: patterns and rhythms of life. Simultaneous dream and nightmare. In fact, Lesy first imagined Wisconsin Death Trip as a movie back in 1968; a lack of financing prevented it from coming to fruition.
But in 1999, a movie was made. Not by Lesy, but by British director James Marsh. The mostly black-and-white docudrama combines re-enactments of the book’s newspaper accounts accompanied by distinctly dry narration. An arthouse success, it has been featured on Netflix in recent years and is available for viewing on YouTube.
Although these days Lesy is busy working on other books, Wisconsin Death Trip continues to send tentacles out into the world. It has inspired a number of musical works, including opera, bluegrass and even a song from a British post-punk band. It has been made into a dance. Many novelists have cited it as inspiration, among them Stephen King, who credits the tome as an influence for the novella 1922. Even the Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There used visual elements from the book. “The only reason to do art is to make more art,” Lesy concludes. “The book has spawned dozens of different art forms. It’s radioactive; it has a life.”
Read this article as it appears in the magazine.