Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Wisconsin Death Trip

I recently saw the Bob Dylan biopic, I'm Not There, and watched the director's commentary by Todd Haynes. He says he based the Town of Riddle, as experienced by the Billy the Kidd character played by Richard Gere, and all its odd characters and dress, from the book, Wisconsin Death Trip, by Michael Lesy. What especially stood out in the "Goin' To Acapulco" song in the movie was the midget wearing a top hat and the dead girl propped up in a coffin. Both of these images are direct from Lesy's book.

Gere's role was intended to exemplify the late 60's basement tapes Dylan era, when the artist celebrated "weird, old America." Lesy's book, published in 1973, is as weird as it gets.

From a New York Times article by Greil Marcus, reviewing a DVD based on the book: "It is a progressively horrifying portrait of one small town, Black River Falls, Wis., crumbling --socially, morally, psychologically, physically --under the impact of the great depression of the 1890’s. The words “great depression” do not take capitals here, as with the Great Depression of the 1930’s; unlike that calamity, the depression of a century ago did not enter American folklore.

This collapse of the American economy was denied even as it happened: the 1893 Columbian Exposition, in Chicago, which introduced the Ferris wheel to the United States, was the denial as theme park. The depression hit farm states the hardest. There, where the weather had been understood as the greatest threat to an orderly life, all other foundations of predictability--the assumption that in domestic and working life one day would be much like the one before it--were destroyed."

Lesy used, and often altered for artistic purposes, the photographs of Black River Falls resident Charles Van Schaick. The photos include stoic farmers and their wives, along with those of funeral wreaths and dead babies and children in coffins. Lesy quotes from a handful of primary sources, including the Badger State Banner, records of the Mendota state insane asylum, local gossip and literary quotations, including Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology. Although the focus is on the weird and macabre, Lesy's gleaning gives an interesting insight into our nation's transfer from a frontier to an industrial mindset (the book chronicles excerpts by year, from 1885-1900). Wisconsin Death Trip gives glimpses of out of work mobs of men taking over a business in Beloit, lumberjacks without any trees to fell, land speculators selling sandy pine barrens as agricultural land, and oh-so-many people who, when faced with economic hardship, could not depend on their neighbors for help or support. In light of the hardship, disease, and isolation faced by rural and semi-rural people back then, it's a wonder more people didn't flip their lids.

For more about Wisconsin Death Trip, check out the following links:

This audio slide show includes an interview with Lesy and images from the book, in addition to other images of Victorian post-mortem photography.

Greil's complete article, one of the best I've found about the book, even though it was written about the 1999 documentary based on the book, which I can't wait to see.

This Flickr site contains most of Van Schaick's images that are in the book. There's also a link to the Wisconsin Historical Society that has even more Schaick images.

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