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Wisconsin Death Trip Paperback – January 1, 2000
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In the late 1960s, another desperate time, historian Michael Lesy took a long look at fin-de-siècle America. Examining a collection of several thousand glass plate negatives and historical documents from Jackson County, Wisconsin, he concocted a sprawling treatise on a past that had been willfully forgotten, a brooding rejoinder to Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology. First published in 1973, Lesy's Wisconsin Death Trip, now reissued in a handsome paperbound edition, became a key text of the counterculture, a book to shelve alongside Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Custer Died for Your Sins--and it sometimes reads like a hip product of its time. Lesy documents the unsettling record of one small corner of rural America, turning up accounts of barn burnings, attacks by gangs of armed tramps, threatening and obscene letters, death by diphtheria and smallpox (the Wisconsin townsfolk had, some years, to attend several funerals a week), alcoholism, madness, business and bank failures, and even a case or two of witchcraft.
After reading Lesy's texts and viewing the sometimes unsettling images he's turned up, you would be forgiven for thinking that no one in small-town Wisconsin in our great-great-grandparents' time was well-adjusted--which is, of course, not the case. Hyperbole notwithstanding, this is a remarkable study, one that Lesy himself rightly calls an experiment in both history and alchemy. --Gregory McNamee
From Library Journal
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Top Customer Reviews
As it turned out, I had a long wait for my interview, and I made it through most of the book. If it had been anything other than a sunny spring afternoon, I doubt the interview would have gone well at all. Suicide and murder, madness and despair, babies in coffins and grim stone-faced Lutherans. The images were haunting, and those conjured up by the simple matter-of-fact accounts even more so. This book haunted me.
Fast forward a year and a half, and I'm a first-year student at Hampshire. I walk into the bookstore and what do I see but Wisconsin Death Trip. I'm short on cash, but I buy it. I haven't really got a choice. Just about everyone who comes into my room gets to look at it. Fortunately, this is Hampshire College, so that probably helps my social life a bit.
Four years later, the Death Trip still holds a prominent place on my shelf. Every so often I take it out and open it, and inevitably I end up reading it cover to cover. This book is powerful, haunting, and above all else important. Uncomfortable as it may be, this is American history. This is a tale of the price we pay for progress. These are the souls who were caught in the gears of the machine.Read more ›
On a related note, readers might be interested to know that this book inspired Stewart O'Nan's great novel 'A prayer for the dying' (also available through amazon.com).
To give you an idea of the sort of macabre fascinations you can find in these olde newspapers, here are some excerpts:
"The 60 year old wife of a farmer in Jackson, Washington County, killed herself by cutting her throat with a sheep shears"
"Mrs. James Baty... died suddenly of a hemorrhage of the lungs. She leaves a husband, her family of 6 children having died of diptheria last summer"
"Mrs. John Larson... drowned her 3 children in Lake St. Croix during a fit of insanity... Mrs. Larson imagines that devils pursue her"
And my personal favorite:
"Mrs. Carter...Read more ›
When I was around 11 years old (I'm 46 now), we got this book as a Christmas present from my quiet uncle, who was a doctor far away. I pored over this strange book in horror. I said, "Mother, I think something's wrong with Uncle James. Why would someone give a book like this to us?"
About three years later, he gassed himself to death.
From my child's eye view, it was a book overflowing with black and white pictures of long-dead children: propped in coffins, posed in their lying-outs amidst prickly flowers and poofy silk pillows. It was filled with photos of wasp-waisted women and descriptions of the brutality of a diptheria death. I read about the "black membrane" of diptheria growing over the backs of countless babies' throats--of parents made desperate by the wheezing (and then strangling) of hundreds of children. It was riveting, immediate, terrifying: history whipped into a frenzy.
Honest to goodness, this was unspoken--but when I heard Uncle had killed himself, I wasn't surprised in the least.
I know there must have been more to the book (as reviewers here attest)--I do recall reading a few newspaper articles about madness--but all I truly remember, too vividly to ever forget, is a dead girl then my age, slumping at a grotesque tilt in a coffin, her eyes waxy and lids half-closed, with vine-like lilies circling her. They'd propped her coffin up in order to photograph it, for goodness sake. If you were ten, wouldn't that be all you recalled?
The book disappeared, and I didn't find it when my mother died. I'd dearly like to read it again. The Victorian-era obsession with children who'd gone to Jesus didn't make sense to my vaccinated, O.J.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Great book for what I paid for it. Buy this one cheap. It's a great deal.Published 7 days ago by Patrick Redmond
My friend gave me this book yesterday, and it's one of the best presents I've ever gotten. It's so creepy, and I've spent the last hour reading excerpts and laughing so hard at... Read morePublished 28 days ago by LVM
I bought this for a university class, but the photos and story were so fascinating I held on to it afterwards. Love this book!Published 3 months ago by Sarah Weldy
Shattering look at life in the 1890'2. This one will stick with you. And it's true! Let's all give thanks we live in the 21st century.Published 5 months ago by jamie
Utterly fascinating book with terrible morbid overtones that really makes you wonder. Gleaned from a treasure trove of old photographs (thousands found and thankfully saved from... Read morePublished 7 months ago by Garnet
Very interesting to start out, but it became repetitive about half way through. People were miserable back then. There is no such thing as the good old days.Published 12 months ago by Kenneth E. Hundrieser