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Revisiting 'Wisconsin Death Trip,' 50 Years Later

The Book Review

03-03-2023 • 23 mins

It's been 50 years since Michael Lesy's influential cult classic "Wisconsin Death Trip" was published. A documentary text of found material, the book gathered prosaic historical photos of Wisconsin residents from the turn of the 20th century and paired them to haunting effect with fragmentary newspaper archives from the same time period reporting on often garish deaths — what our critic Dwight Garner, evaluating the book for its anniversary, called "horrific local news items that point, page by page, toward spiritual catastrophe. Nearly every person in it looks as if they are about to be struck by lightning."

Garner appears on the podcast this week to talk with the host Gilbert Cruz about "Wisconsin Death Trip" and the resonance it still holds in the culture.

"It evokes what long nights felt like in America," he says, "before there was electricity and radio, and before — if your child was very sick, there were no antibiotics. And maybe your child was dying. And anxiety of course could not be treated then by antidepressants or other kinds of pills. And people quote-unquote went mad more often than we'd like to think. And there were bankruptcies, people threw themselves in front of trains. There are all kinds of suicides in this book. And it just makes you wonder what was happening, what kind of spiritual crisis was going on in Wisconsin in the 1890s."

Garner is a fan of unusual documentary literature, he tells Cruz, and in "Wisconsin Death Trip" he sees not only a portrait of a vanished small-town America but also a portrait of vanished journalism. "Newspapers in America have been gutted out," he says. "You don't have small-town papers like this in many places anymore that have real staffs who report on this stuff. There's a kind of reporting in this book that is sort of the 'crazy death' that we don't read about anymore: the person at the sawmill who gets tangled up. Maybe you'll read about it somewhere. But it was more of a staple of small-town news reporting then. Even papers like The New York Times did a lot of that ... But in general what Lesy is after is stuff that almost suggests, as I said before, a kind of spiritual crisis. So many people having breakdowns. And it just makes you realize that our nostalgia for the good old American heartland, there's a real dark shadow there. And in many ways it's false nostalgia. And this book is one of those correctives that puts you in touch with the night side of life in this way that few books of documentary that I've read actually do."

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