Post-Wisconsin Death Trip

Funeral Wreath for Boy and Baby, Black River Falls, Wisconsin,
by Charles J. Van Schaick, Wisconsin Historical Society Visual Archive circa 1890
The portrayal of Wisconsin in Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy, now a professor of Literary Journalism at Hampshire College, shows us "subjectivities" in storytelling. In his book published in 1973, Lesy identified history(s) or specifically a 19th-century Wisconsin story never told until he used photographs as "quotations" intermingled with journalistic text to "transform them like light focused by a lens on paper, from a lower form of energy to a higher." Remixing photographs from the Wisconsin Historical Society visual archive by Black River Falls photographer Charles Van Schaick (circa 1890s) and snippets from newspaper articles (1885-1900) by Frank Cooper from the Badger State Banner, Lesy transports the contemporary reader to specific time and place where the vibe can felt even smelled. Lesy, Warren Sussman writes in the book's introduction, used philosopher Walter Benjamin's proposition of producing a work consisting entirely of quotations as a method of inquiry. Wrote Lesy of his project, "It is as much an exercise of history as it is an experiment of alchemy." The news items Lesy curated with their flat and factual descriptions of madness, hopelessness, despair, exhaustion, and obsession trans-substantiate to reveal something unspoken. Lesy quotes Cooper: "Poverty and no work caused August Schultz of Appleton to shoot himself in the head while sitting in his little home with his wife and 5 children (9/24/1891)"...amidst post-mortem portraits of infants, portraits of middle-aged women and men, families, natives, and horses of the kind small town people would commission of the town photographer. We are left with a portal to gain understanding of the dark tales we are told about our own families around the kitchen table.

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