Wisconsin Death Trip

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Overview

First published in 1973, this remarkable book about life in a small turn-of-the-century Wisconsin town has become a cult classic. Lesy has collected and arranged photographs taken between 1890 and 1910 by a Black River Falls photographer, Charles Van Schaik.

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Overview

First published in 1973, this remarkable book about life in a small turn-of-the-century Wisconsin town has become a cult classic. Lesy has collected and arranged photographs taken between 1890 and 1910 by a Black River Falls photographer, Charles Van Schaik.

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Editorial Reviews

Keith Phipps
Probably the only doctoral thesis with a cult following, Michael Lesy's Wisconsin Death Trip sets out to capture a time and place--Black River Falls, Wisconsin, shortly before and after the turn of the 20th century--that's not too far into the past but in some ways as alien as another planet. The book combines photos from the collection of commercial photographer Charles J. Van Schaick (taken between 1885 and 1915) with pieces from the area's newspaper, case histories from a mental institution, excerpts from appropriate writers, and Lesy's own Faulknerian accounts of regional history. Chosen for reasons other than its evocative name, Black River Falls serves as an extreme example of what Greil Marcus calls "the old, weird America," the one knowable through Harry Smith's Anthology Of American Folk Music and echoed in Bob Dylan's basement tapes, a dark, open place of extreme passions that's readily acquainted with insanity and death. Dead babies, diphtheria, suicide (by acid, gunshot, hanging, drowning, and, in one instance, dynamite), murder, armies of vagrants, arsonists, incest, and the mentally unbalanced (or, as one excerpt puts it, the "shack happy") fill the pages of Lesy's book, playing off Schaick's sometimes chilling, sometimes mundane, and sometimes just odd photos to powerful effect. Is it responsible as a work of history? Yes and no. Lesy could have filled a book with wedding and birth announcements just as easily. But instead of these accepted human practices, he chose to focus on the less accepted but no less eternal events, offering a reminder that whatever madness seems to be destroying society at any given time has always been around in one form or another. But it's also a vivid portrait of its peculiar subject: While most of the rest of the country grew, Black River Falls and the surrounding region faltered, serving as a sort of magnet for calamity and tragedy. In its odd, unscholarly way (the meat of Lesy's work holds up much better than some of the hoary Freudian theses that sandwich it), it makes history almost tangible, re-creating a place you wouldn't want to visit, albeit one where you might already live.
Onions A.V. Club
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The dark side of rural American life is documented in photos and text that portray the suffering from poverty, disease and boredom within a small Wisconsin community at the turn of the century. ``Young historian Michael Lesy is not a polished writer, but he has scored powerfully with this provocative probe,'' judged PW . (Jan.)
Library Journal
As the title suggests, this is a truly strange book. Published in 1973, it is essentially a collection of photos taken in Black River Falls, WI, by Charles Van Schaik between 1890 and 1910. The subject matter ranges from children in coffins, to farm animals, to family portraits of some of the grimmest-looking people imaginable; the photos are accompanied by snippets from newspapers. The whole package seems to confirm that the good old days were actually awful. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385412155
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 12/1/1990
  • Edition description: 1st Anchor Books ed
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 264
  • Product dimensions: 10.89 (w) x 8.42 (h) x 0.59 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Lesy teaches in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts at Hampshire College. He is the author of numerous books, including Dreamland, Rescues, and The Forbidden Zone.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 9 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(6)

4 Star

(1)

3 Star

(1)

2 Star

(1)

1 Star

(0)

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Sort by: Showing all of 9 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 18, 2000

    The Best book I Have Ever Read

    This book is very detailed and very unique. I guarantee you wont find anything like it, this is truly one of a kind! I am easily bored by most books, but this was so interesting, I couldn't put it down. Im telling you, this book never gets boring! A must read!!(Does contain some offensive material, not for the weak at heart)

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 3, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Everything a true Wisconsoner wants...interesting, informative, and weird

    I read this book when I was in Middle School and I thought it was great. The book is very interesting and hard to put down. What I liked the most were the layout and the pictures. I really like the way this book is organized, more of a newspaper article style than book form. The pictures are really neat to get to see. Some of them may be a little much to see, but I think that they make the book even better! <BR/><BR/>I hate spending money and I know that I can easily get this book from the library or borrow it from my grandmother, but I like this book so much that I have decided to purchase it anyway!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 17, 2001

    Teenage Evaluation

    This is amazing. I first caught on to the piece through the popular rock band Static X and their first recording on a major album entitled 'Wisconsin Death Trip', named after a book the frontman, Wayne Static, picked up at a flea market. As not only a 17 year old with an interest in rock music and love for the 'cooky', but a soon to be scholar attending a major California university, I give this five stars with all of my heart. Daley

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 14, 2001

    All time favorite

    At the tender age of 11, I begged my mother to purchase this book for me at its first publishing. She was a scholarly women and felt that it would be interesting reading. I have the copy purchased in 1973 and it is threadbare. I cannot begin to estimate the number of people who have picked it out of my collection, and have not been able to put it down. Strangely enough, I married a man from Black River Falls. He has recently stumbled upon the copy and is ordering copies for his family. I found it very peculiar that this book was not discussed in his hometown, nor in his studies. It is a fascinating read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 8, 2000

    Creepy Coffee Table Book

    I grew up perusing this book as a child in Baraboo, Wisconsin. I was thrilled to find it back in print and am eagerly awaiting a video release of the movie. This book shoots large holes in the so-called 'Good old Days'. Some pictures are disturbing and can be upsetting, but the work as a whole is so evocative of an era of history that gets a white wash in history books. Things were not good or easy in those days and especially amongst the denizens of Black River Falls.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 24, 2000

    You won't forget it

    Keith Phipps review says it accurately. This is a fascinating trip through a landscape of sickness, weirdness, and death... The subjects in the photos look back at the camera and offer a frozen moment of the shadowy side of America that has apparently always been with us. Overall conclusion, no matter what the newspapers present as the latest modern horror, things really are better than they used to be.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 4, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted February 24, 2011

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 23, 2011

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