Black River Falls, Wisconsin, Hey Gilbert discussed on The Book Review

The Book Review


Trip. Dwight, welcome. Thank you for being here. Hey Gilbert, it's good to be back. So I'm ashamed, maybe, to say that I had never heard of this book before. Clearly, it is one that many people have and when it came out in 1973, it seems like it was a pretty big deal. For those of us listening who don't know about Wisconsin death trip, what is it? It's sort of a passion project. This young academic of then young academic named Michael lessy was at the university of Wisconsin in the early 70s. And he stumbled upon this archive of a thousands of photographs taken by a small town photographer in black river falls Wisconsin. And the photographer's name was Charles Vance Sheik. And then Sheik was not a art photographer of any sort. He just worked commercially. But when he looked at these photos, less see those thousands of them, unless he just felt some connection to them. They look, they're kind of very dark. They're very formal in the way that photographs were then, because there was a formal process, cameras were large. People really smiled for photographs. But there was something else going on. A lot of them were kind of dark, some of them were of babies and caskets. And that sort of thing. And he realized that he had found something. By the way, these photographs were taken between 1890 and 1910. And he then went to some other archives and went through old newspapers during that same period in and around black river falls. And he found this sort of remarkable series of documents every day in the newspaper that seemed to be someone going mad or throwing himself in front of a train. It was a time of they just got through a depression in the 1890s. And he found all these small news that I'm saying he prints them. It's just a series of news items printed that run alongside these photographs in the combination of them is overpowering. One of the things that strikes me about this book is structure, of course, but also I can't remember the last thing I read that evoked such a trance like mood in me, I read usually at night, these chapters and I go through these snippets and you just read one and they're short and then you read another in the short, and they're all pretty grim. And sooner or later, you find yourself in this mood that is undeniable. And it's not easy in a book to evoke a mood, not that this is a stereotypical book, or even a book in the sense that we think of books. I think it evokes that period. I said something similar in the piece that I've written about it, that evokes what sort of long nights felt like in America before there was electricity and radio, and before if your child was very sick, there were no antibiotics. Maybe your child is dying. And anxiety, of course, can not be treated then by antidepressants or the kind of pills and people quote unquote what mad more often than we'd like to think. There are bankruptcies, people through 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. I described this in the introduction as a cult artifact. Is that accurate? I think that's true. It's kind of bubbled under the radar. It's influenced a certain number of filmmakers. I say in my piece that the new cormac McCarthy novel he's written has two new ones out this fall, but the second of them still ameris is set in a psychiatric hospital and it's happens to be in black river falls, the same town where this book is set, and I don't think that's any accident. I think that McCarthy has been known to give away copies of this book to friends. He loves the book. It adds an extra level of darkness to McCarthy's novel to know that. As you said, there are lots of snippets of newspaper reports. A lot of the text in the book is drawn from a couple of key sources. So one, this local newspaper to records from the local mental hospital. And three, Tom gossip. There's some oddities to this book. Let's see, it was an interesting guy and he took some liberties. You know, a few occasions he collages the photographs. He sort of turns in this way and that. And another occasions he seems to have made up, so he has made up some mythical voices for this book. There's a town gossip and a historian that their voices are very small parts of the book, but they're coming from Leslie's own voice that he's added to it. So it's a weird brew. He's working out here. And I read in my review, I don't think those parts work very well, at least they don't work very well 50 years later. But what really works are the photographs, which are unbelievably striking. And I have one of the news items right here. They tend to be like this, very short, a woman was recently found wandering about the streets of oak lair with a dead baby in her arms. She was from chippewa county and had lost her husband and was destitute. And basically it's just item upon item that kind of reads like that. Most of these items are all people being admitted into institutions or committing suicide or losing everything. It's a lot of arson. And there's a lot of items in this book, an entire families who have 7 children, all of them dying in the course of three days from diphtheria. And it's just heartbreaking. And you flip back and forth between these items. And the photographs and it's really powerfully unnerving. Before you came up with the idea to write this 50th anniversary piece. When was the last time that you had revisited this book? And was there anything that stuck out to you this time? It had been 30 years to release inside had it left. And when I picked it up, I kind of felt this kind of Spielberg or Kubrick like zoom shots, where you're kind of zooming in and pulling away at the same time. That book gives you that kind of vertigo. And I felt that when I picked it up again. And, you know, I'm a big fan of unusual documentary projects. One of my favorite books is James A. gene walker Evans book. Let us now praise famous men, which as you know, has this photograph that I walk reverends which are very simple in many ways and very classically framed. While AGs text is this howl of pain it's all about art and the way we should look at underprivileged people and it's this wild intellectualized text. So it's a very strange book of documentary, which I revere. And I revered this book in a way. It came out of a very personal kind of vision. I feel like the sky found these photographs. A lot of them were decaying. If he hadn't found them a lot of them would never be seen ever again. And he had the wits to go and think, how can I improve on this? What can I do with these photographs? And he found this text. Talk to me about the old weird America, which means a lot of different things. But in your piece, you talk about having a conversation or an exchange with grail Marcus about this book. Grill mark is the great rock critic has written for me in the past, and I don't really know him well. We've had one meal together. But once in a while, send me an email and he's a very perceptive guy. And he read my review of the McCarthy novel, the last one's still in Maris and said, Dwight, you didn't pick up on the fact that that book is set in black river falls, Wisconsin, where American death trip is set. And as soon as he said that, I just went, oh, because often as a critic, a reference will blow past you and you only realize that a week later, it's kind of like leaving the party, the cocktail party after someone vaguely insulted you. And the perfect remark only comes to you in the elevator. And that happens to critics. We remember the perfect thing sometimes a little bit down the line. And that was the case here, but it's worth mentioning grill Markus because it's his phrase, of course, the old weird America, which he applied to a book that he wrote about the basement tapes of Bob Dylan and the band and talked about how they tapped into these. These weird old American spirits of old timey musicians and old timey ways of being in America before it was felt so entirely pasteurized that it's a culture did and all these guys who played music is still on mud on their boots. This book is very much in that old weird American vein. As I said before, it puts me in mind of Springsteen's album Nebraska in a lot of ways. It predated that by a decade. And it's in line with the stripped down American products of which the basement tapes were as well. One of the things that stuck out to me as someone who grew up in a big city was, to me, at least it sort of reinforced how dangerous real life can be. There's a strain in American culture in American life and maybe American politics that likes to valorize rural life as more real, perhaps. Of course, this was more than a hundred years ago. There's a vast amount of space out there in America, and just because someone lives in rural America doesn't mean they are safer, that they are more immune from despair from mental health from disease from all the things that

Coming up next