American Studies and Photography

$34.95 paperback

Add to Cart

Wisconsin Death Trip

Michael Lesy

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.


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.


"Protestants behaving strangely in the 1890s . . . an outbreak of craziness—multiple murders, suicides, ghost sightings, epidemics, guntoting teenagers, schoolmarms hooked on cocaine and general mental illness (well, an insane asylum was nearby)—all in a little town called Black River Falls, populated mostly by German and Scandinavian immigrants."


New York Times

"In Van Schaick's time, ordinary people did not have cameras, difficult contraptions that involved black powder and heavy glass plates; to record the passages of a life--births, marriages, store openings, funerals--so they turned to a professional. Lesy noticed Van Schaicks's many pictures of dead infants and children, dressed in their christening gowns, now placed in tiny coffins. As he looked for the story behind these photos, he found a story of plagues: of murder, suicide, farm and business failures, madness, addiction, tramp armies, and the ruin of childhood and the desolation of families by epidemics of diptheria, typhoid, smallpox, and flu. Lesy made a montage, using items from the local paper, contemporaneous regional fiction and poetry, asylum records and the photographs left by Van Schaick, who in Lesy's pages emerges as Arbus's unknown ancestor"


New York Times

"Lesy's reading of rural decay is history with a wrench, unfolding a scenario worthy of Dreiser, Faulkner, or Joyce Carol Oates at their grimmest."



"Compelling both as history and as literature, it is a small masterpiece of the historian's art."


Chicago Daily News

"(This) is an impressive example of the poetry of history. . . . There can be no question that this original work makes us deeply feel one form that misery has taken; and in causing us to feel, as well as consider, Wisconsin Death Trip has enlarged on the uses of history."


New York Times Book Review

11 x 8.5 in. 264 pages 148 halftones