Lesy, Michael 1945–

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Lesy, Michael 1945–


Born 1945. Education: Columbia University, B.A.; University of Wisconsin, M.A.; Rutgers University, Ph.D.


Office—Hampshire College, 893 West St., Amherst, MA 01002. E-mail—[email protected]


Hampshire College, Amherst, MA, professor of literary journalism, 1990—.


Simon Fellow, United States Artists Foundation, 2007.


(Compiler) Wisconsin Death Trip, preface by Warren Susman, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 1973.

Real Life: Louisville in the Twenties, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 1976.

Time Frames: The Meaning of Family Pictures, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 1980.

Bearing Witness: A Photographic Chronicle of American Life, 1860-1945, preface by Warren I. Susman, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 1982.

Visible Light, photographs by Angelo Rizzuto and others, Times Books (New York, NY), 1985.

The Forbidden Zone, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1987.

Rescues: The Lives of Heroes, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1991.

Dreamland: America at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century, New Press/W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 1997.

Long Time Coming: A Photographic Portrait of America, 1935-1943, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2002.

Angel's World: The New York Photographs of Angelo Rizzuto, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2006.

Murder City: The Bloody History of Chicago in the Twenties, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2007.


Several of Lesy's books have been adapted as films, plays, dance performances, and operas; Wisconsin Death Trip was adapted as a film in 2000, written and directed by James Marsh, and broadcast on HBO, 2003.


With an educational background in social and cultural history, Michael Lesy has proceeded to explore the story of America through photographic narratives. Drawing on archival collec- tions, his books both affirm and deny the nostalgia for the past; critics and library catalogers have often struggled to classify just what he is attempting to accomplish. Lesy himself does not really know, nor does he seem to believe that classifying his work is important. When asked by Robert Birnbaum on the Identity Theory Web site to label himself, Lesy replied: "I think I have a polymorphously perverse imagination and so—I will use whatever I can to try to tell some version of the truth. Whatever that is. I really believe in the truth. I think it exists. There are words for the truth in many human languages. They all have words for the truth."

Lesy's first book, Wisconsin Death Trip, was originally conceived as a film, but Lesy was still a graduate student at the time he conceived the project and he did not have the money to get the project off the ground. Instead, he settled on selecting photographs from the archives at the Wisconsin Historical Society, where he was aided by Paul Vanderbilt. "He had lots of pictures, and no one ever came in to see him," Lesy recalled for Birnbaum. Lesy was under the impression that Wisconsin was a dull place, but what he found in those photos was startling. A series of pictures shot in the town of Black River Falls from the 1890s to the 1910s revealed an economically depressed town whose ill fortunes were so unrelievedly grim as to be almost comical. Photos of poverty-stricken families, dead children, struggling farms and more seem "to confirm that the good old days were actually awful," commented Michael Rogers in the Library Journal. The book was eventually adapted as a movie by James Marsh.

Since Wisconsin Death Trip, Lesy has continued to offer photographic portraits of America's past accompanied by his text. As he explained to Birnbaum, he wished "to take bites out of American history in a steady way. I wanted to talk about the United States, decade by decade by decade." In some cases, such as with Dreamland: America at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century and Long Time Coming: A Photographic Portrait of America, 1935-1943, he takes a broad approach, while other books are more focused. The Forbidden Zone, for instance, is all about professionals—morticians, homicide detectives, prison wardens, even people working in slaughterhouses—who deal with death every day. Here, Lesy attempts to face the taboo subject of death head on. Despite the grim subject matter, "Mr. Lesy's subject is tolerable because his prose is so clean," observed Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in a New York Times review. The critic, however, felt that the author's book falls short: "Instead of epiphanies [about death], we get mechanics." The more upbeat Rescues: The Lives of Heroes includes stories of selfless individuals, ranging from war heroes and activists for the handicapped to parents sacrificing for their children and ordinary citizens getting stabbed by assailants to protect people they did not even know. While Publishers Weekly critic Genevieve Stuttaford considered these tales inspiring, she added that "unfortunately, Lesy's pop-psychology efforts to analyze his heroes' actions are less successful."

Critics were more impressed by Lesy's sociological looks at America in such works as Dreamland and Long Time Coming. The works reflect both nostalgia and a sense that the past was not always as lovely as many recall. To populate the book with photos, Lesy drew on the Detroit Publishing Company collection housed at the Library of Congress. The company hired photographers to capture images around the country from around 1900 through the roaring Twenties. The pictures were designed to be lovely images of prosperous buildings, landmarks, and scenic vistas that customers would wish to buy. As Joanne Jacobson reported in a Nation review: "Lesy seems at once a dispassionate observer of the turn-of-the-twentieth-century American appetite for ‘images of affirmation’ and an impassioned advocate…. His book evokes the tensions between past and present that surround the entire enterprise of history-making, especially at self-conscious moments like our own, at the cusps of new centuries." Jacobson added: "These are striking images; but this is not an easy book to read. Text neither interrupts nor directs the reader's experience of the photographs. Between the introductory and concluding essays, only paired pages of brief news items, grouped year by year, break up the images. Lesy's reluctance to interfere with the material challenges the reader, conveying the sense that history is a slow, unpredictable process of accretion rather than a purposeful, linear drama." Lesy's follow up, Long Time Coming, uses pictures from the U.S. Farm Security Administration's photography project of the 1930s and 1940s. Critics appreciated it for reproducing and "extraordinary range of images," many of them rare, as a Books & Culture contributor pointed out.

Lesy's Murder City: The Bloody History of Chicago in the Twenties offers another collection of grim imagery, this time from gangster-era Chicago. Rather than focusing on such famous mobsters as Al Capone, Lesy primarily selects pictures that portray ordinary thugs and their hapless victims. Calling the work "fascinating, but creepy," Malcolm Jones added in a Newsweek review that "Lesy dissipates the romance of the roaring 20's." An Atlantic Monthly contributor noticed that Lesy's "deadpan" accompanying prose results in a tone that conveys "the archaic strangeness of myth."

When asked by interviewer Birnbaum what lasting impression Lesy wished to make with his photographic essays, the author and university professor responded: "It is trivial. I mean, who cares? You could say that about any literary or artistic or intellectual enterprise. For instance, your enterprise—talking to five hundred people for a magazine and over a hundred for a website. That's trivial. It's all trivial."



Atlantic Monthly, March, 2007, review of Murder City: The Bloody History of Chicago in the Twenties, p. 112.

Booklist, December 1, 1997, Gretchen Garner, review of Dreamland: America at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century, p. 607.

Books & Culture, July 1, 2003, "Pictures and Words," p. 7.

Forbes, July 18, 1983, review of Bearing Witness: A Photographic Chronicle of American Life, 1860-1945, p. 19.

Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 2006, review of Murder City, p. 1163.

Library Journal, April 15, 2000, Michael Rogers, review of Wisconsin Death Trip, p. 129; February 1, 2003, Cheryl Ann Lajos, review of Long Time Coming: A Photographic Portrait of America, 1935-1943, p. 84.

Nation, December 8, 1997, Joanne Jacobson, review of Dreamland, p. 32.

Newsweek, March 12, 2007, Malcolm Jones, "A City Where Murder Got to Be a Way of Life," p. 59.

Publishers Weekly, November 9, 1990, Genevieve Stuttaford, review of Rescues: The Lives of Heroes, p. 49.

Reference & Research Book News, May, 2007, review of Murder City.


Hampshire College Web site,http://www.hampshire.edu/ (September 26, 2007), faculty profile of Michael Lesy.

Identity Theory,http://www.identitytheory.com/ (September 16, 2003), Robert Birnbaum, "Author of Wisconsin Death Trip Talks with Robert Birnbaum."

New York Times Online,http://www.nytimes.com/ (July 23, 1987), Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "Books of the Times," review of The Forbidden Zone.

United States Artists,http://www.unitedstatesartists.org/ (September 26, 2007), brief biography of Michael Lesy.

Wisconsin Death Trip Web site,http://www.wisconsindeathtrip.com (September 26, 2007).