PERHAPS it was my extravagant imagination or too many Presbyterian sermons in my formative years, but I could not help feeling reproached by the stack of old, dark photographs in the family albums.
These were very old portraits of my ancestors, of farmers and their families, some taken in town studios, some taken in the front parlors of Victorian farmhouses, when haywagons were still drawn by horses and the advancing tide of industrial abundance had not yet obliterated the original American dream of sturdy, independent country people.
Grandfathers and wives and their children and their grandmothers, aunts and great-uncles and long-dead distant cousins, unremembered except for those browning portraits in old albums. I looked for resemblances in the faces but they seemed so distant and, yes, reproachful.
Nearly all the family faces seemed fixed in dreadful concentration, stern and hard-eyed, constrained by the moment, some brooding, even glaring. One or two seemed wildly distracted, wandering from the camera's eye, as if they did not wish it to capture them. These people, my ancestors, look proud and serious and stiffly troubled by their own seriousness. Nobody smiled at the camera. How could I smile at them?
I was, on his occasion, idly poring through these old pictures, asking casual questions about the faces I did not recognize. This lovely young woman with a sweet expression? She died in her flowering years, unmarried, of mysterious cause.
A great-uncle who was something of a free thinker, in his time. A mannered family portrait, with children stiffly posed at their parents' shoulders. What happened to these children? They grew up and married and went off, somewhere else. Left the farm.
There was a rare and memorable outdoor portrait of a grandfather driving a team of horses, cutting grain like a charioteer. There was an intriguing picture of a small girl standing alone in a farmyard, looking slightly desperate, as though she wished to flee. The vacant yard stretches away behind her, surrounded by picket fence, empty and yet strangely claustrophobic.
I was going through these old pictures, not for the first time, when I came upon something shocking, an ordinary thing with the accidental power to stun by thoughts. It was a modern snapshot, in color, of a modern family -- a California cousin and his teenage children, standing before their fireplace in bright shirts, smiling robustly. A Christmas snapshot, the kind which get sent to all the relatives, however distant. Somehow these smiling children in the carefree age of Kodachrome had gotten misplaced in the stack of dour ancestors.
There is, of course, a technical gap between then and now which explains some of the contrast. A family portrait was a serious, formalized ritual in the old days. Today it is as casual as a clock and that surely explains some of the happiness which is recorded in modern snapshots. Still, these Californian children looked so different.
I was shocked by their exuberant faces. They seen obscenely healthy, like models in an advertisement for sunshine and fruit juice. At first, I dismissed them as Californians, the American lotus eaters, unlike the rest of us. But, of course, as I had to recognize, these sunny California cousins look like me, like my own family. I can hear the phonograph playing rock 'n roll in their house. I can imagine them driving off to the beach or the mountains, as we do sometimes, or rushing off on a moment's impulse to the movies or a quick-fried restaurant. How reckless we must seem to them, the dead ancestors. How strange it is that, over a few generations, these gaudy children in bright shirts can be connected backward to those grim, reproachful faces.
More than life's strangeness, I think those family photographs flashed the glint of a deeper meaning, the hint of a well-kept secret in the national memory. I have come to believe -- extravagantly perhaps -- that contemporary Americans inherited a kind of emotional lie about their own history, passed down family to family like a cultural shroud, protecting the ennobled past from the painful facts. Like most family secrets, this one has its uses. Like most shared deceptions, it also sows confusion.
I was led to this belief, not by the family photographs themselves, but by an extraordinary book of history which hovers on the edge of art. It is an arrangement of old photographs and weekly newspaper clippings from the 1890s, composed by Michael Lesy and entitled "Wisconsin Death Trip" (Pantheon, 1973). This is like no other history book I have ever seen; it is, as the author says, more like a piece of music intended to convery the emotional content beneath the facts.
Lesy culled the old plates of a town photographer who worked for 20 years in one small place, the town of Black River Falls, Wis. Then Lesy artfully combined these strange portaits of simple, struggling country people with random notices from their local weekly. Together, they describe a pathology in Eden, a desperate world which was supposed to be idyllic. Today, we remember the idyll and deny the desperation. That is the family secret, which Lesy's book exposes.
Like a good poem, the emotions in Lesy's picture album are compressed, enlarged, rendered from selected words and images. The poetic meaning is understated and elusive so that the literal-minded reader may dismiss the whole as merely peculiar, a freakish glimpse of one peculiar place. The pictures do seem grotesque and unreal at first and it requires a poetic leap to grasp that the emotional content is true, more universal than one small benighted town in rural Wisconsin.
Dead babies, dressed in baptismal gowns, posed for memorial portraits in their linenlined coffins. Strange families, some in pretentious settings and others in barren farmyards, but all bearing the same constrained expression. A pop-eyed father who, on enlargement, looks like a man exploding through his eyes. A spinster daughter who seems eternally frightened, eyes rigid like a deer frozen in the highway. Between birth and death and daughters with crazy eyes, there are freakish distractions -- a dwarf, a snake handler, a legless man displaying his stumps.
The newspaper reinforces the grimness, the sense of doom conveyed by the photographs. Brief accounts of suicide and madness, of vengeful arson, of unexplained murder, of crazy tramps who wander into town and crazy mothers who kill their own children. Compassionate accounts of freak accidents and dreadful diseases destroying entire families, of bizarre people who both titillate and frighten. Bank failures and poisonings. Diphtheria and mysterious hermits. Miracle cures and wandering children and religious fanatics. It is a long way from our cherished cultural memories of that life. f
Can this be true, this terrible portrait of that time and place? We know the facts, the economic facts of depression and crop failures and the medical facts of infant mortality and the historical facts about industrialism sweeping over an agricultural nation founded on the idea of yeoman farmers.
Somehow we have resisted the emotional implication of those facts, pretending that there was a peaceable Eden once where our forebears lived and somehow we lost it. We long still for its simplicity and independence, unable to acknowledge the stressful, precarious nature of that past.
After my first absorption in Lesy's book, intrigued but unconvinced, I began to hear confirming evidence -- family stories, told with a hushed reverence for past calamities, told not only in my own family but in many others. Every farm family has such stories, I'm convinced, but it seems disrepectful to dwell upon them in public.
A cousin who drowned in a well and relatives always wondered if her death was an accident. A tenant farmer found hanging in the barn. A bank failure that wiped out the honest savings of a respected relative. Young people who grew up in this confused world -- when steel and engines were displacing farm horses -- and "went bad," as country people would say. A child who died. fAn orphaned child who moved in, to tend the kitchen or work in the fields.
Over a generation or two, these families left their farms, millions of them, left the small communities where their faces were well known and scattered to the anonymity of cities, to distant and exotic places where life did not depend upon the bizarre fates of weather, disease, the security of banks and railroads and crop prices. Did they find a better life, more secure and pleasurable, less threatening and dangerous? Yes, most of them did. And did they miss the farm? Yes, and so many felt guilty for abandoning it.
Leaving the farm -- that experience, while it was not shared by millions of American families whose ancestors went to cities, still lies at the center of our cultural emotions, like a national neurosis which could be cured only by lobotomizing the official memory. Or perhaps by attacking that memory with the contradictory evidence.
Lesy suggests, in a second book of pictures and news clippings, "Real Life: Louisville in the Twenties," that Americans went from the deprivation and insecurity of one era -- the rural disintegration of 1900 -- into a sort of adolescent feast. Like undernourished children, they moved to cities and gobbled up the plentiful baubles of urban life. The Twenties were prosperous years which sowed their own confusion and disappointment, so that the terrible Depression which came along in the Thirties would seem to many families like a Biblical judgment for abandoning the homeplace, for indulging in the luxuries of modernism.
And what have we inherited from those family feelings? The top therapists would have us believe that it's time at last to break free of that gloomy past, its guilts and obligations, but the results in terms of contemporary behavior resemble the adolescent excesses of the Twenties. Indeed, if Lesy were to study the Seventies, he would discover that abundant era has its own pathology, in disintegrating families, youthful suicide, drugs and violence.
What is most remarkable about contemporary feelings is the cloak of romanticism, as though the longings left behind in the era described by Lesy refuse to expire. If one collected modern snapshots and news clippings, the way Lesy compiled those shards of culture from Black River Falls, I think we would see this in ourselves. We are free of the desperation, most of us anyway, yet we are still tuned to the simple, virtuous music of that lost past. aI look at the sunny faces of my distant cousins but I have to admit that there are other snapshots in which modern children seem doomed, trapped, confused by life. "Dreadfully free," in the phrase of Reynolds Price.
This is not an answer to that confusion. But surely the beginning of a mature portrait of ourselves, of our modern possibilities, must start with grasping that darkened side of the past, not the one painted by Norman Rockwell. To put it crudely, Americans will always be a bit neurotic about their future until they are willing to accept, gratefully, that we shall not somehow, someday, return to the family farm.