Fighting to Understand: Violence, Form, and Truth-Claims in Lesy, Vonnegut, and Herr

By Peebles, Stacey | Philological Quarterly, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Fighting to Understand: Violence, Form, and Truth-Claims in Lesy, Vonnegut, and Herr


Peebles, Stacey, Philological Quarterly


In 1973, Michael Lesy published his first book, a collection of photographs, newspaper accounts, records from an insane asylum, literary excerpts, and other materials that together provide a portrait of the town of Black River Fails, Wisconsin, from 1885 to 1900. He called the book Wisconsin Death Trip, and it has remained in print as something of a cult classic ever since. Lesy provides an introduction and conclusion, and Warren Susman a preface, but otherwise the images and text speak for themselves, with no connecting narration or explanation. Lesy would go on to publish a number of other books, and is currently a professor of literary journalism at Hampshire College. In December of 2006, he was named a United States Artist Fellow, and in a statement he prepared for the program, Lesy says that in his work he uses "historical photographs from public archives--utilitarian images made for every purpose except art--to tell a variety of difficult truths about our country and our shared pasts." (1)

This emphasis on archival photography certainly is evident when considering the body of his work as a whole--twelve books, including titles like Bearing Witness: A Photographic Chronicle of American Life, 1860-1945, Visible Light, and, his most recent, Murder City: The Bloody History of Chicago in the Twenties. Yet even among these other inventive projects, Wisconsin Death Trip stands out. (2) This odd collage of information and imagination focuses on the historical, but reasonably could also be referred to as art, a novel of sorts, a collective psychological portrait, or even a scrapbook, as Wisconsin Death Trip has no page numbers. In another of his works, The Forbidden Zone, Lesy notes that "those who read the book couldn't decide if it was poetry or history, a fabrication or a discourse, a hoax or a revelation. The book took on a life of its own. It bred other books; it bred plays and ballets, concertos and an opera. It made me famous and notorious; honored and suspect." (3)

As Lesy implies, knowing what to call a work often determines how the work, as well as its creator, are evaluated. If an agreement about form--that is, a classification tending toward broad terms like art, history, film, and photography, rather than narrower distinctions between, for example, the genres of comedy and horror--guides our interpretive acts, then different forms entail different understandings about the nature of truth and the way that truth finds proper expression. Of particular interest are works representing violence and war that include overt truth-claims about their content, claims that are then deliberately complicated by the work's ambiguous form. Lesy's Wisconsin Death Trip as well as Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five and Michael Herr's Dispatches all make explicit claims to truth about life in rural America at the turn of the century, about the firebombing of Dresden, and about the experience of Vietnam, respectively, though none of these works are easily classifiable as a single form or method of expression. They do so, I argue, to push against more established, collective histories of violence and war, ones which necessarily negate the truths of individual experience, truths which often lack resolution and conclusion, which resist theraputic assimilation into one's life story, and which cannot--and should not--be "domesticated" by traditional narrative. In opening the space for historical and narrative resistance, these works have the potential to voice political resistance as well, writing against, for instance, the possibility of "another Dresden" or "another Vietnam." But in avoiding adherence to a particular form, they leave such potential implicit, and as such, perhaps more powerful.

The concerns and challenges of "telling violence" have been addressed by trauma scholars like Judith Herman and Cathy Caruth, and may seem similar to what we saw with reader-response critics like Wolfgang Iser, and his concern with the fundamental asymmetry between the reader and any kind of text. …

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