Professor of Literary Journalism
He has published 13 books of history, biography, and narrative nonfiction. Professor Lesy's most recent book, Repast: Dining Out at the Dawn of the New American Century, 1900-1910 (2013), written in collaboration with his wife, Lisa Stoffer, was inspired by the New York Public Library's Buttolph Menu Collection.
Many of his books have been based on historic photographs, gathered in archives; several have been based on oral histories, gathered during fieldwork. Professor Lesy's first book, Wisconsin Death Trip, has remained in print since 1973. Professor Lesy's book, Murder City (2007), grew out of a Hampshire College tutorial.
Professor Lesy's books have been made into operas, plays, dance performances, and films. In 2007, the United States Artists Foundation named Professor Lesy its first Simon Fellow. In 2013, he was the recipient of a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship.
Literary Journalism encompasses a variety of genres, including portrait/biography, memoir, and investigation of the social landscape. Literary journalism uses such devices as plot, character, and spoken language to tell true stories about a variety of real worlds. By combining evocation with analysis, immersion with investigation, literary journalism tries to reproduce the complex surfaces and depths of people, places, and events. Books to be read will include: Fuller's DON'T LET'S GO TO THE DOGS TONIGHT, Filkins' THE FOREVER WAR, Sack's AWAKENINGS,and Wilkerson's THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS. Students will be asked to produce weekly, non-fiction narratives based on encounters with local scenes, situations and people. Mid-term and Final writing projects will based on the fieldwork and the short, non-fiction narratives that students will have produced, week after week. Fieldwork will demand initiative, patience, curiosity, empathy, and guts. The writing itself will have to be excellent. Core requirements are: (1) Meeting weekly deadlines and (2) Being scrupulously well-read and well-prepared for class.
This is a research course for intellectuals who are artists and artists who are intellectuals. The course has two goals: (First) To investigate life in the U.S., 1890-1910, an era whose inequities and injustices, inventions and ambitions, panics and disasters eerily resemble our own. Students will sift through collections of archival photographs and an array of primary and secondary written documents to carry out their investigations. Photographs will come from on-line, archival collections; newspapers and novels published during the era will serve as primary written sources. (Second) To teach students how to discover and then use visual and written documents to build image/text narratives that, like documentary films, tell true stories about a tumultuous era that gave birth to what now passes for modern life. To achieve both goals will require intensive primary and secondary source research as well as immersion in large collections of archival photographs. Students who can understand visual documents as if they were written and written documents as if they were visual will find this course most rewarding.
The ability to authentically reproduce the inner and outer lives of real people and to deploy those people as "characters" in scenes that tell true stories are skills that all literary journalists must master. This course-devoted to the reading and writing of portrait/biographies-is intended to develop those skills in aspiring nonfiction narrative writers. Students will be asked to write short portrait/biographies of friends, relatives, acquaintances,and strangers. They will be asked to extend these prose portraits into longer biographies. Such biographies place their subjects in the social, cultural, racial, sexual, economic, and historical worlds they inhabit with the rest of the human race. To find the best interview subjects will require initiative and perseverance. To hear and understand their life stories will require empathy and skepticism. To place their stories in context will require primary and secondary source research. This is not a course for people who are shy or easily discouraged.
This is a research course for intellectuals who are artists and artists who are intellectuals. The course has two goals. (First) To understand the Nineteen Twenties in America as an era whose excesses and preoccupations were nothing but a dance of death performed at the edge of a mass grave containing the bodies of seven million soldiers, and fifty million civilians, killed during the pandemic that followed the war. To carry-out their investigations, students will (1) sift through large collections of on-line archival photographs (for example: The Caufield and Shook Collection at the University of Louisville), and (2) read a variety of primary and secondary written sources (newspapers, novels, and biographies). (Second) To teach students how to find and use whatever array of primary written and visual documents they find to build image/text narratives that, like documentary films, tell true stories in artful and analytic ways. This course has no prerequisites. However, its Midterm and Final projects will require extensive and intensive, self-initiated research. Insight, intelligence, and curiosity will be rewarded.
This course has two goals: First,to prepare students to unlock the mysteries of archives-in particular the hidden-in-plain-sight mysteries of on-line photo archives. Second, to give students a way to use words and photographs to "write" a new kind of American history. The course will begin with two writing and sequencing assignments: One based on the prompt,"The First Photograph I Ever Really Saw"; the other, based on images from a collection of photographs in the Museum of Modern Art. Books to be read during the semester will include: a collection of elegantly simple essays about looking at photographs; an epic poem made from criminal court testimonies; a surreal short story about an encyclopedia that describes an entirely imaginary world;a nonfiction narrative,illustrated with photographs, that pays homage to the poorest of the poor; an historical biography of an American officer who got more than he bargained for. These reading and writing assignments are meant to prepare students to take leave of the present- to immerse themselves in archives of images that, deciphered as documents, bear witness to the contested history of this country. Relentless research,emotional responsiveness, clarity of mind,a good eye, lucid prose, and well-executed, cinematic photo sequences will be the basis of this course's Midterm and Final projects. "Heart and Mind", " Art and Analysis" will be the mottos of this course. The work may prove difficult. The results,revealing.