How alive they were in their picture. Death of the Dream frontispieces its title page with a photo taken when the houses it chronicles were as alive as the faces in the picture. It is well-preserved, showing a family of eight seated at a linen-covered table (lace or embroidery beyond either their means or self-identity), half-curtains on the window above, one man the only person to gaze into the camera (the patriarch, surely, though he looks middle-aged); the others in reflective downward gaze as though having just returned from a burial. Women, their hair up in buns or braids, wearing dresses collared to the neckline, skirts to the floor.
Above them a framed family photo and clock on the wall (catalog-bought, no doubt, whose ornate carving seems incongruous given the tablecloth). Only cups and saucers are on the table; it must have been tea time. The tiny symbols of the good life in those days are not many, but abundant-the pitcher of milk and honey in a jar, lamp in the center, side dishes, salt, the pooch snoozing contentedly under the table.
It is the beauteous young woman on the left who most grabs the eye -- not for her looks, but because the picture was taken c. 1890 and her grandchildren's grandchildren's children are among us, perhaps looking at this book. What would she tell them? That a pretty summer sky of peach-hued clouds is also a sky of no law and no mercy? She knew this, said it in the avoidance of her gaze. Prosperity teetered alone on the last edges of the day, and one day during her lifetime the remnants of economy shifted irrevocably out from under the livelihood of the faces in that photo, as it did thousands of others too. The family farm is a factory farm now.
Leaving behind... what? The fears of the landholding life, the women alone pushing the pram, the humdrums of the hearth, the half a loaf uneaten, the missing shingles on the roof, the walls that need paint, the averted eyes of the friends at church, the grief recurring in husband-is-gone dreams. Then or now?
All in a picture.
Good, solid, uneventful countryside faces, as plain and hardworking as their shoes. Not the setpiece farms of TV and movies, but of gardens and furrows and drudgework and rain, lived in a prosperity affording perhaps but one portrait in a lifetime. Lives not of comforts or goods or openings at theater, but of the sun and the wind and the dusk and the summer, the indomitable spirit of the Plains, and the immense span of years that was their being then, and will be until the last house in this book is no long evident a house.
Their goods must not have been great, for in 1890 being visited the photographer meant wearing Sunday best. And when they died, what was left? The photographer has long since passed out of business, so there's no trace of them there. The names are unrecorded, so there's no use searching the records in old churches. A table, a few chairs, a plow, rakes, hoes, two or three changes of clothing, some debts left unanswered, a cow or few, some chickens, and this photograph.
The debts died with their debtors. The furniture might have gone to neighbors or relatives, but after World War II the Midwest was so eager to modernize that rustic and not particularly well-built furniture went quickly to fires. (Today acquired taste for such things have led to their being cleaned up and sold for astronomical prices -- money that would have cleared the original owners of all debts and left a subsistence besides.)
The rakes, hoes, and plows would have lasted longer, the need for such things in the countryside being eternal. But there are only so many repairs that can be made and one by one they would have been stacked in some unused corner of a shed, forgotten until the shed should be worn down by the weather -- Mr. Gabler introduces to us many sheds well on their way. The clothes would have been worn nearly to ruin by whoever inherited them, then cut into quilting, and when the quilt went it would have been cut into rags, and when the rags went they would have gone into the fire.
This photograph would have gone to the family member interested in genealogy and keeping the family records. And when all had been duly noted and the scrapbook put back on the shelf, this family was forgotten was by was, except at baptisms and weddings.
Now, three generations later with the economic boom of the 1950s through the 1990s giving Midwesterners their first real taste of prosperity since the late 1800s, anything with memories of the old days is cherished almost as better than the new houses, new furniture, new cars which dismissed the houses in this book into antiquity. Somewhere along the way from that picture to this book, the Plow That Broke The Plains was broken by those Plains.
Where do dreams go when they die?
Open this book.
You will find them here. William Gabler is as good a tale-teller as he is a photographer, and his text is so informative one can read it several times and still notice things anew. His pictures have an overlit quality that does not come across as overexposure (he's too accomplished a photographer for that) but as his wish to wring the last of the light out of a darkened dream. His pictures are so much more than "pictures." Only in ink upon paper do we see these old buildings defecting remnant by remnant into the wither of time. On the paper of our minds, thanks to Mr. Gabler, we see so much more. He has captured the dismemberment of a culture, the culture of the standalone farming family who fed a country from an annual turn of sod under the annual turn of sky.
Simple, seemingly, his photos. But not. For in each image we detect a different reason for the abandonment of this or that house, barn, shelterbelt of carefully arranged trees so as to trick the snow into falling out of harm's way. This farm relinquished after an untimely death made it impossible to go on. That one when the children wrote home from ag school they had decided to study engineering or chemistry or literature, which meant the Big City, which the family back home knew would open their eyes to desire and leisure and the freedom of the wheel, all of which made the second letter an inevitability: "I am not coming back."
And that one over there, atop the low roll of hill, there lived Widow X or Widower Y, seeing their lives through to the end on the soil where their lives were made, wresting from the earth each year's glean not of wheat by the bushel but carrots and radishes and plums by the basket. We see them mirrored in Mr. Gabler's houses, their forlornity, stature much shorter than it once was, back unbent but a hand that trembles. Not a bitter harvest by any reckoning, but an ever-harsher one, yes, that.
Once they were content. Once they were spiritually strong, for the vastness of nature under the unceasing sky informed the upright steeple on the horizon where God really lived. But now not. It's self-evident from the fact that these pictures, these houses, exist. Not dying, but dwindling. Losing their rooflines and paint as a dowager loses her strands of hair. Metaphors not of decay but of deconstruction, yielding back to nature the cellulose and pigment and glass and iron which nature once bestowed. We see in them not old wood and window, but ourselves. The economy these plains and these people made possible ran away from them, off to the cities, just as it is running away from us, content under our God of cityscape and steel, monsters of the id made by urbanity, where we are no the wiser of the impending wind blowing off the globe than the farmer and the widow.
"That corpse you planted last year in your garden
Has it begun to sprout?
Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
Oh keep the Dog far hence, that's friend to men,
Or with his nails he'll dig it up again."
- T.S. Eliot, "The Waste Land"
Our selves are in Mr. Gabler's pictures, for these empty husks of house are where the culture of consumption is taking us. Not unto death as these provisioners of the past were taken, but into discard, our lives a blister-pak on the trash of the used; all to a failure to partner with the God our souls and religions say we have but our horizons do not confirm. How we wish, like the farmers who built these houses, to elope off with Destiny the Giver, not the Taker, of life's things.
Their goods may not have been great. They were.