Larry Millett, who reads from his newest book tonight at the Mill City Museum, is somebody I sometimes envy. He has a few nonfiction books to his name, and they tend to be big and full of photographs. They’re loaded up with facts, and I presume these are the results of hard labor. There was, for instance, “Strange Days, Dangerous Nights: Photos from the Speed Graphic Era,” which consisted of stories and photos culled from various era newspapers photo morgues from the middle of the 20th century. If you’ve ever wondered what crime was like in the ’30s and ’40s, there it is, in glorious black and white: the tragedies of the past.
I myself have dug through archives, and know the task to be fascinating but backbreaking. We overdocument our present (I am as guilty as the next — I spent a good portion of Wednesday editing and uploading photographs to Facebook.) But we also documented our modern past, from the moment cameras and print became relatively accessible and inexpensive. Newspapers, then flush with subscriptions, would sometimes put two or three reporters and a similar number of photographers on a case, and they would document away. Additionally, there was never a better time for crime photographers, as forensics was in its infancy and so newspaper people with big Speed Graphic cameras were often allowed to just clomp around a crime scene, taking pictures of whatever they liked, some notoriously reposing the dead and their possessions to make a better picture.
And so there is a lot of our past to dig through, and Millett likes to dig through it, as do I. I don’t know what his feelings about the subject are, although his books, such as “Lost Twin Cities,” seemed shot through with ambivalence about the impermanence of our past. Grand old buildings are knocked down to make way for mediocre new structures, and none seem to mourn their passing, save Millett and, eventually, his readers. I sometimes share his regrets, and sometimes feel that there is a certain amoral necessity to it. All that rises must sooner or later come down, and it is neither better nor worse, but just the shifting of time. Nonetheless, I find it a pity that so much of what was interesting in the past goes unremembered and unremarked upon, moldering in some attic or basement archive. So I am glad for people like Millett, who have the patience and the oomph to dig through all that stuff to retell our past, with equal interest in that which may delight and that which may disturb.
He’s done a few crime books like “Strange Days,” and a few lost-architecture books like “Lost Twin Cities,” and his newest book is from the latter category. It’s called “Once There Were Castles,” and there’s that hint of melancholy again in the title. He writes of the Twin Cities’ long history of mansions, many of which are lost and forgotten, but reclaimed from obscurity here. As usual, there is a mixture of archival photographs and detailed, but lively, text. As usual, most of us do not know these stories, such as that of the mansions on Crocus hill that did indeed make the St. Paul location look like the digitally painted backdrops of “Game of Thrones.” They are gone now, and with them the stories of early wealth that represented our cities’ first financial booms.
Well, in part this is what they represented. These fortunes were built on the backs of laborers, who often lived in tar shacks and cage hotels, and there were a thousand of them for every one local millionaire. Their worlds got pulled down faster than those of the millionaires, and often went without any documentation. Sort of. Sometimes the passing of the laborers, if not their homes, was mentioned in the crime blotter. And so Millett’s books can be seen as offering two histories. He looks at the structures the rich built to celebrate themselves, and, then sometimes he looks at the exploitation of the poor, if only through the casual disregard the press had for them when they died. And if I envy Millett for anything, it’s that he, like me, thinks both deserve remembrance, and has a chance to offer both.
Sometimes I construct unlikely segues to link my stories together, but today I need not do so. There is a piece at the Walker Art Center this evening that seems to necessarily complement Millett’s book. Specifically, it is a dance piece by Lucy Guerin, Inc. that could be the title of one of Millet’s books, or, indeed, his entire oeuvre: “Structures and Sadness.” The piece is inspired by a bridge collapse in Melbourne in 1970, which gives it particular resonance in a town that recently suffered a bridge collapse of its own. I have seen videos of the piece, and Guerin offers choreography that makes physics an explicit subject, with the dancers creating makeshift structures and testing their limits, until it all collapses in the end. As it sometimes does. All that rises, as I said, must someday come down.