by Paul Buhle
Quinney, Richard: A Lifetime Burning, Borderland Books, distributed by the University of Wisconsin Press, January 2010, ISBN-13 978-0-981-5620-5-6, Hardcover, 56 pages with 45 color illustrations, $26.00
(Swans - February 8, 2010) The Wisconsin farm boy who became a prominent left-wing sociologist in the field of criminal law has retired back to Wisconsin and produced a series of illustrated memoirs about the family farm. The recuperated memories of the land and the family offer some of the most poignant and remarkable views of middle America from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century and after. Quinney has the deft touch, not only by pen but also by camera, for he offers example after example of how to look at his subjects, adding his own spare comments.
A Lifetime Burning is unique because the illustrations are taken from old scrapbooks found at the farm after his parents and grandparents were gone. He begins, "The farmhouse is empty now," that is, empty of these objects but definitely not of the memories accompanying them. He happened across the treasure trove of objects as he prepared the house to be occupied by tenants involved in experiments in sustainable farming. Thus he knew, as he removed artifacts, that the 160 acres of farmland, woods, and marsh would live on, perhaps even resound with chords from the piano left behind, too large to move.
Quinney was fortunate enough to come across diaries and farm ledgers in addition to the usual photos and letters. He has chosen for reproduction, however, charming album scraps, mostly domestic and nature scenes from the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. Many will be familiar to anyone who has spent time at flea markets, paging through random volumes or sets of greeting cards; they are, as much as photographs, a view of a world now long gone, a sensibility we can hardly imagine. Quinney does imagine it, with what seems to me considerable success, because it is all at hand as passed down to him, willy-nilly.
He has one especially piquant memory of his own childhood here: in 1941, as America was about to change irrevocably from peacetime to war (and the permanent military-industrial economy, with all its implications), Quinney fell on the ice and fractured a leg in two places. He was stuck in bed for weeks, and his mother totaled the visits at 108 -- relatives, neighbors, and friends, some of them visiting many times, often bearing small gifts, fruit, puzzles, and gum. The recollection still confirms his notion of the human community: it was his own community.
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About the Author
Paul Buhle retired from college teaching to produce radical comics fulltime. His latest include Studs Terkel's Working, A Graphic Adaptation [reviewed in these pages], The Beats, A People's History of the American Empire (aka an adaptation of Howard Zinn's classic) and a pictorial biography of his childhood hero, The Art of Harvey Kurtzman. (back)