The photographs in Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi, which have just been published in a new edition, contain a freedom-seeking, derelict melancholy: deceptively clean, silver early-morning surfaces, a mattress floating in a swampy puddle, a casually arranged set of rescued furniture resembling a wall-less living room in some forlorn woods, a family of bikers grieving underneath a canopy of Spanish moss, weeds growing wild through the springs of an abandoned bed frame. When the book was originally published, in 2004, I was drawn to the vagrancy of its title, the down-by-the-river evocation of it.
It took me another minute to consciously realize that “sleeping” pointed naturally to dreaming. Its portraits and scenes formed a larger story about individual longing; the way we impress upon our tiny worlds; the way we project our desires and the idealized pictures of ourselves onto our walls and out into our yards and onto the symbolic river. The third image in the book depicts a drooping, loosely made, ordinary-seeming bed left on a porch—outside, where, we all know, even deeper, stranger dreams happen.
The title of the photograph tells us that this is the boyhood bed of Charles Lindbergh, in Little Falls, Minnesota. In the epigraph, Lindbergh describes sleeping with his eyes open in the twenty-second hour of his famous transatlantic flight. In the contextual material Soth consigns to the back of the book like liner notes, Lindbergh details how it was on that bed that he imagined himself “with wings in which I could swoop down off our roof into the valley, roaring through the air from one river bank to the other, over stories of the rapids, above log jams, above the tops of trees and fences.” The photograph of Lindbergh’s boyhood bed is the picture on which the rest of Sleeping by the Mississippi hinges: the characters in the other photographs become by association lucid dreamers and the settings they inhabit become part of the lexicon of American dreams—not one, but many.
It was not a raft float downstream, or even a single, epic journey that yielded Sleeping by the Mississippi, but a series of short road trips that in some ways more closely mirror the actual complex network of tributaries that makes up the Great River. For most of his life, Soth has lived in Minneapolis, and it was from there that the trips originated: Middle America, the Midwest, flyover country. He made the first trip in 1999 and subsequent ones were dictated by available time, funds, and guided largely by instinct—a kind of drift. To have made these pictures in one giant sweep would have been novelistic (aspiring to Robert Frank’s The Americans); instead, these pictures of grieving bodybuilders, Ash Wednesday repentants, and believers in angels, are closer to short stories, or even poems. When he first learned to photograph, Soth was so shy he had to force himself to go out and take pictures of human beings; later, working with a 4×5 camera, he filled the silences by asking the people he photographed to tell him their dreams.
In bedrooms, barrooms, back roads, fields, and penitentiary grounds, all plotted roughly along the river’s course, Soth gravitated to the archetypes: the sinners and saviors, preachers and sex workers, prisoners and Christ figures, cemeteries and fishermen and icons. Jerry Lee Lewis’s cousin stretches out in her sleeping bag on the floor of the Lewis Family Museum in Ferriday, Louisiana, records by her other cousins, Jimmy Swaggart and Mickey Gilley, hanging next to her like lucky talismans. Johnny Cash’s boyhood home in Dyess, Arkansas, is photographed from a distance, across the vast harvested cotton fields, under gray clouds. This is the same little house that once flooded with the waters that inspired “Five Feet High and Rising,” a remarkable lonesome survivor. The satellite dish outside didn’t exist back when Cash lived there, but if you know Cash’s biography, you can’t help but sense him listening out on the family transistor or borrowed car radios for the country gospel songs of the Louvin Brothers.
Elsewhere in the photographs hopes are pinned earnestly to the wall, decorated with desire. There are paper hearts hung on wood panels, and tinsel and fake flowers and picture plates, family photographs taped to mirrors, a painted mural of a headless, footless bodybuilder, a wall rug with the face of Jesus. On a closet door, there are photographs of the famous dreamer, Martin Luther King Jr., who, it is devastating to note, was slain almost exactly one mile away from the Mississippi in the motel where he had spent the previous night. Sleeping by the Mississippi, in ways both wordless and literal, is the collection of all those arbitrary, disconnected dreams, a sensual and searching depiction of the forgotten and elusive center of the country.
In 2004, the book resonated deeply among photographers; today, its sphere of influence has attained an extra layer of cultish devotion. In London, where sold-out crowds came out for a talk about a photo book, a fan revealed a Sleeping by the Mississippi stomach tattoo: a graphic rendering of Soth’s photograph of a group of incarcerated men on a work crew. In orange uniforms and carrying shovels, they stand before the Fort Jefferson Memorial Cross in Wickliffe, Kentucky.
To view Sleeping by the Mississippi afresh in 2017 is to examine how its depiction of individualism led to Soth’s later books about finding love (Niagara) and seeking community (Songbook) and making a willful disconnection from civilization (Broken Manual). But, as Soth has acknowledged, all of those books were photographed primarily in middle America, or, more specifically, what is now known as Trump country. Inevitably, the photographs of Sleeping now carry extra dimension and poignancy in their reemergence. You sort of picture them stumbling to the shore, Rip Van Winkle–like, rubbing their eyelids: riverbank dreamers waking up to a nightmare America, in a time when the president of the United States has made a crass slogan of their highly individual yearnings. The Mississippi has never harbored a single American dream. It swims with millions of them: banal ones, romantic ones, noble and strange and unsavory and revolutionary and utterly bizarre. Those who confessed their desires to Soth wanted running water, to be an RN, to own a pilot school, to look muscular and sexy at the age of a hundred, to “be valued in America the way I would be in Mexico.” They do not fit inside a bank account or on the face of a factory-produced red hat; they belong in a swiftly moving current.
Soth told me recently that lately he’s been returning to the poems of Walt Whitman. The quintessential American dreamer-poet is one of his chief influences and a source of optimism, as unthinkable as the possibility of optimism may seem. Whitman too, continued to make art throughout the country’s worst schism, which he brutally witnessed. From December 1862, when his brother was wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg, to 1864, Whitman served as a volunteer nurse to wounded soldiers in Washington, tending, by his own estimation, somewhere between eighty thousand and a hundred thousand sick and injured. He published poems and reports in the Brooklyn Eagle and the New York Times, works that later formed the collection Drum-Taps. Set against the Romantic transcendentalist works for which he was known, Drum-Taps drew criticism for its forthright rhetoric, but Whitman was insistent: “Arous’d and angry, I’d thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war, / But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d and I resign’d myself, / To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead.” His way of reckoning with the broken country whose freedom and contradictions he had once celebrated was by folding his poems of war into a new edition of his epic Leaves of Grass. It wasn’t a neat solution, it may not have been the “right” solution; artistically, some might say, it’s a bit of a cop-out, though his corrective impulse was less revisionist in intent than an acknowledgment of the country’s rifts.
The new edition of Sleeping by the Mississippi doesn’t attempt to carry political freight, nor does it presume to weave in Whitman-esque layers—nor, of course, does it need to. Its photographs are now witnesses to a time before, like pictures on a wall that become able to see themselves and are just beginning to acknowledge their own self-awareness. Looking through the book again, I thought of Larry Levis’s poem “Whitman,” prefaced with this epigraph from the essay “Democratic Vistas”—“I say we had better look our nation searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease”—before invoking another of Whitman’s best known lines, from “Song of Myself”: “Look for me under your bootsoles.” In Levis’s poem the great and long-dead American poet is resurrected first as a soulless ghost; he’s required reading in high school, he’s the Long Island shopping center built on the site where his clapboard house once stood.
The Whitman narrator finds other haunts. Suddenly he’s the “the thin whine of Montana fence wire,” he’s the sullen teenager at a beach concession stand, the carnie with a Mardi Gras tattoo running the Tilt-A-Whirl, and he’s Charlie Parker’s grave, too, growing weeds outside Kansas City. It’s not too much of a stretch to envision each of these second comings of Whitman as one of Soth’s Mississippi sleepers.
Levis’s ghost-Whitman might as well be the satellite dish sprung up in Johnny Cash’s wake, or Soth’s snowbound cemetery overlooking a fluorescent gas station. He is a gruff, remorseful America gazing at itself, “a father who’s outlived his only child.” “To find me now,” Whitman’s ghost warns in the poem’s final lines, “will cost you everything.” It’s both a stern exhortation for weaker souls who will deign to trade their deeper longings for easier comforts and a dark affirmation for those who will seek regardless. For them, for whom risk and art is both necessary and unavoidable, these are tough, rousing words. For to seek now is also to look closely at then, especially in the margins and cracks and fissures, and to listen deeply, not to who we are, or even who we were, but to who we dreamed of becoming. It’s not always a pretty picture.
Rebecca Bengal writes fiction, essays, and longform journalism and lives in New York City.