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Richard Powers: Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance

Powers’ first novel takes as its starting point August Sander‘s photo of three farmers on the way to a dance, in Germany in 1914, before World War I, and often seen as representative of an innocence which was about to disappear forever. There are three narrative threads in this book, all linked to the Sander’s photo. The first (told in the first person) is by a man known only as Mr. P., who may or may not be Powers himself. Mr. P. has had bad luck in business and is now going from Chicago to Boston on the train, to a new job, with a stopover in Detroit, a city, as he tells us, he has always avoided till now. He goes to the Detroit Institute of Arts, while waiting for his connection and sees the Sander photograph.

Mr. P. is fascinated by the photo and does some research on it. He learns of Sander’s Man of the Twentieth Century project and discourses on the technology of photography but is unable to find out much about the specific photo till he meets a cleaning lady, Mrs. Schreck, who tells him that one of the people in the photo is Hubert Schreck, the man she was engaged to (she took his name, even though they never married) and that she bought the photo from the photographer. However, under further questioning, her story changes somewhat and the man may not be Schreck, after all. Whatever the truth, Mr. P. is still fascinated with the story.

The second story concerns Peter Mays, an editor for Micro Monthly News. He sees an actress in a parade and tracks her down to her show, where she is in a one-woman show on influential women in history. A series of photos is shown and, in one of them, there is a picture of Henry Ford, with his arm around a young man whom Mays recognises as himself. Back home, he finds the Sander photo in the attic and finds out that he is related to one of the men in the photo. He also finds a document setting up a trust fund that Ford has left to Peter, the man in the photo, though this turns out to be worthless.

The third story is the story of the three farmers – Peter, Hubert and Adolphe – and what happens to them which is, of course, World War I, in which two of them die. In all of these stories Powers speculates at great length on technology and, in particular, how it has led to mass destruction, on photography and the history and technology of photography as well as on various other asides, such as Henry Ford’s Peace Ship and Sarah Bernhardt. The result is a superb novel of technology and its effect on human progress while telling the stories of the fate of a few individuals whose lives are changed, in two cases, by a chance encounter, and, in the other three, by a war whose effect they could not see.

Publishing history

First published 1985 by HarperCollins