Take it on Down to Highway 61: A Book Review

Nathan Johnson’s Highway 61 Through Minnesota is published by Arcadia Press in their Images of America series. The series has, according to their website, a whopping 8,223 titles. Just 69 of these are from Minnesota.

Book cover of Nathan Johnson’s Images of America: Highway 61 Through Minnesota

It’s a proven format, almost certainly a commercial success, and yet I’m sad to report it doesn’t really work for Highway 61. This is not the fault of the author, who worked hard to gather a range of images from towns along Highway 61, both in Minnesota and further south. It is the fault of applying a model that works for small places and defined groups to a long highway.

Critical book reviews come in two basic flavors: The first wishes the author had written a different book, often the one the reviewer imagines themself writing on the topic. This is the essence of the “book review problem” as my favorite college professor put it. You can write a critical review, but you’ll write a better critical review if you appreciate what the author was trying to do.

With 8,223 titles in the series we have a fair idea from the titles, and selections of images, of what the authors in the Images of America series are trying to do. The titles of other books in the series give a starting sense of why the format falls flat when held out on Highway 61. Other titles from Minnesota in the series include small counties (Stearns), small towns (Shoreview), small groups (Reform Jews of Minneapolis and Jewish community of North Minneapolis), dramatic historic events (the Hinckley fire of 1894), well-known companies (Northwest Airlines), sudden social change (World War II shipbuilding in Duluth), and tiny islands (Nicollet Island).

Highway 61 runs through Grand Marais, Minnesota (Photo: Evan Roberts, September 2019)

The specificity of these topics, to be clear, is not a criticism. On the contrary, it’s central to the commercial and nostalgic success of the format. The audience of nostalgic alumni and former residents or employees is clear in creating a commercial success. Specific topics also help in the aesthetic and intellectual achievements of the series. By focusing on small places or groups, it’s possible to convey a sense of change: the same building or intersection at different times. For groups of people pictures from different time periods can, when well chosen, convey a sense of social and cultural norms changing as dress, hair style, and activities change.

US Highway 61, by contrast, is a very long road. Just in Minnesota it is several hundred miles long. Running originally from the Canadian border to Duluth, thence to Saint Paul, and down the Mississippi to La Crosse. The two distinctive biomes of eastern Minnesota, and the varied topography of the shores of Lake Superior and the shores of the Mississippi River make it a scenic highlight.

Nearing the end of Highway 61 at the Canadian border (Photo by Evan Roberts, September 2019)

There was, to my surprise, very little about the road and the environment it cuts through in this book. In saying this I’m approaching the “book review problem”: what was the book that Johnson was trying to write? The title suggests a book about the highway, but the book takes the subject and format of photos from the rest of the series: buildings and occasionally people at various times in history. It spreads those along the various towns along the highway, not just in Minnesota but then down the river to New Orleans. The end result is a book with a lot of photos of old restaurants along Highway 61.

Highway 61 climbs past Hat Point in northern Cook County (Photo by Evan Roberts, September 2019)

There are few pictures of the road, and essentially no pictures of the same place at different times. That is, we see very little of the ostensible subject of the book, and the required length of the book spread out along the highway makes it hard to linger in the same place for long. Whereas other books in the Images of America series manage to convey a sense of both nostalgia and change, Highway 61 Through Minnesota does not. There is, with so many pictures of restaurants, a sense by the end of the book that Highway 61 is quite similar from end-to-end.

A marked pedestrian crossing on Highway 61 at Cascade State Park. Drivers are surprisingly good at yielding to pedestrians here (Photo by Evan Roberts, August 2019)

Other books in the Images of America series often manage to create a sense of place, or social bonds (groups and companies), or the drama of events (fires! ship building for war!). No-one should look to the series for critical historical or scholarly analysis, but creating a sense of group cohesion around shared experience through nostalgia is not an inherently bad thing. The selection of photos that have worked to create nostalgia well in other books don’t work here. One hopes Arcadia will take a different approach to other Images of America that focus on lines on the map, instead of dots.

Highway 61 is a special highway to me, and so I was ready to have my nostalgia evoked. Highway 61 Revisited was, when I got into Bob Dylan’s music in the mid-90s, quickly my favorite Dylan album (still is. But best Bob Dylan album is a different discussion). Not only that, but Highway 61 takes you along Minnesota’s two coast lines, the shores of Lake Superior which if you squint you can pretend is the ocean, and America’s third coast, the Mississippi.

You have to play the song or the album when you’re on Highway 61. But you’re not allowed to go 61mph (Photo by Evan Roberts from the passenger seat, August 2019)

So this rendition of Highway 61 doesn’t hit the right notes, because the highway itself is missing. A different selection of photos that evoked a sense of change, place, and time would have more photos of the road, and its construction and setting at different times. The road itself has a history worth showing, carved out of the rocky shores of Lake Superior, and then with less apparent drama stretching itself out, at points, to four lanes on the more forgiving terrain of the Mississippi River valley.

In the Mississippi River Valley Highway 61 lies between the bluffs and the river. In this view looking southwest from Frontenac State Park Highway 61 is just below the bluff of the hill in the middle of the photo (Photo by Evan Roberts, August 2020)

But even there, the road itself conveys a sense of the landscape as it undulates into the Driftless region and round the bluffs. In the end the enduring story that could have been told better is about a road that has both allowed us to see incredible parts of Minnesota, and changed that environment in the process.

(Streets.mn was provided with a complimentary review copy of Highway 61 Through Minnesota by Arcadia Press)

Evan Roberts

About Evan Roberts

Evan Roberts is an Assistant Professor of Population Studies and the History of Medicine at the University of Minnesota, where he teaches and researches demography, labor and urban issues. He counts it as a successful week if he has run more miles than he has driven. Connect on twitter @evanrobertsnz or now Mastodon @evanrobertsnz@econtwitter.net