Reviews / Comptes rendus - Thomas J. Schlereth, U.S. 40: A Roadscape of the American Experience

Reviews / Comptes rendus

Thomas J. Schlereth, U.S. 40: A Roadscape of the American Experience

John van Nostrand
University of Toronto
Thomas J. Schlereth, U.S. 40: A Roadscape of the American Experience (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1985), 150 pp., ill. Paper $13.95, ISBN 0871950014.

1 At the outset of his "above-ground" archaeological treatise on U.S. Route 40, Thomas Schlereth quotes an extraordinary claim made by Rev. Horace Bushnell in a sermon he delivered in 1846, as follows:

The road is the physical sign or symbol by which you best understand any age or people...for the road is a creation of man and a type of civilized society.

2 What follows is a stimulating and provocative study of one of the most significant, if not ignored, artifacts of the twentieth century — the North American highway. Schlereth, a "cultural" historian, teams with Seldon Bradley, a documentary photographer, in focusing on the 156-mile Indiana portion of this 160-year-old transportation route. U.S. 40 originally served as one of the United States' National Roads — opening up settlement of the West. It was subsequently incorporated into the U.S. Interstate Highway System and, like all great roads, was eventually superceded by a new controlled-access freeway known as Interstate 70.

3 Schlereth presents his material in three parts. The first part focuses on the history of the highway in general and the second on U.S. 40 in particular. The third section is really an elaborated bibliography for those interested in pursuing the topic further. In the Bushnell tradition, he covers not only the detailed technical aspects of highway design over the past hundred years, but also its symbolic content and influence on day-to-day life in Indiana. All of this is intended to provide the reader with what Schlereth describes as a combined "history" of American road transportation, a "primer" for investigating past and contemporary landscape, a "portfolio" of documentary photography, and a personal "assessment" of the cultural role that the road has played in the American experience.

4 The book is highly successful as both a history and a primer. It is well researched and full of detailed analyses of historical forms of road and roadside development. However, it has serious shortcomings as a photographic portfolio and cultural assessment.

5 The placement of the photographs is not synchronized with the text and thus makes them difficult to reference. More importantly, Bradley's documentation of the contemporary highway is uninspiring and makes little effort to capture some of its phenomenological characteristics — its speed, its vistas, its dangers. For example, there is not a single view from the driver's seat. Instead, we are always looking at U.S. 40 from places we are least likely to ever actually view it — the shoulder or the centre of an overpass. The strip maps, oblique aerials and vistas kept by most highways departments are noticeably absent — as are representations of the road by contemporary artists.

6 Of more serious consequence, though, is the book's failure to present a convincing perspective of the cultural significance of the road within the, albeit ambitious, context of "the American Experience." Instead we are treated to something akin to a popular or local history of what at best can be described as "the Indiana Experience — from Richmond to Terre Haute." One suspects that the most significant symbol of contemporary experience is Interstate 70 and yet its role in the current life of the region, including its intersection with U.S. 40, are virtually ignored.

7 Schlereth's self-consciousness, and his pre-occupation with documenting his methodology (hence the inflated bibliography) and selling the idea of "above-ground" archaeology, rather than setting himself clearly within a tradition of transportation and landscape history, undermine the seriousness of his efforts and ultimately belittle this tradition. In fact, archaeology — especially that dealing with the "road" — has never been limited to the underground — as can be no more clearly demonstrated than by Giovanni Piranesi's renderings of the Appian Way which were completed in the late eighteenth century.

8 In summary, U.S. 40: A Roadscape of the American Experience presents us with an exciting and provocative opportunity that is never fully realized. The road is reduced rather than enabled — and that is surely something Reverend Bushnell would have regretted as much as we do.

John van Nostrand