The Mississippi River in 1953: A Photographic Journey from the Headwaters to the Gulf of Mexico/Dreaming the Mississippi

By Marty, Myron A. | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

The Mississippi River in 1953: A Photographic Journey from the Headwaters to the Gulf of Mexico/Dreaming the Mississippi


Marty, Myron A., Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


The Mississippi River in 1953: A Photographic Journey from the Headwaters to the Gulf of Mexico. By Charles Dee Sharp (Santa Fe, New Mexico: Center for American Places, Inc., 2005; distributed by the University of Chicago Press. Pp. 222. Bibliography, appendix. Cloth, $49.95, paper, $29.95)

Dreaming the Mississippi. By Katherine Fischer. (Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 20061. Pp. X, 208. Photographs. Paper, $18.95)

Driving across any of the bridges over the Mississippi River connecting Illinois with Iowa and Missouri, we catch glimpses of the mighty river and industrial sites on its banks. We travel too rapidly, though, to even think about what it is like to live along it. For that, we need to spend some time on the river or its shores, or in books that reveal the lives of river people. The two books reviewed here could not be more different in character, but both provide rich insights into life on the Mississippi.

The Mississippi River in 1953 presents a collection of photographs taken by Charles Dee Sharp after his failed attempt to recruit a couple to be married on the banks of the Mississippi in Minneapolis and spend their honeymoon floating the 2350 miles from there to the Gulf of Mexico. Filming their adventure, he thought was "an absolutely, unbelievably wonderful idea." (p. x) He had no takers and no funding for the project, but to keep the idea alive he decided to take photographs from the river and on its shores to show potential sponsors the setting for the film he hoped to produce.

So he hitched a ten-day ride on a Pure Oil tugboat to New Orleans, hitchhiked back to the Twin Cities, headed south again in his Studebaker, zigzagged back and forth across the river, traveled part of the way on boats, and took photographs along the way. Half a century later he pulled the 1953 photographs together, replaced some that had been lost or damaged with others taken in the 1960s and 2002, and assembled them for this book, along with notes from his 1953 journal and occasional excerpts from river literature. The result is a fascinating book, a good alternative to what likely would have been an ephemeral documentary.

Most of the photographs reveal the character of local cultures, many show the ordinariness of daily life, a few depict landmarks. Some are amusing, some are haunting, and if there are no Dorothea Lange-like classics among them, all are interesting and informative.

The book also concludes with a twenty-three-page essay on the river and a brief appendix on its geology by John O. Anfinson, along with thirty-two pages of notes on the photographs by the author. …

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