Sunday, December 28, 2014

Return to Blue Highways

Planning some travel writing of my own, I have been dipping into American classics of the genre. I recently read Thoreau’s Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and am now turning to John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. 

In between, I traveled Blue Highways again, nearly thirty years after making my first “Journey Into America” with the coolest-named author of all time. William Least Heat-Moon is part Osage, part Anglo. I gather that Heat-Moon may be a sort of nom de plume, since he he also goes by William Lewis Trogdon.

Unlike The New Man by Maurice Nicoll, which I recently re-read and pannedBlue Highways holds up well in the light of time. I gave it five stars over at Goodreads, and I have added it to my shelf of favorites. Few books have rewarded my attention so handsomely over so long a time.

Here are some thoughts on Blue Highways:

Heat-Moon quotes heavily from Black Elk and Walt Whitman. While his Indian moniker may make you think of the Oglala Lakota holy man, the dandyish photo that appeared on the original hardcover edition (above) is all Uncle Walt, before the poet’s beard grew white and just plain grew. The pose, the walking stick, even the suspenders—all very Anglo, very cool, very early-80s.

There is a telling moment in Blue Highways when, cut off from his disenchanted wife, “The Cherokee,” the author is desolated by loneliness. At this key moment, Heat-Moon refers to Whitman as “the great poet of ego,” and one suspects he is reflecting on his own egotism. I wanted to see him move beyond this impasse by the time he reached home again. But he never seems to do so. He remains blue. Too bad.

Unlike Steinbeck’s self-assured, happily married old-man voice in Travels with Charley, Heat-Moon’s voice is young, uncertain, lonely, and self-absorbed. And brilliant for all that.

I listened to the book courtesy of Audible and Joe Barrett’s extraordinary narration. This is a good way to experience Blue Highways. From the creoles of North Carolina’s Outer Banks and Louisiana to the broad vowels and dropped R’s of New England, Barrett tries on dozens of American accents and characters. Heat-Moon writes deep personal profiles of men and women met along his way, and Barrett brings this colorful cast to life.

As I did after listening to James Martin’s Jesus: A Pilgrimage, another favorite, I made sure to get a hard copy of Blue Highways in my hand, thanks to my local library. Glad I did. The original hardcover includes a map of Heat-Moon’s clockwise circuit, leaving and returning to his home in Missouri (which I include here).

Also in the hardcover are black-and-white photos of twenty-three Americans met on the country’s secondary roads (which are blue on old maps, hence the book’s title). These uncredited photos, perhaps by the author, reminded me of friends recently encountered such as the redoubtable Alice Vennable Middleton of Smith Island, Maryland, and the down-home folks posed on a wooden bench outside J. T. Watts’s general store in Nameless, Tennessee.

In more than one way, Blue Highways is a product of its time, like the author photo. Heat-Moon writes in the late 1970s and early 1980s, before Walmart had eviscerated small-merchant America and slammed the door on J. T. Watts’s. So the author captures a time that “will never come again.”

But he also writes from such a time, a different one, the time of the Plains Indians before the coming of the White Man. Inspired by his own part-Indian heritage, he is quick to take offense at racist language or customs he finds in such places as Selma, Alabama (where the civil rights marches are still a warm memory).

I had a sense too that he was writing as a child of the 1960s, when the American Indian Movement pushed some toward radicalism. Heat-Moon is no radical. As an afterword that does not appear in the original notes, he was an unemployed author in search of a great book while writing eight drafts over about five years and working a loading-dock to pay the bills. Like most authors, like me, maybe like you, he just wanted readers and enough income to continue writing for them. Blue Highways became his lifetime meal ticket.

Still, I had a strong sense of being thrust back into my own left-leaning youth while reading Blue Highways. I found that I was not entirely unsympathetic with William Least Heat-Moon’s point of view. 

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