Blue Highways is simultaneously an exercise in literary geography, a work of social analysis and criticism, and an account of a spiritual journey. Each section of the book contains varying degrees of these elements, presented in a sophisticated yet vernacular tone intended to appeal to a wide audience. The author’s background in American history and literature is the essential foundation of all three aspects of the book, and its unity derives perhaps as much from his scholarly affinities as it does from his experiences on the road. Among the meager belongings he takes with him on his journey are two books, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855) and John G. Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks (1932). These volumes come to represent for Heat-Moon the two poles of his consciousness, with Whitman’s poems giving voice to passionate, self-absorbed experience and the words of Black Elk, an Oglala Indian medicine man, showing man as a small component of the great design of the world.
Heat-Moon’s account of his journey, for all of its introspective potential, is based principally upon encounters with diverse, usually interesting, characters. The contrast between their modest material circumstances and the integrity of their lives is one of the author’s recurring themes, but his approach to the social landscape does not idealize or sentimentalize his subjects; he finds enough people to distrust, and even to dislike, throughout his trip. Those who engage his respect, however, are generally given the most extensive treatment, and they often are the subjects of his photographs.
One of the early encounters in the book, and one of the most unusual, takes place in a Trappist monastery. On the road near Conyers, Georgia, Heat-Moon notices a water tower topped by a cross and turns in at the driveway. While in the monastery’s bookshop, to his surprise he is invited to lunch; after lunch, he is invited to stay the night and to interview a brother about why he became a monk. That evening, after attending vespers in denim and suspenders (Father Anthony reassures him, “How could that matter? But singing on key does. Can you?”), Brother Patrick—the former patrolman Patrick Duffy—explains his complex and not always serene attraction to the monastic life. “I start from the entire broken man—entire but whole,” he says. “Then I work to become empty. . . . In looking for ways to God, I find parts of myself coming together.” This episode at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit foreshadows the author’s gradual turning from Whitman’s view of the world to that of Black Elk, a theme that is quietly sustained throughout the rest of the book.
Though Heat-Moon’s visit to the monastery is not wholly solemn (he finds that the traditional readings at mealtimes are more likely to be current best-sellers than Scripture), it belongs largely to...
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Blue Highways is ostensibly a travel diary born of a need for the “tonic of curiosity,” but it is also meditated history and a vehicle for the author’s dissent from some of the norms of American society. Heat-Moon’s principal accomplishment is to have given to his audience a broad and appealingly idiosyncratic perspective of the social landscape of a particular era. At the same time, in explicitly merging the “inner” journey of self-discovery and the “outer” journey of geographical investigation, he has produced a literary work related to ancient as well as modern sources. The journey of Odysseus, who ventures abroad to find his essential self in the challenges of experience, is the prototype in Western culture for this hybrid journey; as Heat-Moon observes of ordinary travel, “passages through space and time becomes only a metaphor for a movement through the interior of being.”
If Heat-Moon’s wit, humor, and irony were less abundant in Blue Highways, one might be tempted to imagine that its subjective, philosophical element was more a literary convention than a documentation of a season in his life, though in interviews following the book’s publication he gives ample reason to accept the authenticity of this aspect of the work. In any case, the textures of social history are perhaps more vividly rendered from the critical perspective of an unresolved personal situation. As in Mark Twain’s Roughing It...
(The entire section is 506 words.)