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...
(The entire section is 1179 words.)
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