Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

One day in the winter of 1978, William Trogdon learned that his part-time job teaching English at Stevens College in Columbia, Missouri, was to end because of declining enrollment. The same day after speaking on the phone with his wife, from whom he had been separated for nine months, he sensed that the chances of a reconciliation with her were unlikely. Lying awake that night, the author recounts, the idea came to him of making a circuit of the back roads of the United States, as much to preserve his dignity as to survey the country’s land and people. Blue Highways is Trogdon’s account of his journey, which began on March 19 and lasted into the summer.

Trogdon was then thirty-eight years old, and he had held various teaching jobs while pursuing a Ph.D. in literature and a bachelor’s degree in photojournalism at the University of Missouri. Although he was not yet a published author, Trogdon’s background in American history and literature, combined with his photographic skills, prepared him to approach contemporary American life from both literary and journalistic perspectives.

Another aspect of Trogdon’s background has particular significance in Blue Highways: his Native American ancestry, which is the source of his authorial name, William Least Heat-Moon. The name is not a pseudonym, since he derives it from a name his father uses, “Heat-Moon,” a Sioux Indian phrase for the month of July. William’s elder brother claimed the name Little Heat-Moon; thus, “Least Heat-Moon” is a complete name to which the author has added his legal first name. Heat-Moon writes in Blue Highways that history has judged a “mixed blood” to be a “contaminated man” who has always had to choose against one of his bloodlines. Although the author rejects this attitude, the history and memory of the conflict of red and white men...

(The entire section is 767 words.)

Blue Highways

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

As it was for Herman Melville’s Ishmael (Moby Dick, 1851), “it is a damp, drizzly November in [his] soul” when William Least Heat-Moon embarks on a journey of escape and exploration, a journey that in the tradition of other great American travelers, is also a voyage of self-discovery. Separated from his wife and laid off from teaching English at a Missouri college suffering from declining enrollment, the author begins a trip around the country in order to delve into the meaning of his life.

This is no solipsistic submersion into self, however, for Heat-Moon penetrates the surface of life in these United States to find the incredible diversity that persists throughout the land. As he moves from state to state, following a roughly circular pattern that takes him first to the Atlantic, then to the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific, back to the Atlantic, and finally home to Missouri, he finds, behind the billboard veneer of modern mainstream America, people and places as strange to a contemporary urbanite as any that Ulysses and Gulliver encountered on their fantastic voyages.

How did Heat-Moon find them? Not by joining most American travelers along the multilane interstates, where one can travel secure in the thought that a McDonald’s or a Howard Johnson’s is never far away, where one can leave home without abandoning its familiar comforts, though also without experiencing a real sense of adventure. For some travelers, it is the destination that gives the journey a purpose; for Heat-Moon, what matters is the journey itself, an endless immersion in discovery.

So that he can avoid “the oranging of America,” as Max Apple has whimsically but aptly termed Howard Johnson’s expropriation of the country’s landscape, Heat-Moon steers clear of the interstates and takes his Ford van Ghost Dancing (as he has named it) down the backroads of the United States. These are the routes old highway maps traced in blue, in contrast to the red of the main routes—hence the book’s title.

Down these roads, Heat-Moon finds wonders that a generation raised on Big Macs and television would never dream of. His journey becomes one through time as well as space, as he peels away the billboards to discover not only the land behind but also the fascinating stories of each region’s past—the derivations of town names like Dime Box, Texas; and Nameless, Tennessee; the waves of settlers and immigrants; distinctive customs that have survived the homogenization enforced by network television. Moving across the country, he comes into contact with living annals of American history as well as scenes of memorable moments of the past: Martin Luther King’s Selma marches; the mining boom in the West; the opening of the Northwest, courtesy of Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea; battles of the Revolutionary War; the earliest English settlement in America, on Roanoke Island.

Beyond these stands the perseverance of the continent’s earlier inhabitants, whose imprint remains not only on the map in the names of rivers, towns, and states but also in the memories of the current inhabitants. These more recent arrivals often, with admiration, acknowledge to Heat-Moon (whom they do not recognize as part Sioux) the skill and respect of the various Indian tribes in their use of the land—abilities that modern America has generally lost. (“Indian,” not “Native American,” is the author’s preferred term.) Few pages go by without a reference to the tribal peoples and their place in the history of a particular region. In fact, any reader interested in the United States will be grateful for Heat-Moon’s close attention to the history of the various scenes visited.

There are more things on this American earth, then, than are dreamed of in many contemporary philosophies. Blue Highways demands concentration, as Heat-Moon describes unfamiliar scenes with occasionally arcane vocabulary—chukars, drumlin, pocosins,...

(The entire section is 1620 words.)

Blue Highways Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

America. CXLVIII, April 9, 1983, p. 284.

Christian Century. C, June 8, 1983, p. 590.

Christian Science Monitor. February 11, 1983, p. B1.

Crace, Jim. “Sticking to the Backroads,” in The Times Literary Supplement. No. 4195 (August 26, 1983), p. 902.

Library Journal. CVII, November 1, 1982, p. 2097.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 30, 1983, p. 3.

Lyons, Gene. Review in Newsweek. CI (February 7, 1983), p. 63.

McDowell, Robert. “In Pursuit of the Life Itself,” in The Hudson Review. XXXVI (Summer, 1983), pp. 420-424.

National Review. XXXV, May 13, 1983, p. 580.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, February 6, 1983, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXII, November 5, 1982, p. 64.

Reed, J. D. Review in Time. CXXI (January 24, 1983), p. 63.

Updike, John. “A Long Way Home,” in The New Yorker. LIX (May 2, 1983), pp. 121-126.

Yardley, Jonathan. “Seeing America from the Roads Less Traveled,” in The Washington Post Book World. December 26, 1982, p. 3.