Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 506

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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 (1872), a highly embellished account of a westward journey comparable to part of Heat-Moon’s, the author’s voice must have an edge of skepticism, even of irritability, to which his basically agreeable nature can be contrasted.

With respect to Heat-Moon’s descriptions of natural history, the land, and the people, reference can be made to John Muir’s A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf (1916) and to Charles F. Lummis’ A Tramp Across the Continent (1892). For Muir, an introspective naturalist, the observation of flora and fauna was the paramount aspect of his journey, while for Lummis—as one might expect of a journalist— people and local history were more memorable. In more recent fiction and nonfiction writing, William Least Heat-Moon has been compared to figures as diverse as Jack Kerouac, author of the novel On the Road (1957), and Studs Terkel, the writer-broadcaster responsible for several classics of modern American journalism, including Division Street: America (1968), and to John Steinbeck, whose Travels with Charley (1962) is an account of a journey similar to Heat-Moon’s.

In the range and quantity of its historical, social, and natural detail, Blue Highways may be a kind of popular success that can happen only once in a decade or even less often. On a mundane as well as a broadly metaphoric scale, the book addresses concerns that many Americans find compelling. It confirms the sentiment voiced by Robert Frost in a famous poem which ends with the words “the road less traveled by.” Though some critics faulted the style if not the content of Heat-Moon’s social consciousness, none maintained that it was headed in the wrong direction.