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 the book’s philosophical side. The author is more disposed to use humor and irony in creating his portraits of locale and character. Place names are an unfailing catalyst for his descriptions, and Blue Highways is a treasury of funny and illuminating ones such as Nameless, Tennessee; Dime Box, Texas; Why, Arizona; and Whynot, Mississippi (Heat-Moon’s only index is one of place names, which can be read as an enjoyable retrospective of the entire book). In searching for Nameless, Heat-Moon “was looking for an unnumbered road named after a nonexistent town [Shepardsville] that would take me to a place called Nameless that nobody was sure existed.”
In a spirit of panregional advocacy, Heat-Moon tries to make all parts of the country equally interesting, but though Blue Highways goes a long way toward this goal different regions present such varied literary opportunities that some sections of the book are arguably richer than others. The landscapes of the West, for example, seem to present a background against which...
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- Critical Essays