William Least Heat-Moon Essay - Critical Essays

William Lewis Trogdon

Heat Moon, William Least


William Least Heat Moon 1939–

(Born William Trogdon) American Indian travel writer.

Heat Moon's first book, Blue Highways: A Journey into America (1982), is viewed as an important contribution to American "road literature." Works in this category, ranging from Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America to Jack Kerouac's On the Road, are distinguished by their presentation of fictional characters or actual persons who travel through the United States and record their experiences and impressions. Blue Highways, which recounts Heat Moon's travels through the backroads of the United States, has been praised for its sensitive and informative observations of the country and its people. Robert Penn Warren called Blue Highways "a masterpiece," adding that Heat Moon makes America "feel new in a very special way."

Jonathan Yardley

With the arrival of the first hints of spring a few years back, a 38-year-old man named William Least Heat Moon, a.k.a. William Trogdon, decided to "chuck routine" and "live the real jeopardy of circumstance." His job teaching English at the University of Missouri had vanished and his marriage was in a state of terminal disrepair. A person of mixed blood—part Anglo, part Sioux—he decided to set out on an uncharted journey through America, a journey that he hoped would tell him important things about himself, his heritage and the country in which he lived; he decided also to follow what he calls the "blue highways," the smaller roads that used to be colored blue on gas-station roadmaps.

His vehicle was a van that he nicknamed Ghost Dancing, "a heavy-handed symbol alluding to ceremonies of the 1890s in which the Plains Indians, wearing cloth shirts they believed rendered them indestructible, danced for the return of warriors, bison, and the fervor of the old life that would sweep away the new." He wanted to get away from the interstates and the franchises, into an older and more rooted America….

His journey [as recounted in Blue Highways: A Journey into America] lasted from the beginning of one spring to the end of the next. Leaving his Missouri college town of Columbia he headed east to North Carolina in search of a memorial to his English ancestor, also named William Trogdon, who "supplied sundry items to the Carolina militia for several years during the Revolutionary War" and for his pains was summarily executed by a band of Tory vigilantes. He then drove southwest to Louisiana and Texas, worked his way northwest through the Utah desert, and made a straight run across the country, due east from Oregon to Maine. The last leg took him home by way of New Jersey, Maryland's Eastern Shore and the West Virginia hills.

As all of the above suggests, Least Heat Moon is an indefatigable romantic; although he makes occasional gestures in the course of his narrative to the brutalities inflicted on Indians by whites, and though he muses from time to time about what it means to be of mixed blood and thus mixed heritage, Blue Highways makes clear that more than anything else he is...

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John Updike

["Blue Highways"] has been launched toward success by kind words [on the book's dust jacket] from Annie Dillard, Farley Mowat, and Robert Penn Warren. Mr. Warren not only has obliged with an ideal puff for the front of the jacket—"A masterpiece"—but has written the front-flap copy as well. It is he, and not the author, who tells us that William Least Heat Moon "set out to … write a book about America."

Heat Moon's own explanation is

With a nearly desperate sense of isolation and a growing suspicion that I lived in an alien land, I took to the open road in search of places where change did not mean ruin and where time and men and deeds connected.

This seems disingenuously highminded—self-dramatizing but not self-revealing. The author could, I think, have confided a bit more of his curriculum vitae to the reader in the course of over four hundred big pages. His third chapter, less than two pages long, announces, "I give this chapter to myself. When done with it, I will shut up about that topic." He does not tell us where he is from, where he has been, or what he has done. He does not tell us that, set adrift by spouse and employer, he has embarked on an odyssey determined to redeem his life with a literary feat, though this would appear, from the determined manner of his peregrinations and his prose, and from the tape recorder, journal, and cameras he took with him, a plausible conjecture. It is a shortcoming of his venture that, though an immense thirteen-thousand-mile itinerary develops—a rough clockwise circuit of the boundaries of the forty-eight contiguous states, along mostly back roads—no inner curve of feeling tells us if this grandly invoked search reaches or fails to reach its objective. Instead, thousands of miles and hundreds of incidents, conversations, and pieces of scenery bear in upon the reader with the numbing, glittering muchness of a very long car ride. Since Heat Moon writes a thoughtful, sharp-eyed, and evocative if not exactly dancing prose, and since he is a benign and shrewd though somewhat taciturn companion, one reads on, and on, out of a kind of courtesy to the author. But no Moby Dick of an envisioned thesis surfaces on the horizon to pull the worlds of detail toward some gravitational center; the venture never quite becomes an adventure. (pp. 121-22)

We could have used more generalization. In de Tocqueville, the proportion of incident to generalized assertion and description is no more than one to ten; "Blue Highways" reverses the ratio. We hope for more from a travel book—especially when its terrain is the land where we live, and whose news we see nightly on television—than a heap of piquant facts, however nicely chiselled and arranged…. Heat Moon's inner quest keeps sinking out of sight; his Weltschmerz merges with road weariness, his muffled marital grief—his wife, also of mixed blood, is...

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Don Shewey

[Blue Highways] is a treacherously earnest quest, and the writing sometimes gets corny and precious. But Blue Highways passes the basic test of travel books—you feel like you've gone along for the ride—and it occasionally succeeds at something more ambitious. Least Heat Moon locates the origin of storytelling in the land: what it looks like, who lived there, what they did, what happened to them….

Almost invariably Blue Highways sags in the philosophy department. Least Heat Moon tussles with integrating past, present, and future both inside and outside himself, but he leans too heavily for my taste on the pieties of Black Elk, and his own perceptions tend to sound more pompous than provocative ("Ego, craving distinction, belongs to the narrowness of now; but self, looking for union, belongs to the past and future."). Travel is a perfect opportunity to wallow in emotion and make self-pity a religion, but Least Heat Moon's observations remain oddly impersonal, never touching on vulgar human concerns like sex. I suppose it's just as well; his domestic problems sound dreary. Not surprisingly for a man in the middle of a divorce, he indulges in the guilty pleasure of belittling strange women. In Newport, "where jacktars had walked with the sway the sea teaches, now coeds from the Seven Sisters waggled their precious butts atop Pappagallos, and permanent-press matrons, safe in tummy-control Spandex, their triceps...

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In Blue Highways: A Journey into America, William Least Heat Moon gives us an ambitious, aggressive, uneven tour of America's back roads and of his own self-awareness—or lack of it. Ultimately he neither succeeds nor fails. (p. 421)

What better way to get a grip on one's life, to observe, learn, and start again? Familiar precursors, On the Road, Travels with Charley, encourage us to settle in for a valuable, vicarious journey into our country and ourselves. This is the principle strength of Blue Highways—its concept. We are all familiar with America's massive identity crisis, common enough in a young country. And some of us are aware, too, of the need for more beneath-the-surface portraits held up to its face, to our faces. The concept is strong. In its unraveling Heat Moon convinces me that he is telling the truth perhaps forty percent of the time. And that's the problem. It is not enough of a problem to warrant dismissal or condemnation, but it is enough to lace the praise I do have with some serious reservations. The ultimate problem for the reader is this: because he cannot believe the author half the time, he begins to wonder if he should believe him at all. This is a terrible corner for an author to write himself into. Heat Moon winds up there as a result of his sensibility and its literary expression, point of view.

Heat Moon's sometimes defective sensibility manifests itself in the snap judgments he makes of the people he meets along the way. If they are laid back, helpful, chatty, he is bound to wax poetic and philosophical about the mysterious bonds between us. If, however, they are truculent, grinding axes that are not sympathetic with Heat Moon's own, then they are haughtily dismissed as drones of the evil moneyed class. They deserve fast food, leisure suits, and plywood suburban tracts. A tangential bathetic feature consists of the numerous stops the narrator makes at college campuses for a place to sleep, a shower, a learned meal. Anyone who yearns for the fare of a college cafeteria has no business maligning the products of McDonald's, Hardees, and their swift relations. The narrator's judgments, in other words, are frequently simplistic, embodying clichés that make him sound like a dropout flower child of the sixties…. [There are several] examples in Blue Highways of Heat Moon's tendency readily to embrace pretentious, almost adolescent snap judgments. This alone will make the book appealing to teenagers, and they may become its most devoted, cultish readers. Unfortunately, the author has limited himself by apparently failing to realize that this is a book about also-rans. They are not only the hangers-on in strangled towns bypassed by interstates. They are not only the people displaced by progress, who feel most comfortable with yesterday, who take pride in their survival and...

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Jim Crace

William Least Heat Moon is readily dismissive, on several insistent occasions in his American travelogue, Blue Highways, of what is called an "apple Indian"—that is a redskin with white innards, an Uncle Tom-tom. What should be made of Moon himself? The name is Indian. But the few, well-hidden, clues in a text otherwise remarkable for its lack of candour, point to a pre-publication Moon who has the looks, demeanour and sensibility of a white American….

It is true that Trogdon/Moon is a melting-pot American with forebears both Sioux and Lancastrian; but, whatever the ancestry, he himself is not an Indian—apple or otherwise—any more than he is a pilgrim father.


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