William Least Heat-Moon

by William Lewis Trogdon

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Jim Crace

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 797

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.

First impressions that Blue Highways is a bogus concoction, its Indian-ness at best a romantic affectation, at worst a marketing deceit, are consolidated by Moon's initial narrative manner (solemn and pontificating) and his fondness for airy deliberations. "Beware thoughts that come in the night", he advises in the book's opening sentence. "They aren't turned properly; they come in askew, free of sense and restriction, deriving from the most remote of sources." Beware thoughts that come in the morning, or in the bath, would have done just as well and imparted just as little. Thus far, Blue Highways is self-serving hokum. But once the journey is under way and the wordy vanities of the campus commonroom recede in the rearview mirror, Moon's manner relaxes. His change of name to Moon, it becomes clear, is no crude aggrandizement but an act of concealment. It declares the author's determination not to mope and to avoid the public massaging of his sore heart. This is not to be a journey of self-exploration, with the United States as backdrop to the tragedy of being Trogdon, the solace of being Moon. The author—whatever his identity—is not the subject of Blue Highways. Under objective scrutiny are those small and threatened settlements in side-route America which fast roads and fast foods have yet to federalize….

Compared to those previous On The Roaders (whom Norman Podhoretz dismissed as "know-nothing bohemians") Moon's erudition is alarmingly wide-ranging and captivating. One regrets his academic's fondness for quotation—his sources range from Proudhon and Gertrude Stein to John le Carré and Helen Keller, as well as many disruptive snippets of Whitman. But his informative digressions on American architecture, history and folklore are delicately and modestly presented….

It may be that Blue Highways is over-encrusted with folksy hostility towards the twentieth century, always equating change with ruin. But Moon has a sharp eye for the paradoxes of American modernity which, though contemptuous of up-country values, can experience "an archaeological frisson" on encountering an adobe bar, late 1890s, in New Mexico. He relishes the irony of land-claim litigation between Hopi Indians and the Navajo—"Those who settled first seeking judgement from those who came later through laws of those who arrived last". And he marvels, from behind the wheel of his austerely equipped "Ghost Dancing", at the American propensity for taking to the "red highways" with as many possessions as a vehicle can carry, cooker and freezer and television set, "that inclination to get away from it all while hauling it all along".

Most impressive is Moon's knack of imaginatively reconstructing from his notebook and cassette recorder the arcane collocutions of village Americans with time on their hands. There is the black "project" worker in Alabama ("We gotta show the brothers they can do more than just hang cool like meat in a locker"), the citizen of Dime Box, a railway town where the express no longer stops ("Can't live off a toot and a whistle unless you can eat steam") and the Carolina store-keeper, inhabitant of a flat county ("Whistle me Dixie! This country don't get up in the air higher than a boy can throw a mud turtle.")

Moon is at his best when he is ill-at-ease—among blacks in the South, among Indians in the West among men who don't welcome the sight of strangers and out-of-state license plates. He is at his weakest towards journey's end, in the North and on the East Coast, where his face fits. He has stayed on the road too long. "Your little spree sounds nice until you go back [home]", comments one no-nonsense Arizonan in bullhide boots and Boss-of-the-Plains stetson on hearing the outline of Moon's trip. "Don't have to go back who I was", he replies. Precisely. In his metamorphosis from Trogdon to Moon, the author, now back in Missouri, has unearthed an uncomplicated America and a naïve, native self which both belong to an ingenuous and irredeemable past.

Jim Crace, "Sticking to the Backroads," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1983; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4195, August 26, 1983, p. 902.

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