An Essay Surrounded by a Book

Sometimes, in prepping for class, I wonder if I’m really more interested in making extra work for myself, class-prep itself turned into some form of intellectual whittling, me occupying myself with something mundane as a means of avoiding other work piled up around the office. Case in point, this afternoon I gathered and transcribed the moments in William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways when he writes bits that I would consider “essayistic” as opposed to narrative. The sum of that exercise? About 3,000 words of personal narrative and reflection. Basically, Least Heat-Moon wrote a fairly standard-length essay, exploded it into pieces, then wrote a lengthy travel narrative around it.

(Tomorrow, to avoid work, I’ll retype all 400-plus pages of Blue Highways that aren’t essay…for procrastinatory balance).

From a process standpoint, I imagine that Least Heat-Moon more likely wrote these bits and pieces of reflection along the way of his revision, not as a stand-alone piece (obviously), so “exploded” isn’t precisely the verb to use. Still, there’s a curious effect to considering the way such a small component of the book evades the erasure of self that serves as the narrative strategy. Frankly, to me the book would not be teachable without these 3,000 words, since they function as the only clear presence of the shaping author at work. Without them, the book would be mere travelogue, exhaustive for sure, certainly exhausting, but without a sense that the author had an idea of what the trip amounted to. Blue Highways without the fragmented essay would be every never-ending slide show clicked to life by every over-zealous relative ever.

But with the essay, Least Heat-Moon gives us a sense of the internal arc of the travel. He writes the pathway of the circular arc of his project, a trip that sets aside the linear progressive-narrative of American travel writing and, instead, returns to where it started. Or, as Least Heat-Moon writes:

Ego, craving distinction, belongs to the narrowness of now; but self, looking for union, belongs to the past and future, to the continuum, to the outside. Of all the visions of the grandfathers the greatest is this: To seek the high concord, a man looks not deeper within – he reaches farther out. (241)

Now, first let me acknowledge and, for now, set aside the deep problematics of this book, a subject on which I carried forth in my last class for the full hour: William Least Heat-Moon is William Trogdon, and it’s impossible to know how much of the pen name is a fakeout put-on and how much is authentic recognition of his declared native ancestry. Certainly, the way he writes and, in particular, cites Black Elk, doesn’t earn a ton of credibility: Black Elk is cited more as authentic and authoritative by non-natives than his existing “works” (written not by him) are universally accepted as definitive explanations of any particular American Indian perspective. In this vein, Least Heat-Moon/Trogdon reads a far piece closer to New Age than anything else. Or, as scholar Philip J. Deloria writes:

In the 1960s and 1970s, many spiritual seekers turned to Sun Bear, Rolling Thunder, and other so-called medicine people for guidance in questing after the Great Spirit. There was nothing innocent about these searches. In an oppositional culture, one targeted Christianity as part of the authoritarian structure from which one sought escape. And, as we saw in political and communal discourse, the symbols and practices of many countertraditions blurred and overlapped. Hallucinogenic drug use could be knit together with Plains Indian vision quest rituals, known for the intense experiences that came with their mental and physical deprivations. The paperback edition of John Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks (1972), for example, promised eager seekers an account of a “personal vision that makes an LSD trip pale by comparison…” (Playing Indian 168)

So, there’s that…which is big…. I’m not saying; I’m just saying…

But, back to this: the overall drive of Least Heat-Moon’s “essay” is a growing desire to avoid the solipsism of the ego, to seek answers to the collisions of his life by reaching out into the world instead of retreating into the self. Certainly, this is an impulse that echoes the desires of literary memoir: the writing of the self isn’t an act directed toward the navel. Ultimately, Least Heat-Moon had no book without this essay, as the narrative expectations of travel require transit. The character has to change: we know this nugget from plenty of creative writing aphorisms (and it’s a good one!). In many typical travel narratives, the change happens by switching places — that’s the progress, some recognition of the deficiency of the pre-travel state alleviated by the act of travel. But to his great credit, early on in Blue Highways Least Heat-Moon recognizes and declares the folly in destroying the past as a means to find the future (4). Instead, his trip is counter-intuitively more internal, even as it is expressed externally.

Here, again, problematics: what I want to say is that Least Heat-Moon seeks and finds the shape of himself within the people he finds across America. He is searching for a lost America and for a lost self, each of which resides somewhere in the past. But the problem, here, is how his vision of the ideal America is tied up in overly-romanticized visions of working class America, just as his notions of the American Indian are bound too often in pop-cultural imagery (again, deeply problematically, if indeed the author has Osage ancestry). Yet, in considering the authorial impulse of Blue Highways, we see the author writing through the reconstruction of self as, in fact, a recognition of self, what he describes as “the power not of visions but of revision, the power to see again and revise” (399). This is a useful and important mechanism that uses the past as the foundation of the future. Blue Highways is not a recovery narrative but, like Lying, a discovery narrative.

Reading the transcription I prepared, I’m struck by how it quite nearly works as an essay, despite the many pages of interruption. Certainly, I can see how Least Heat-Moon could have shaped the material of this reflection into a solid, perhaps brilliant 20 page essay (I don’t mean this, really, as an indictment of his decision to, instead, write a long book). Instead, I mean to foreground how Blue Highways functions only because at its heart lies the act of the essay: the journey is the point, but there must always be a sense of a reflective self considering the act of that journey, making sense of it through the lens of time.

From that perspective, Blue Highways achieves an interesting sort of literary feat. It circles back (how like an essay!), yet it appears to go nowhere. The text itself is dominated by the multiple wheres of the narrative, yet the effect of the book is hidden within the choices of a wounded, carefully-thinking author. To me, the greatest section of the book, and the greatest example of the power of his essayistic impulse, focuses on the mysterious disappearing banana slug in his van. During one of the longest essayistic interludes, he writes of epiphany: “My skewed vision was that of a man looking at himself by looking at what he looks at. A man watching himself: that was the simulacrum on the window in the Nevada desert” (219). But he always writes, immediately after, of losing track of a banana slug held captive in his van, and of worrying about what might happen overnight:

Somewhere in Ghost Dancing was a slug – horned, fat, gelatinous with primeval slime, and free to ooze its footless way anywhere while I slept: up walls, onto bunks, over eyelids, across lips. Of all the nights for this to happen.

The biggest hindrance to learning is fear of showing one’s self a fool. But this was ridiculous. Never had I figured on this kind of humiliation. (220)

Here, Least Heat-Moon has found his objective correlative. The slug is recognition of self, what he’s been looking for and avoiding all the time. Now, his best hope is to wake terrified as he feels it wriggle across him in the middle of the night. “It” being a banana slug, of course…or the self. There’s tremendous power in this self-recognition, and an equally insightful lens through which to view the rest of the book. Every choice he makes — every landscape described, every person met on the page — is really a reflection of the self Least Heat-Moon wants to find. Somewhere in the darkness between those images lies the slug of self, the humiliating recognition of what’s really going on. The hidden essay of the book just might be that slug.

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