William Least Heat-Moon

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.

The Invisible Self

Willian Least Heat-Moon begins Blue Highways with a series of very short chapters, setting the stage for the voyage he’ll soon take in his “truck” (let’s be clear: it’s a van) named Ghost Dancing. Chapter 3 starts this way: “A pledge: I give this chapter to myself. When done with it, I will shut up about that topic” (4). And he ends it like this:

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. (5)

Then we’re off, climbing into Ghost Dancing with Heat-Moon (Is this why he calls it a truck? Because saying climbing in the van with Heat-Moon sounds a bit sketchy? Get in my van and I’ll show you America, yeah, America. But think of all the famous vans that have come to pass…the Mystery Machine of Scooby Do, the black van of the A-Team. Let us not dishonor the literary history of vans by calling Ghost Dancing a truck!)) as he travels the so-called “blue highways” of the country, the back routes, through towns off the Interstate, where we get the growing sense that the project of the book is to show some kind of real America to the reader and to the author.

But what of the self of that author, our narrator who quickly dispenses with the raw materials of his identity — age, marital status, van ownership — and promises to stay away from what Scott Russell Sanders describes as “the private, idiosyncratic voice in an era of anonymous babble” (“Singular First Person”)? And let me dispense with this idea straight off: Blue Highways is certainly written within that voice, is animated by the clear presence of Heat-Moon narrating this drive. There’s nothing objective about the voice, nor the project, and I don’t think Heat-Moon would argue with that. The shutting up about that topic that he references is the singular focus on the self as subject and not the denial of the power of the singular voice.

Still, the book is undeniably, about William Least Heat-Moon. About halfway in, after lots and lots of writing about other people, extensive quotations, and history, and exhaustive listing of the food he finds at diners, Heat-Moon winds up in the desert of Eastern Arizona:

What is it in man that for a long while lies unknown and unseen only one day to emerge and push him into a new land of the eye, a new region of the mind, a place he has never dreamed of? Maybe it’s like the force of spores lying quietly under asphalt until the day they push a soft, bulbous, mushroom head right through the pavement. There’s nothing you can do to stop it. (162)

“A new land of the eye” might has well be written “a new land of the I,” as the seeing of the moments to follow are the emergence of the vision of the self, the recognition that as much as he might deny it as the source of the project, the subject of Blue Highways is that, even when it isn’t. Really, what road book isn’t about the person on the road? On the Road is about America, sort of, but really focuses on Jack Kerouac. Eat Pray Love is about Elizabeth Gibert. The Songlines is about Bruce Chatwin. And on and on.

I mean this as no criticism, of either Heat-Moon or of the genre of travel writing. Quite the opposite: any book of travel that implies objectivity is false. The traveler is always the subject, even if the reader thinks he/she is gaining some kind of overview of a place previously unknown. There’s a reason, after all, that mid-century maps and guide books were sponsored by oil companies. They were the real subjects, urging travelers to know that about other places, that being the unstable need to pump gasoline into tanks to feed engines to turn wheels that take travelers to places. The literary travel writer isn’t, of course, in the business of selling oil or tires but, instead, peddles the self as a vehicle of transport.

I doubt Heat-Moon was ever ignorant of this fact. Heck, the first page of Blue Highways offers this idea: “A man who couldn’t make things go right could at least go” (3). Yet he proceeds with the attempt to subordinate the self as subject as he does this. While it’s possible that he took the voyage that makes the material of the book without a clear sense that he was looking for himself (but, c’mon, that’s precisely what the American road book is all about, and why a literary person hits the road at a time of personal crisis, at least partly), certainly he knew by the time of the writing that the self was an unavoidable subject. Still, the claim is made.

And, notably, this is a claim that has been made by every book under consideration this semester: Patricia Hampl recedes for the middle of her memoir. Harrison Candelaria Fletcher searches for himself via his father (and, ultimately, mother). Mark Doty finds himself in his mother (and, ultimately, his father). Lauren Slater finds herself by creating a fake self. Maxine Hong Kingston writes the self through the application of myth and story.

What gives? Particularly since that subject is an inevitable portion of any kind of autobiographical writing. Clearly, when we write from the perspective of the self, we write about the self, no matter how we seek to evade or subsume ourselves as subject.

I think the distinction lies between subject and singular subject, as this is the distinction I see between pop-memoir/autobiography/political memoirs and literary memoir. In the first category, the subject of the book is the subject of the book: the self matters most of all, because readers are drawn to the dramatic features of the individual. This, also, is why I consider a healthy chunk of even creative nonfiction as more-or-less the equivalent of genre fiction. For many books, “plot” matters more than anything else. In the case of popular nonfiction et al, plot equates to the singular personality of the writer. It’s no mystery, then, why the first titles that often come to the popular mind when hearing the word “memoir” are tales of personal triumph, degradation and recovery, medical trauma, and all sorts of melodrama. This, also, is why I admire what Lying does in the sub-genre of the medical memoir, since Slater absolutely resists the “requirement” to make this about recovery. Genre nonfiction lacks subtlety, and while Lying isn’t exactly subtle in the way of Descanso, Slater’s narrative is oblique, which I suppose is another kind of subtle: look at this so you can understand that, but don’t look directly at that.

Literary memoir focuses on a different sort of aspect of self. Sven Birkerts describes the function of pain in what he calls traumatic memoir in a way that I think does a lot to define how the self works in literary memoir, as sources that “create discontinuities in a life that often require different strategies of presentation” (145). I’d like to suggest that the writing of the self in careful memoir is always the writing of our own discontinuities, which are born partly of the multiplicities that are each of us and partly of the way other lives intersect with our own in creating our sense of self.

The desire to deflect, then, to write about others or, even, to claim a desire to not write about the self is a good faith recognition of the discontinuity of experience. This is, perhaps, the most important way that a writer can avoid the sort of solipsistic, navel-gazing work that dominates the nonfiction bestseller list (alongside soporific, terrifying guides to business management techniques). If we accept ourself as part of the subject of our lives, we recognize the way our sense of self develops through interaction and, perhaps even more importantly, we are able to write memoir that reflects the lives of readers as well as authors. A literary memoir helps the reader see him or herself in the author’s story. As Sanders writes, “I choose to write about my experience not because it is mine, but because it seems to me a door through which others might pass” (8). I’ll add that, in order to write about our own experience, we often need to pass through the doors of others.