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William Least Heat-Moon is as much a traveler as he is an author. He traverses the country, exploring the rural nooks and crannies of America s lesser-known roads in both words and pictures. As a photographer, Heat-Moon s work is both expansive and ethereal. As a writer, he is intimate and warm, humorous and poetic, and always ready for a new cross-country adventure. Heat-Moon s excursions are detailed in his books Blue Highways: A Journey into America (1982), PrairyErth (A Deep Map) (1991), and his most recent work, Roads to Quoz: An American Mosey (2008).
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Sowing the Seeds of Wanderlust
William Least Heat-Moon was born William Lewis Trogdon on August 27, 1939. He grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, with his father Ralph, an attorney, his mother Maurine, a home-maker, and his older brother. The name he currently uses professionally was given to him by his father, whose ancestry is partially Osage Indian. The name ”Heat Moon derives from Sioux Indian lore. Ralph would affectionately call his older son ”Little Heat Moon and the younger William ”Least Heat Moon. Although the family never used these names publicly, his pride in his Native American heritage inspired William Trogdon to use his adopted name when he became a writer as an adult.
As a boy, Heat-Moon dreamed of becoming a writer or photojournalist when he grew up. However, he remained close to home even after he reached college age. At the University ofMissouri at Columbia, Heat-Moon earned an impressive array of four degrees—two baccalaureates, a Master of Arts, and a doctorate—over the span of about twenty years. However, it was during his time in the U.S. Navy (1964-1965) that Heat-Moon had his most profoundly life-altering experience. While enduring an unhappy stint serving aboard U.S.S. Lake Champlain, he began reading John Steinbeck’s recently published travelogue Travels with Charley: In Search of America (1962). The account of Steinbeck s whimsical yet spiritually engaged trip watered the seeds of wanderlust already planted in Heat-Moon s mind. As he told Publishers Weekly:
I liked the traveling—but when we were locked in the ship, I did not like that, and this book, when I had a moment to read it here and there, gave me a great escape. I said to myself, ”One of these days I want to take a trip around the country. Despite this revelation, Heat-Moon remained in Missouri for more than a decade after he left the Navy in 1965. He first took an intermittent teaching position in Columbia, Missouri, at Stephens College. Heat-Moon worked at the college from 1965 to 1968 and then returned twice in the 1970s. Heat-Moon found himself at a crossroads after losing his job at the college and being on the verge of losing Lezlie, his wife of ten years. With his personal life in a state of flux, Heat-Moon finally resolved to take the trip he first dreamed of while reading Travels with Charley.
Adrift on ”Blue Highways”
On March 20, 1978, with only $450 to spare, the thirty-eight-year-old Heat-Moon boarded his well-equipped van (which he fancifully christened ”Ghost Dancer” as a reference to a Native American resurrection ceremony) and hit the road. He decided to limit his trip to only the smallest, most off-the-beaten-path roads he could find, roads he nicknamed ”Blue Highways.” The three-month journey was both an escape from his troubled home life and a quest for himself. As he trekked across the country, his thoughts continually traveled back to his childhood. He recalled his boyhood dream of becoming a writer and photographer. Having unlashed the domestic and career ties that previously bound him, Heat-Moon concluded that he would indeed follow this dream.
Heat-Moon started collecting stories and shooting photographs as he bounced from one odd small town to the next. He had conversations with a colorful assortment of individuals: runaways and hitchhikers, medical students and prostitutes, country store owners and barkeeps. All the while he kept a journal of these encounters. By the end of the trip, he had enough delightful anecdotes, folksy insights, and harrowing tales to fill a book. Thirteen thousand miles later, Heat-Moon returned to Missouri and started working on his first book. During the four years it took him to finish it, he worked as a clerk in a local courthouse. When the time came to sell the book, he quit his clerking position to take a night job at a newspaper, so he could spend his mornings and afternoons hunting for an interested publisher. In 1982 Blue Highways: A Journey into America was published by Fawcett Crest. Although the book was greeted with mixed reactions from the critical press, it became a major favorite with readers and found a place on the New York Times bestseller list for an impressive forty-two weeks.
Explorations Small and Great
While Heat-Moon spent the mid-1980s lecturing at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, the massive success of Blue Highways gave Heat-Moon the opportunity to continue writing and traveling. The result of his next venture, and of eight years of research, was PrairyErth (A Deep Map), published in 1991. This time out, Heat-Moon limited himself to a single area, Chase County, Kansas, but the scope of the book was, in its own way, broader than that of Blue Highways. Along with recording conversations with the locals, such as a Kaw Indian whose tribe had been uprooted by settlers, he examined, in untold hours spent in libraries and court houses, the history of this grassland region. Heat-Moon collected the wealth of data and stories into an unusual and seemingly randomly structured book that the author compared to Native American storytelling. He also avoided the sort of judgmental remarks that caused some critics to dismiss Blue Highways. Consequently, Heat-Moon had another bestseller on his hands.
Heat-Moon’s next trek found him riding the waves rather than the roads, in an attempt to retrace the legendary voyage of Lewis and Clark, the first explorers to successfully mount an expedition from the East Coast to the Pacific and back. Aboard a twenty-two-foot motor-boat, he sailed 5,222 miles, starting in New York harbor, in one hundred days. The harrowing journey is documented in the semi fictional River-Horse: A Voyage Across America (1999). Heat-Moon reserves plenty of moments to observe the beauty of the rolling waters that surround him, to share folktales, historical nuggets, human encounters, and inject his unique humor into the story. Significantly, the book is also concerned with environmental and ecological issues. Following the book’s publication, Heat-Moon told Powells.com, ”I wanted River-Horse to be a kind of service book to help along some of these environmental causes that have so much to do with the quality of life we’re going to face in the next century.”
In Search of the Extraordinary
Most recently, Heat-Moon published Roads to Quoz: An American Mosey (2008), which found him accompanied by his wife Q for his latest venture. The couple search for the head of the Ouachita River in Arkansas, as they reenact an expedition quite a bit less well-known than the one accomplished by Lewis and Clark. The Dunbar-Hunter Expedition (1804) was one of four treks commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson into the 800,000 square miles of land the U.S. bought from France known as the Louisiana Purchase. The book’s mysterious title is a reference to an eighteenth century term for ”anything out of the ordinary.” As usual, the heart of the story can be found in Heat-Moon’s encounters with various Americans, but its greatest drama lies in an attempt to find the truth behind the murder of his great-grandfather.
Although ambitious, the trip documented in Roads to Quoz was hardly as demanding or dangerous as the ones he described in Blue Highwaysor River-Horse, hence his description of it as a ”mosey.” ”The great enemy on the ‘Blue Highways’ trip, being on the road those three months, was desolation,” he told SF Gate.com. ”It was a threat every single day of the trip, as I remember it now. But with this one, with a fellow traveler, and a good one, as Q is, desolation was never a problem.” When he is not exploring or moseying across America, Heat-Moon continues to make a home in Columbia, Missouri, where he owns a tobacco farm.
Works in Literary Context
A broad genre, travel literature (also known as the ”travelogue” format) is essentially defined as a writer’s account of her/his journey to unfamiliar places, in which he documents the topography, history, culture, and/or locals of the place. Travel literature stands in contrast to travel journalism by way of its consistent narrative structure and the writer’s personal perspective, which is often expressed in terms contrasting the writer’s own home environment. The history of travel writing is a decidedly long one. One of the first examples of the genre, Pausanias’s Description of Greece, dates back to the second century. Throughout the years, the genre has persisted and grown and been tackled by writers Charles Dickens (Pictures from Italy, 1846), Herman Melville (Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, 1846), and Robert Louis Stevenson (Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, 1879). Other writers, including Paul Theroux and Heat-Moon himself, have specifically devoted themselves to the genre.
As a theme in literary works, ecology is a relatively recent one. In fact, when Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) was published, she was actually criticized for conveying her scientific expose of the detrimental effects of pollution and pesticides on the environment with fluid, literary prose. However, Carson’s book proved to be both a seminal one and one with some precedent.
Narrative classics such as Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952), William Faulkner’s Big Woods: The Hunting Stories (1955), and Jack London’s The Call of the Wild (1903) are just a few literary works that examine themes of ecology and conservation. Contemporary works that combine literary narrative with ecological concerns include Steven Zaillian’s A Civil Action (1995) and Heat-Moon’s River-Horse (1999).
Works in Critical Context
Heat-Moon has enjoyed consistent favor from readers, his books often ending up on bestseller lists, but his relationship with critics is less consistent. He has been called out for not only his self-conscious writing style but also his arguably biased treatment of those he writes about. Still, few writers of travel literature have ever achieved the steady popularity of Heat-Moon.
Blue Highways: A Journey into America
Heat-Moon’s first work, Blue Highways: A Journey into America, was criticized for its sometimes unflattering portrayals of the small-town Americans he encountered during his travels. A review in the Hudson Review complains, ”Heat Moon’s sometimes defective sensibility manifests itself in 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.” However, other critics were far more complimentary, such as Anatole Broyard of the The New York Times, who deems the book ”wonderful” and that it might give the reader ”a little flush of national pride.”
River-Horse: A Voyage Across America
Like so much of his work, Heat-Moon’s River-Horse: A Voyage Across America had its fans and detractors in the critical world. A review in Newsweek chided the book for its ”contrived” premise and ”fussy writing” and concluded, ”It would be a very tolerant reader who wouldn’t want to jump ship before Heat-Moon hits Ohio.” However, negative reviews did not affect the book’s considerable popularity with readers and certain critics. A reviewer for Booklist found the book’s stories to possess ”a timeless quality… all remarkably spellbinding and enchanting,” and summed the work up as an ”excellent book.”
- Oppliger, Aaron J., ed. Newsmakers. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Group, 2000.
- Broyard, Anatole. ”Book of the Times.” The New York Times (January 13, 1983).
- Leventhal, Ted. ”River Horse: A Voyage Across America (review).” Booklist (August 1999): 1980.
- Jones, Malcolm. ”Reflections on the Water.” Newsweek (November 15, 1999).
- McDowell, Robert. ”In Pursuit of Life Itself.” Hudson Review (Summer 1983).
- Plummer, William. ”William Least Heat-Moon Interview.” People Magazine (February 28,1983): 72.
- Hank Nuwer.com. William Least Heat-Moon: Interview with Hank Nuwer; “The Road To Serendipity.” Accessed November 22, 2008, from http://www. hanknuwer.com/William%20Least%20Heat%20 Moon%20(Trogdon).html.
- Paula Gordon.com. Connect. Accessed November 23, 2008, from http://www.paulagordon.com/shows/ heatmoon.
- On Point Radio.org William Least Heat-Moon.Posted November 11, 2008, from http://www.onpointradio.org/shows/2008/11/william-least-heat-moon.
- Weich, Dave. William Least Heat-Moon: Participatory Armchair Rivering. Accessed December 6, 2008, from http://www.powells.com/authors/leastheatmoon.html.
- Publishers Weekly.com. William Least Heat-Moon:Navigating America. Accessed December 6, 2008, from http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA167308.html.
- SF Gate.com. Interview with William Least Heat-Moon.Accessed December 6, 2008, from http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/11/14/RVPC143Q7J.DTL.
- Artful Dodge. A Conversation with William Least Heat-Moon. Accessed November 23, 2008, from http: //www.wooster.edu/ArtfulDodge/interviews/heat-moon.htm.
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