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Thursday, November 14, 2013

Who’s Ready to Hit the Road Again?

Sometimes flipping a coin isn’t necessary. Which would my readers rather see in a new blog post, philosophy or travel? Post-structuralism or American roads? No contest, is it? Add to those considerations that any new book from William Least Heat-Moon is worth attention -- which would doubtless even be true if he were to write about philosophy, but you can relax on that score.

Heat-Moon’s new book is Here, There, Elsewhere: Stories From the Road, and it’s a collection of short journalistic travel pieces the author wrote over the years. (“One advantage books have over a newspaper or magazine is that it’s harder to wrap yesterday’s fish with them.”) In it he travels to Japan, his assignment to investigate the postwar economy, his personal mission to purge himself of World War II hatred of the Japanese. He scours the U.S. for authentic, traditional beer and ale, back before microbreweries had popped up everywhere. He pilgrimages to Mississippi in search of William Faulkner when that famous author was still alive (but alas, teaching in another state at the time). And that is only the beginning.

These stories are a famous American writer’s early work. His love of travel, he tells us, goes back to boyhood and his realization that the highway outside the drugstore soda bar window stretched all the way to New Orleans and that U.S. 40 through Kansas City, Missouri, connected the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of America. “To me,” he writes, “a road map is the printed lyrics to a siren’s song....”  Heat-Moon also sees American roadways as the web holding Americans together:
It’s a commonplace to say that no one can interpret America without understanding our use of automobiles, but I think what we really mean is that one doesn’t comprehend the United States without taking into account our mobility, and preeminently that means roadways, perhaps the most American of symbols, one even more functionally representative than the Statue of Liberty or Mount Rushmore. We are a widely dispersed and numerous people bound together by three million miles of painted stripes atop concrete and asphalt.
He cites Albert Gallatin’s report to Congress in 1808 recommending more good roads through the country, “to strengthen and perpetuate the Union which secures independence, domestic peace, and internal liberty.” I find that idea worth pausing over. As Americans, we are free to travel anywhere in our own country. Some areas have higher crime rates than others, but nowhere do we find a region in the hands of armed insurgents. Should our system of highways get some of the credit for this happy state of affairs? William Least Heat-Moon thinks so.

Answering and amplifying the author’s love of maps, love of travel, and appreciation for the union of diverse regions and peoples, this new collection adds a special interest for writers.
Despite assertions to the contrary, exceptional is the magazine editor who truly trusts in the intelligence and creativity of his readership. How many times from an editorial desk have I heard, “Our audience won’t understand this.” “This” being an idea, a word, sentence construction, sentence length, literary allusion, historical reference, or a brief digression underpinning an idea. Too few editors grant American readers much capacity or willingness to think critically, just as they believe their audience will not tolerate a vocabulary beyond the basic five or six thousand words in common usage. If I formerly thought editors were wrong on those questions, now I believe my argument is weaker. Evidence of America getting “dumbed down” in self-fulfilling ways grows apace.
Heat-Moon had to suffer the editorial blue pencil when he originally turned in his assignments, but putting together this new collection gave him a chance “to restore elements one editor or another deemed too challenging for the audience he perceived.” He also gave himself license to rework or expand ideas where inspired to do so.
To my surprise, I’ve liked doing the restitution of the pieces here as I’ve liked returning details and sentence structures I dared not even try with an editorial practitioner of the hack-and-hew school....
What writer can fail to be sympathetic to these feelings? In light, then, of the time that has passed and the changes made to the originally published articles, as well as changes made by the author for the sake of the present collection, each piece is preceded by a brief explanatory note, with Heat-Moon telling us why that particular trip was important to him when he made it and why he thinks we will enjoy revisiting the old ground, perhaps reworked, with him today.

Aficionados of travel writing will open this book eagerly. Fans of William Least Heat-Moon will be grateful for it. Anyone who writes for a living – or simply from love – will be fascinated by this writer’s look at his own pages past.

And happily, Here, There, Elsewhere is already available in paper, and I have ordered it and will have it next week at Dog Ears Books! To my customer this morning who said her husband has Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways on his bookshelf but she hasn’t read it yet, I say, “Open that book today! You have denied yourself the pleasure far too long already!”

We have no travels planned for this winter, but we are happy to have plenty of travel books at hand.


Kathy said...

Sometimes reading your posts remind me of talking to my son, Christopher and my good friend, Amy. My mind goes blank when they enthusiastically discuss post-structuralism or post-modernism but I do love discussions about travel! Can't remember if I've read Heat-Moon thoroughly, but have perused him passionately in the aisles of a book store.

P. J. Grath said...

This new book is out in paperback already and holds stories of many trips the author took over the years, beginning with family vacations: "f there was one book that led me to notions of American connections and helped me feel a part of things, it was a 1950 road atlas. After I'd traveled in that extension of our living room -- the Chieftain sedan -- and ridden in it along some of those mapped and numbered lines, the main routes in red and the back roads in blue, the atlas became a kind of snapshot album or personal diary. I could prop up in bed on a winter night and take a journey through certain parts of the country and see again stretches of territory that highway numbers or town names elicited...." This means so much to me because I would no more through away an old atlas than an old cookbook, though both may be missing pages and have many loose and torn leaves. It's the old atlas, not the new one, that went with us on that first trip to -- wherever! As much as it holds the entire country, it also holds my life's memories.

Kathy said...

That sounds so poignant, Pamela.