Heat-Moon, William Least

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William Least Heat-Moon


Born William Trogdon, August 27, 1939, in Kansas City, MO; son of Ralph G. (a lawyer) and Maurine(a homemaker; maiden name, Davis) Trogdon; married, 1967; wife's name, Lezlie (divorced, 1978); married Linda Keown (a teacher). Education: University of Missouri at Columbia, B.A. (literature), 1961, M.A., 1962, Ph.D., 1973, B.A. (photojournalism), 1978.


Homem— Columbia, MO. Officem— 222 Berkeley St., Boston, MA 02116. Agentm— Lois Wallace, 177 East 70th St., New York, NY 10021.


Writer and educator. Stephens College, Columbia, MO, teacher of English, 1965-68, 1972, 1978; lecturer at University of Missouri School of Journalism, 1984-87. Military service: U.S. Navy, served on U.S.S. Lake Champlain, 1964-65; became personnelman third class.

Awards, Honors

New York Times notable book, and among five best nonfiction books by Time, both 1983, and Christopher Award, and Books-across-the-Sea Award, both1984, all for Blue Highways: A Journey into America; PrairyErth (a deep map) selected among best works of nonfiction, American Library Association, named among four best books about the West, Mountains and Plains Booksellers Association, and named a New York Times notable book, all 1991; Edgar Wolfe Literary Award, 1993; Leila Lenore Heasley Prize, 2000; Mahan Award in Poetry; Distinguished Alumnus Award, University of Missouri at Columbia.


(Author of introduction) Clarence Jonk, River Journey , Stein & Day (New York, NY), 1964.

(And photographer) Blue Highways: A Journey into America, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1982, reprinted, Back Bay Books (Boston, MA), 1999.

(And creator of maps and petroglyphs) PrairyErth (a deep map), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1991.

This Land Is Your Land: Across America by Air, photographs by Marilyn Bridges, Aperture (New York, NY), 1997.

River-Horse: The Logbook of a Boat across America, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1999.

(Author of introduction) Daniel D. Dancer, The Four Seasons of Kansas , University Press of Kansas (Lawrence, KS), 2001.

(Author of introduction) Sandy Sorlien, Fifty Houses: Images from the American Road , Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 2002.

Columbus in the Americas, Wiley (Hoboken, NJ), 2002.

Contributor to books, including The Red Couch: A Portrait of America, Alfred Van der Marck, 1984, Three Essays, Nature Conservancy (Arlington, VA), 1993, and Lewis & Clark: An Illustrated History, Knopf (New York, NY), 1997. Contributor to magazines and periodicals, including Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, Time, and New York Times Book Review.


With Blue Highways: A Journey into America and PrairyErth (a deep map), William Least Heat-Moon was compared by critics to the writers of some of the most revered works about America. Together with Alexis de Tocqueville, Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, Herman Melville, John Steinbeck, and Henry David Thoreau, Heat-Moon discerns important and elemental qualities in the American psyche, and conveys his ideas in a language common to the American experience. He delves into the American consciousness in his fiction, drawing out familiar landscapes and people who embody the American spirit. Interestingly, his first two works could not be more different: in Blue Highways Heat-Moon skims across the surface of the entire continent, chronicling the lives of the hundreds of people he meets on the way, while in PrairyErth (a deep map) he delves into the natural and human history of Chase County, Kansas, exploring every niche of the 774 square miles of rolling Kansas grassland.

Heat-Moon's unique name comes from his Native American heritage, though it is not a given tribal name. His father, who was part Osage Indian, adopted the name Heat Moon based on Sioux tribal lore, according to Samuel Baker in Publishers Weekly. Calling his eldest son Little Heat Moon, it made sense that he dubbed his younger son Least Heat Moon to represent the boy's place in the lineage. The family did not use their Indian names publicly, but after finishing his first book, the author felt compelled to revise his surname to diminish readers' tendency to assume he possessed a wholly "Anglo point of view," as Heat-Moon explained in a People interview with William Plummer. The writer later added the hyphen to avoid being called "Mr. Moon."

Shortlived Academic Career

Born William Lewis Trogdon on August 27, 1939, in Kansas City, Missouri, Heat-Moon is the son of Ralph G. and Maurine (Davis) Trogdon. His father, an attorney, and mother, a homemaker, raised him and his older brother in Kansas City. He attended the University of Missouri at Columbia, collecting four degrees in all: a bachelor of arts in literature in 1961, a master of arts in 1962, a doctorate in 1973, and a bachelor of arts in photojournalism in 1978. Heat-Moon also did a stint in the U.S. Navy on the U.S.S. Lake Champlain from 1964 to 1965, becoming a personnelman third class.

After leaving the military, Heat-Moon began teaching English at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, working there from 1965 to 1968, and again in 1972 and 1978. Subsequently, he lectured at the University of Missouri School of Journalism from 1984 to 1987. This standard resume, however, masks Heat-Moon's remarkable foray into literature. Coming to a crossroads in his life, he decided to take a journey. He had lost his teaching job, and his ten-year marriage to his wife, Lezlie, was dissolving. On a March morning in 1978, Heat-Moon left his rented apartment in Columbia, Missouri, climbed into his Ford Econoline van, and embarked on a tour that would take him from his point of departure to the Atlantic coast, then clockwise around the perimeter of the United States. As he writes in BlueHighways, his travelogue of that journey, he felt "a nearly desperate sense of isolation and a growing suspicion that I lived in an alien land." He was also weary of the "carnival midway strips of plastic-roof franchises" that characterized suburban towns, as well as with his students' preoccupation with material goods.

As Heat-Moon writes in Blue Highways, his search focused on finding those "places where change did not mean ruin and where time and men and deeds connected." He avoided the interstates, traveling instead on two-lane back roadsm—the "blue" in the title refers to the blue lines used to represent such secondary roads on travel maps. His trip was partly inspired by John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley, another classic on-the-road work of American literature. Heat-Moon's journey lasted three months and covered 13,000 miles, and he spent four years distilling his journals and tapes into manuscript form.

In Search of Grassroots America

"More than anything else," Jonathan Yardley wrote in the Washington Post Book World, Heat-Moon "is passionately, somewhat blindly in love with small-town America and with places where 'things live on, . . . in the only way the past ever livesm—by not dying.'" The towns the author seemed to love most were those with the oddest names; his path wound along roads leading to towns such as Nameless, Tennessee, and Dime Box, Texas. In each of these small towns Heat-Moon located the resident every small town has: As Anatole Broyard explained in the New York Times, there are always "philosopher-historians" who "wait for someone to whom [they] can explain the soul of the place and pick the colors out."

Reviewers particularly pointed out Heat-Moon's talent for observing people and places. Writing in America, Richard A. Blake explained that the author "notes wild flowers and weeds, jack rabbits and oyster beds, and even the texture of clouds and colors of fog. . . . Most of all, he observes people. He delights in the gentle and garrulous, and enjoys the unusual." While Craig Mellow wrote in the New Leader that Heat-Moon's "affection for the old . . .sometimes results in a sophomoric condemnation of the new," Peter Ross described Blue Highways in the Detroit News as "an intense, compelling travelogue of a new sort, a saga that probes the American land and character with brilliance, wit, style, and soulfulness."

"I'm in quest of the land and what informs it," Heat-Moon said in the first chapter of PrairyErth (a deep map). Although the book focuses on the history and people of Chase County, Kansasm—it took its author over six years to researchm—in a broader sense it is also a metaphor of America. After walking the county, digging in libraries and the Chase County courthouse, sleeping on the ground, and talking to people in local communities, Heat-Moon gained a sense of how towns are born, why people gather in the places they do, how people receive their names, how they die, and how the environment is affected by the encroachment of man. These long, slow processes are the focus of PrairyErth, and in describing a county that time has passed by, Heat-Moon demonstrating the benefits of living close to the earth, and of conserving the land.

The unique narrative structure Heat-Moon uses in PrairyErth provides interesting challenges to the reader. There are no central characters ot her than the narrator, whom the reader knows little about, and no plot unfolds over the course of the book. Instead, although some characters reappear throughout the volume, for the most part the author describes one aspect of the county and then moves on, making few explicit connections between the succession of images he conjures up for readers. As the author explained to Peter Gilmour in Heartland Journal, the book is structured in a fashion similar to "the way that Native Americans often tell stories. There will be a kernel of the story that the narrator wants to work around. But the tale is likely to proceed by what appears to be ramblings about other things. . . . So what happens is that the listener must then assume a certain responsibility for constructing the tale."

A key to Heat-Moon's story is provided to readers in the form of a series of "Commonplace Books, " collections of brief quotations from various sources that precede each of PrairyErth 's twelve sections. Sources range from famous authors, politicians, and historians to environmentalists, and some quotes are taken from the journals of unnamed settlers, who recorded their thoughts and experiences crossing America's vast prairie. The quotation indicates the direction of the chapter to follow; as Heat-Moon informed Gilmour, "they carry the theme and guide the motif" of the book. The Commonplace Books quotations also reflect Heat-Moon's reaction to the events he proceeds to describe; while he usually lets people speak for themselves within the chapters, inthe Common place Book he provides, through his selections, a reflection of his own subjective view. "Readers either hate or love the Common place Book quotations," the author told Gilmour. "I thought that would probably happen. They are some of my favorite parts of the book, and, in fact, probably the only part of the book that I can sit down and read happily now. I go through and read those things. I love them."

Describing PrairyErth as a "good-hearted book about the heart of the country," New York Times Book Review contributor Paul Theroux added that the author "does not make much of the xenophobia he encounters, nor does he explore the . . . anti-black and anti-Hispanic sentiments he hears. He takes people as he finds them and they put up with his note-taking." Noting that Heat-Moon "has succeeded in recapturing a sense of the American grain," the critic concluded that the book should be accorded "a permanent place in the literature of our country."

Ode to America's Wilderness

River-Horse: The Logbook of a Boat across America chronicles Heat-Moon's 5,000-mile voyage across America by river. Waterways were an important source of transportation during nineteenth-century America, and for his book Heat-Moon retraces many of that century's travel routes through the interior in a spartan watercraft, mechanical and other problems adding drama to the narrative. Motor mishaps dogged his trip, and in another instance, when Heat-Moon was unable to reach his destination on time, he faced frightening currents in the flooded Missouri river. He also comments on pollution and the environmental effects of river management. In addition to recounting personal dangers and voicing ecological concerns, Heat-Moon also reflects on the natural beauty he encounters along his trip, and he infuses humor, folklore, history, geography, and ecology into his prose.

Reviewing River Horse, a Publishers Weekly critic called the work "a rich chronicle of a massive and meaningful undertaking. Unlike Blue Highways, . . .the focus is not so much on people and places as on the trials of a journey that bypasses them in favor of reaching its destination." Drawing parallels between Heat-Moon's book and the writings of Mark Twain and Herman Melville, Leventhal concluded,"There is a timeless quality to Heat-Moon's stories, all remarkably spellbinding and enchanting."

Heat-Moon's Columbus in the Americas, a biography of Italian navigator and explorer Christopher Columbus, who planned and led the successful discovery of the New World in 1492. In the work, Heat-Moon chronicles the celebrated mariner's four voyages across the Atlantic; according to Deborah King, writing in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the work "covers a lot of ground, but its focus is Columbus' shocking treatment of the Indians he stumbled upon." In their attempts to obtain gold, Columbus and his men became increasingly barbarous, abusing and killing many natives. "The author has provided a concise, expressive portrayal of Columbus' historical triumph, which offers both entertaining storytelling and a reproving look at the dark side of discovery," King remarked, and Kansas City Star reviewer John Mark Eberhart commented, "Heat-Moon has written a penetrating analysis of Columbus, depicting a man whose contradictory nature was fascinating."

Although, unlike Blue Highway and PrairyErth (a deep map), Columbus in the Americas does not rely on the author's first-hand experiences, the book nonetheless takes a place alongside Heat-Moon's earlier works due to the window it opens onto the roots of American culture. Reflecting on his motivation for writing, the author told NEA Today interviewer Diane Dismuke: "We all have many curiosities. I hope that my books will appeal to students' curiosities and encourage them to leave their own little world for a while. If they do, they'll find that the rest of the realm is a fascinating place and that they share things with people everywhere. It's not that we're all part of one big family so much that we all belong in an incredible web."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 29, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1984.

Contemporary Popular Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1997.

Heat-Moon, William Least, Blue Highways: A Journey into America, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1982.

Heat-Moon, William Least, PrairyErth (a deep map), Houghton (Boston, MA), 1991.

Newsmakers 2000, Issue 2, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2000.

If you enjoy the works of William Least Heat-Moon

If you enjoy the works of William Least Heat-Moon, you may also want to check out the following:

Eddy Harris, Mississippi Solo: A River Quest, 1998.

Bill Graves, On the Back Roads: Discovering Small Towns of America, 2001.

Jack Kerouac, On the Road, 1957.


America, April 9, 1983.

Artful Dodge, Volumes 20-21, Daniel Bourne, interview with Heat-Moon, pp. 92-120.

Booklist, August, 1999, p. 1980.

Chicago Tribune, February 24, 1983.

Christian Science Monitor, February 11, 1983; March 2, 1984; October 12, 1995, Steven Ratiner, "Blue Highways Author Sails into Deeper Blue," p. 10; October 21, 1999, review of River-Horse: The Log-book of a Boat across America, p. 15.

Commonweal, May 20, 1983.

Detroit Free Press, February 19, 1984.

Detroit News, February 20, 1983.

Discover, January, 2000, Margaret Foley, review of River-Horse, p. 102.

Entertainment Weekly, November 29, 1991, p. 58.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram, March 31, 2003, Deborah King, review of Columbus in the Americas.

Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), April 14, 1984.

Heartland Journal, March-April, 1992, Peter Gilmour, interview with Heat-Moon, pp. 9-11.

Hudson Review, summer, 1983, pp. 420-424.

Hungry Mind Review, spring, 1992, p. 47.

Kansas City Star, November 7, 2002, John Mark Eber-hart, review of Columbus in the Americas.

Kirkus Reviews, November 1, 1982; December 15, 1982.

Library Journal, October 1, 1999, p. 124.

London Review of Books, August 4-17, 1983.

Los Angeles Times, April 5, 1984, p. 1; September 28, 1995, p. E1.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 30, 1983; October 16, 1983; December 8, 1985.

Maclean's, February 7, 1983.

National Review, May 13, 1983, p. 580.

NEA Today, December, 1993, Diane Dismuke, "William Least Heat-Moon: Traveling Blue Highways," p. 9.

New Leader, March 21, 1983, pp. 16-17.

Newsday, October 31, 1999, p. B9.

Newsweek, February 7, 1983, p. 63; November 15, 1999, p. 79.

New Yorker, May 2, 1983, pp. 121-126.

New York Times, January 13, 1983.

New York Times Book Review, February 6, 1983, pp. 1, 22; October 27, 1991, pp. 1, 25-26; December 5, 1999, review of River-Horse, p. 26.

Observer (London, England), July 3, 1983.

People, February 28, 1983; April 18, 1983, pp. 72-74; January 17, 2000, "Pages," review of River-Horse, p. 53.

Publishers Weekly, August 16, 1991, p. 40; August 23, 1990, p. 30; September 20, 1999, Samuel Baker, "William Least Heat-Moon: Navigating America,"p. 55; November 22, 1999, p. 16.

Time, January 24, 1983, p. 84; November 15, 1999, p. 113.

Times (London, England), June 9, 1983.

Times Literary Supplement, August 26, 1983, p. 902; June 9, 2000, Martin Padget, review of River-Horse, p. 36.

U.S. News and World Report, November 11, 1991, pp. 58-59.

Village Voice, May 24, 1983.

Washington Post Book World, December 26, 1982, pp. 3, 7.

Whole Earth Review, winter, 1992, p. 106.


Powells.com, http://www.powells.com/ (November 16, 1999), Dave Weich, interview with Heat-Moon.

Salon.com, http://www.salon.com/ (December 16, 1999), Jonathan Miles, "Road Scholar."*