It is part of the national character of American writers to take pride in their eccentricity and to claim at the same time that they are representative men and women. This doesn't mean that America is a nation of eccentrics. It means that American writers--those who work the grand vein of letters in this country--like to leave no terrain unclaimed. Walt Whitman wrote: "The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature." Every nation, every epoch, has had its Americans, Whitman says: You can tell the writers among them by their encyclopedic souls, even if they often look like cranks.
Whitman comes to mind while reading "PrairyErth (a deep map)," the new book about Kansas by William Least Heat-Moon, author of the best-selling "Blue Highways." Melville and Emerson come to mind too. There is a spiritual transcendence and egotistical largesse, not to mention unstinted research, in "PrairyErth" that will seem familiar to readers at home in the mid-19th-Century American classics. But the writer among that tribe whom Heat-Moon most resembles is Thoreau. Not Thoreau of the "Journals" or "Walden," not the naturalist or civic philosopher, but Thoreau as he appeared in the eyes of his countrymen--a half-cracked, solitary, socially impracticable figure who found himself a home in the woods, no doubt to the everlasting amusement of his neighbors. Little did they know what lay behind Thoreau's meanderings.
In "PrairyErth," William Least Heat-Moon, quoting local opinion, calls himself "half a bubble off plumb." He has a number of names for himself in this book, all self-mocking, and yet all slyly celebratory. He is a "two-bit mystic," an "inspector of the ordinary," a "grousing neoprimitivist." He takes some pride in his capacity to mingle with the plain-spoken residents of Chase County, Kansas--the place at the heart of "PrairyErth"--and yet he is just as proud of Chase County's suspicion. To be half a bubble off plumb, by local reckoning, is to be about dead level to William Least Heat-Moon. That is one way he distinguishes himself from the ordinary folk he calls "thoroughfare readers" and "two-dimensional Rand McNally travelers." Like "Blue Highways," Heat-Moon's book about his wanderings around America's "PrairyErth" is a story about America's side roads. But this time Heat-Moon stays within the borders of a single county, a county where, predictably, he finds plenty of dimensions invisible to ordinary travelers.
Chase County, Kansas, the subject of "PrairyErth," lies about halfway between Topeka and Wichita, in the midst of the Flint Hills, a region of rolling topography, ranches and native prairie grasses. From a national perspective--on the trivializing level of news, that is--the most interesting thing that ever happened there happened in 1931, when Knute Rockne died in a plane crash not far from the little town of Bazaar.
Chase County is the kind of place where when the wind dies down and the grasses fall still, the silence seems to echo overhead, and a writer, seated on the prairie, taking notes, is likely to write "good god, I'm the only thing happening here." Heat-Moon spent six years happening in the county, following his nose, hunting up the small stories that are the life of rural living. They turn out in the end not to be so small.
The strength of "PrairyErth" is that of the people the reader sees, sometimes clearly, sometimes only dimly, through its pages. Some are settlers, some their descendants; some worked on the railroad, some worked cattle; one even ran a feminist town cafe in red-meat country. Some of the people who appear in "PrairyErth" belong to the public history of Chase County, and of America, but most belong now to the private, and largely vanished, memory of individuals. They are extraordinary people, like the young man who wrote in 1839, "Haveing (sic) nothing else to do, I set fire to the Prairies."
It is impossible to talk for long about "PrairyErth" without talking about its method, its structure. ("The subject of this chapter," Heat-Moon writes at one point, "is really its method." "PrairyErth" is the work of an encyclopedist without an alphabet. It is arranged geographically, quadrant by quadrant, around the county, "my arbitrary pattern . . . that of a Japanese reading a book, up to down, right to left." The grid that Heat-Moon imagines for his book is part actual, part imaginary--it corresponds to the 12 U.S. Geological Survey maps that cover the center of the county, and it resembles the grid that "an archeologist lays over ground he will excavate. Wasn't I a kind of digger of shards?"