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Travels With Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck

January 20, 2012

I loved this book. I don’t know why Steinbeck’s gentle prose and sharp wit surprised me so much—perhaps because The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, my other Steinbeck reads, were more serious. But from the first few chapters it is obvious that Steinbeck is not only a masterful writer but also an incredibly likable person.

This book is about a road trip Steinbeck took in 1960 with the stated goal of finding out what the true America is like. Upon further research, I found that Steinbeck had a heart condition and knew he would not live much longer. Thus, as his son surmised, the real reason of the trip was to give Steinbeck one long, last contemplative look at the America that permeated his classic novels.

“In Spanish, there is a word…vacilando. If one is vacilando, he is going somewhere but doesn’t greatly care whether or not he gets there, although he has direction.” That is the spirit with which Steinbeck sets off with Charley, his standard poodle. His camper is named Rocinante after Don Quijote’s horse, an acknowledgement of his quixotic quest.

Steinbeck's faithful steed, Rocinante.

He sets off from New York and circles the country counterclockwise, one of America’s greatest writers observing his grand subject from all angles, reporting his observations with a series of charming, insightful vignettes.

Although Steinbeck laments the disappearance of regional dialects and the growing homogeneity of the country, America is still a collection of vastly different cultures. A testament to Steinbeck’s writing is that he is able to capture a cross-section of the country, good and bad, big themes and personal moments, in what is a relatively slim book.

He is critical of politics (“I find out of long experience that I admire all nations but hate all governments.”), sometimes disillusioned by what he sees as the loss of American culture (“We have exchanged corpulence for starvation, and either one will kill us.”), and wary of progress:

“American cities are like badger holes, ringed with trash—all of them—surrounded by the piles of wrecked and rusting automobiles, and almost smothered with rubbish.”

But his faith in our goodness is bolstered time and again by personal encounters with folks at roadside campsites, lakes and veterinary offices. He frequently invites strangers to his camper to share a whisky or coffee, picks up hitchhikers to pick their brains, and has amusing encounters with a cast of characters that might populate a modern  Canterbury Tales.

“I can only suspect that the lonely man peoples his driving dreams with friends, that the loveless man surrounds himself with lovely loving women, and that children climb through the dreaming of the childless driver.” Steinbeck has Charley, the perfect companion, sometimes observing in bemusement the mysteries of human civilization, sometimes disinterested, sometimes engaging Steinbeck in fully-rendered conversations as 10,000 miles unfold under them.

“One goes, not so much to see but to tell afterward,” Steinbeck reflects on the American traveler. What Steinbeck tells here is the story of who we are, an invaluable portrait that captures our complicated, idiosyncratic character, as true today as it was fifty years ago. Charley’s conclusion, after much experience, is less nuanced: “I’ve seen…a quickly vanishing look of amazed contempt, and I am convinced that basically dogs think humans are nuts.”

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 22, 2012 4:33 am

    Nicely written, and I envy all the time you had to read all those books last year. But as a voracious and thoughtful reader, you should check out http://www.travelswithoutcharley.com to get another perspective on “TWC’s” value as a true and honest account of Steinbeck’s trip and what he really thought about America. Much of Steinbeck’s writing in “TWC” is great, as you showed, but it’s not a work of nonfiction. Whether that matters in the long run is for you to decide. i

    • January 22, 2012 2:41 pm

      Thanks for the comments, Bill. I assumed there was some editing and a certain amount of refining of Steinbeck’s experiences, but I didn’t realize there was a larger controversy about the verity of TWC. While it is disheartening to think that some of Steinbeck’s encounters were fabricated, I don’t see why he should be held to any other standard of truth that other modern authors who have been grilled over the authenticity of their “memoirs.” I’ve just started to read through your articles and blog posts, but it seems like an addendum to my review is in order.

      Thanks for pointing me toward your work. Really interesting stuff, and interesting how much push-back you’ve encountered from Steinbeck scholars. You’d think that the truth would be more important (and interesting) to them than maintaining a Steinbeck myth.

      The link you posted above didn’t work for me (looks like it might be expired), but I found your work here: http://communityvoices.sites.post-gazette.com/index.php/arts-entertainment-living/travels-without-charley

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