Travels with Charley (In Search of America). John Steinbeck. New York: The Viking Press. 1962.
Why read it? I found out when I read the novel East of Eden, that John Steinbeck likes to philosophize and he does it well. He does it by the sentence. Brief. Concise. To the point. Travels with Charley is a travelogue, the perfect vehicle for Steinbeck who can cross America and comment on what he finds: the people, the speech, the unforgettable characters and scenes. I thought of some other “travelogues” as I was reading it: Lolita (a novel by Nabokov) and On the Road (Kerouac). Both of those books conveyed impressions of Americans and American culture at a particular time.
For three-fourths of the book, I enjoyed the narrative of Steinbeck’s experience, his impressions and reflections. But it ends with the South—and then the book turns nasty. It’s the South I discovered when I made a trip across the country at the same time as Steinbeck, in 1960, the South that hates blacks with a vehemence and rage that stunned me and stunned Steinbeck, too. His reports of the use of the N-word, like Mark Twain’s In Huckleberry Finn, mean that I would hesitate to read the book as a teacher with middle-schoolers who would be the natural readers for it. It would be censored because that word encapsulates the feelings of some people of the South.
Steinbeck’s narrative is as much about the nature of travel as it is about what he rediscovered about America, his impressions of driving the super highways, Maine, Montana, the Mohave Desert, the people he met. But he realized when his trip was over, the very place and time. He was finished traveling. I think his experience with travel is symbolic of careers and even living. We know when we are finished.
Steinbeck offers a few ideas that are thought-provoking. Otherwise, the narrative isn’t deep. But it is entertaining—until he reaches the South. He says he is not drawing conclusions about the nature of the people in the South. But it is hard not to. A very disturbing finish to an otherwise idyllic trip across America.
Some sample ideas:
“In 1960, when he was almost 60 years old, John Steinbeck set out to rediscover his native land. Accompanied only by a French poodle named Charley, he traveled the length and breadth of the United States.” Back cover. ………. “You know when show people come into what they call the sticks, they have a contempt for the yokels. It took me a little time, but when I learned that there aren’t any yokels, I began to get on fine. I learned respect for my audience. They feel that and they work with me, and not against me. Once you respect them, they can understand anything you can tell them.” p. 149. ………. “New York is no more America than Paris is France and London is England.” p. 136.
“American cities are like badger holes, ringed with trash—all of them—surrounded by piles of wrecked and rusting automobiles, and almost smothered with rubbish. Everything we use comes in boxes, cartons, bins, the so-called packaging we love so much. The mountain of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use.” p. 26. ………. “And another thing I had forgotten was how incredibly huge America is.” p. 55. ………. “This monster of a land, this mightiest of nations, this spawn of the future, turns out to be the macrocosm of microcosm me.” [What I see outside of me is colored, interpreted by what is inside of me. RayS. ] p. 207.
“I wonder why we think the thoughts and emotions of animals are simple.” p. 165. ………. “The power of an attitude is amazing.” p. 229. ………. “Sometimes the view of change is distorted by a change in oneself.” p. 194.
“The dairy man had a Ph.D. in mathematics…. He liked what he was doing and he didn’t want to be somewhere else—one of the very few contented people I met in my whole journey.” p. 26. ………. “Strange how one person can saturate a room with vitality, with excitement. Then there are others…who can drain off energy and joy, can suck pleasure dry and get no sustenance from it.” p. 46. ………. “The best way to begin a conversation is to be lost.” p. 9.
I think I enjoyed this book because I had myself driven across country. I didn’t take the opportunity that Steinbeck did to put down my reflections on what I saw, heard and thought. I wish I had. RayS.