An intimate journey across America, as told by one of its most beloved writers
To hear the speech of the real America, to smell the grass and the trees, to see the colors and the light—these were John Steinbeck's goals as he set out, at the age of fifty-eight, to rediscover the country he had been writing about for so many years.
With Charley, his French poodle, Steinbeck drives the interstates and the country roads, dines with truckers, encounters bears at Yellowstone and old friends in San Francisco. Along the way he reflects on the American character, racial hostility, the particular form of American loneliness he finds almost everywhere, and the unexpected kindness of strangers.
About the Author
John Steinbeck, born in Salinas, California, in 1902, grew up in a fertile agricultural valley, about twenty-five miles from the Pacific Coast. Both the valley and the coast would serve as settings for some of his best fiction. In 1919 he went to Stanford University, where he intermittently enrolled in literature and writing courses until he left in 1925 without taking a degree. During the next five years he supported himself as a laborer and journalist in New York City, all the time working on his first novel, Cup of Gold (1929).
After marriage and a move to Pacific Grove, he published two California books, The Pastures of Heaven (1932) and To a God Unknown (1933), and worked on short stories later collected in The Long Valley (1938). Popular success and financial security came only with Tortilla Flat (1935), stories about Monterey’s paisanos. A ceaseless experimenter throughout his career, Steinbeck changed courses regularly. Three powerful novels of the late 1930s focused on the California laboring class: In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), and the book considered by many his finest, The Grapes of Wrath (1939). The Grapes of Wrath won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1939.
Early in the 1940s, Steinbeck became a filmmaker with The Forgotten Village (1941) and a serious student of marine biology with Sea of Cortez (1941). He devoted his services to the war, writing Bombs Away (1942) and the controversial play-novelette The Moon is Down (1942). Cannery Row (1945), The Wayward Bus (1948), another experimental drama, Burning Bright (1950), and The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951) preceded publication of the monumental East of Eden (1952), an ambitious saga of the Salinas Valley and his own family’s history.
The last decades of his life were spent in New York City and Sag Harbor with his third wife, with whom he traveled widely. Later books include Sweet Thursday (1954), The Short Reign of Pippin IV: A Fabrication (1957), Once There Was a War (1958), The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), Travels with Charley in Search of America (1962), America and Americans (1966), and the posthumously published Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters (1969), Viva Zapata! (1975), The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (1976), and Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath (1989).
Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962, and, in 1964, he was presented with the United States Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Steinbeck died in New York in 1968. Today, more than thirty years after his death, he remains one of America's greatest writers and cultural figures.
Date of Birth:February 27, 1902
Date of Death:December 20, 1968
Place of Birth:Salinas, California
Place of Death:New York, New York
Education:Attended Stanford University intermittently between 1919 and 1925
Read an Excerpt
PENGUIN CLASSICS DELUXE EDITION
TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY IN SEARCH OF AMERICA
Born in Salinas, California, in 1902, John Steinbeck grew up in a fertile agricultural valley about twenty-five miles from the Pacific Coast—and both valley and coast would serve as settings for some of his best fiction. In 1919 he went to Stanford University, where he intermittently enrolled in literature and writing courses until he left in 1925 without taking a degree. During the next five years he supported himself as a laborer and journalist in New York City, all the time working on his first novel, Cup of Gold (1929). After marriage and a move to Pacific Grove, he published two California fictions, The Pastures of Heaven (1932) and To a God Unknown (1933), and worked on short stories later collected in The Long Valley (1938). Popular success and financial security came only with Tortilla Flat (1935), stories about Monterey’s paisanos. A ceaseless experimenter throughout his career, Steinbeck changed courses regularly. Three powerful novels of the late 1930s focused on the California laboring class: In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), and the book considered by many his finest, The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Early in the 1940s, Steinbeck became a filmmaker with The Forgotten Village (1941) and a serious student of marine biology with Sea of Cortez (1941). He devoted his services to the war, writing Bombs Away (1942) and the controversial play-novelette The Moon Is Down (1942). Cannery Row (1945), The Wayward Bus (1947), The Pearl (1947), A Russian Journal (1948), another experimental drama, Burning Bright (1950), and The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951) preceded publication of the monumental East of Eden (1952), an ambitious saga of the Salinas Valley and his own family’s history. The last decades of his life were spent in New York City and Sag Harbor with his third wife, with whom he traveled widely. Later books include Sweet Thursday (1954), The Short Reign of Pippin IV: A Fabrication (1957), Once There Was a War (1958), The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), Travels with Charley in Search of America (1962), America and Americans (1966), and the posthumously published Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters (1969), Viva Zapata! (1975), The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (1976), and Working Days: The Journal of The Grapes of Wrath (1989). He died in 1968, having won a Nobel Prize in 1962.
Throughout his life Steinbeck signed his letters with his personal “Pigasus” logo, symbolizing himself “a lumbering soul but trying to fly.” The Latin motto Ad Astra Per Alia Porci translates “To the stars on the wings of a pig.”
JAY PARINI is a poet and novelist who teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont. His most recent volume of poems is The Art of Subtraction: New and Selected Poems. His novels include The Last Station, Benjamin’s Crossing, and The Passages of H.M. He has also written biographies of John Steinbeck, Robert Frost, and William Faulkner. His other books include Promised Land: Thirteen Books that Changed America and Why Poetry Matters.
Publisher’s note: The images printed below represent the original photographs as they were taken in 1961. With permission of the copyright holder, these photographs appear as original scans of a vintage edition jacket on the back cover and inside flap of our 50th-Anniversary Edition.
John Steinbeck and Charley, 1961 (detail) by Hans Namuth © 1991 Hans Namuth Estate
John Steinbeck, 1961 (detail) by Hans Namuth © 1991 Hans Namuth Estate
BY JOHN STEINBECK
Cup of Gold
The Pastures of Heaven
To a God Unknown
In Dubious Battle
Saint Katy the Virgin
Of Mice and Men
The Red Pony
The Long Valley
The Moon Is Down
The Wayward Bus
East of Eden
The Winter of Our Discontent
The Short Reign of Pippin IV
The Grapes of Wrath
Las uvas de la ira (Spanish-language edition of The Grapes of Wrath) The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights
Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research (in collaboration with Edward F. Ricketts)
Bombs Away: The Story of a Bomber Team
A Russian Journal (with pictures by Robert Capa)
The Log from the Sea of Cortez
Once There Was a War
Travels with Charley in Search of America
America and Americans
America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction
Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters
Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath
Of Mice and Men
The Moon Is Down
The Portable Steinbeck
The Short Novels of John Steinbeck
Steinbeck: A Life in Letters
The Forgotten Village (documentary)
Viva Zapata! (screenplay)
Zapata (includes the screenplay of Viva Zapata!)
CRITICAL LIBRARY EDITION
The Grapes of Wrath (edited by Peter Lisca)
Travels with Charley in Search of America
Published in Penguin Books 1980
Few writers in the history of American literature have thought more doggedly about the nature and fate of their own country than John Steinbeck. As Walt Whitman said in his preface to Leaves of Grass, “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” Steinbeck certainly believed this; in book after book, beginning with The Pastures of Heaven (1932), his first collection of stories, he summoned a memorable vision of his people in their natural and human habitat. He is, of course, most famous as a writer of fiction. Novels such as Tortilla Flat (1935), In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), The Grapes of Wrath (1939), Cannery Row (1945), East of Eden (1952), and The Winter of Our Discontent (1961) have long since been absorbed into the collective memory of this nation.
Beginning with major film versions of Steinbeck novels in the late 1930s—such as John Ford’s classic production of The Grapes of Wrath—there has been a steady stream of theatrical adaptations, including a Broadway musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein called Pipe Dream, based on Sweet Thursday (1954), and an award-winning adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath by Frank Galati, which appeared on Broadway in 1990, winning a Tony Award for Best Play. When Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, only five Americans before him had previously been so honored. Accepting the prize in Stockholm, he gave an impassioned speech in which he argued that “the ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement.”
From the outset of his career as a novelist, he had accepted this commission without flinching, exposing the dangerous faults and failures of a nation while managing to celebrate what was good and noble in its citizens. This is also true of his nonfiction, although much less attention has been paid to this aspect of Steinbeck’s work. Yet he wrote beautifully in this mode, often with the same passion for social justice that he brought to his novels. Even The Grapes of Wrath—certainly the most widely admired of his novels—began as a series of sketches for the San Francisco News. In his journalist mode, Steinbeck went off with a notebook in hand to record the plight of migrant workers from the dust bowl region of the Southwest. These unfortunate men and women had come by the thousands to California, dreaming of a better life, only to find themselves marooned in unsanitary, overcrowded camps and reviled by local residents.
In another piece of nonfiction from this period, Steinbeck wrote an absorbing account of life in a poor Mexican village. It was published as The Forgotten Village in 1941, based on a documentary film that Steinbeck scripted and produced under the same title. This research would feed into his later novella, The Pearl (1947), which remains an enduring and popular story. As usual for this productive writer, one project fed another, and he moved on several fronts at once.
Countless travel essays and opinion pieces appeared over several decades in periodicals such as The Saturday Review and Newsday. From an early age, Steinbeck had a thirst for travel, and at twenty (having temporarily dropped out of Stanford because of poor grades), he contemplated sailing across the Pacific on a freighter like his hero, Jack London. This fantastic scheme came to nothing, but when he finally left Stanford three years later (in 1925) without a degree, he hopped a freighter that took him through the Panama Canal to New York City. As his third wife, Elaine Steinbeck, said, “John would have gone to Paris, like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but he didn’t have the price of a ticket.”
In his mid-twenties, Steinbeck worked in construction, did carpentry, and took odd jobs wherever he could find them. For the most part, he stayed in central California, near Salinas—where he was born in 1902 and grew up as the son of middle-class parents. Gradually, he began to piece together a living from his fiction, publishing a first novel called Cup of Gold in 1929 and placing various stories in such important national magazines as Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post. But it wasn’t until the publication of his fourth novel, Tortilla Flat, that he found a sizable audience for his work. After selling this story to Hollywood, he suddenly had some money, or at least enough to afford the price of a ticket to anywhere he wished to go.
One generally associates Steinbeck with Monterey and the Salinas Valley—the lush settings for most of his novels and stories. But in fact Steinbeck spent the last half of his life with New York City as his primary residence, traveling abroad frequently. Mexico, France, and England were favorite destinations. A number of his books in the forties and fifties record his various journeys. The Sea of Cortez (1941), for instance, is a striking account of his journey by ship along the southern coastline of California into Mexico. In 1943, Steinbeck worked as a war correspondent in North Africa and Italy for the New York Herald Tribune, writing dispatches from the front that were ultimately published in Once There Was a War (1958). In A Russian Journal (1948), he describes a visit into the heart of the Soviet Union with Robert Capa, the photographer.
Travels with Charley in Search of America, originally published in 1962, is the final and most satisfying of his travelogues, summoning a complex vision of the United States at the beginning of a tumultuous decade, when race relations, in particular, had reached a point where the old ways could no longer remain in place. It is the work of a mature writer at the end of a long writing life, and it serves as a kind of elegy for a world that had already been lost. It is also a fascinating memoir, the self-portrait of a private man who did not much take to explicit autobiography. Indeed, it would be a mistake to take this travelogue too literally, as Steinbeck was at heart a novelist, and he added countless touches—changing the sequence of events, elaborating on scenes, inventing dialogue—that one associates more with fiction than nonfiction. (A mild controversy erupted, in the spring of 2011, when a former reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette did some fact-checking and noticed that Steinbeck’s itinerary didn’t exactly fit that described in the book, and that some of the people he supposedly interviewed, such as an actor at a campsite in North Dakota, never existed.)
It should be kept in mind, when reading this travelogue, that Steinbeck took liberties with the facts, inventing freely when it served his purposes, using everything in the arsenal of the novelist to make this book a readable, vivid narrative. The book remains “true” in the way all good novels or narratives are true. That is, it provides an authentic vision of America at a certain time. The evocation of its people and places stay forever in the mind, and Steinbeck’s understanding of his country at this tipping point in its history was nothing short of extraordinary. It reflects his decades of observation and the years spent in honing his craft.
It must be said that by 1960, if not earlier, Steinbeck had grown fairly disenchanted with his country; he thought that consumerism and selfishness had begun to run rampant, destroying the community values he regarded as vital to the nation’s moral health. In a letter to Adlai Stevenson (whose two unsuccessful presidential bids had frustrated Steinbeck), he complained about the “cynical immorality” of the United States. “Having too many THINGS,” he says, “[Americans] spend their hours and money on the couch searching for a soul. A strange species we are. We can stand anything God and Nature throw at us save only plenty. If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much and I would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy and sick.”
In 1960, he completed his last novel, The Winter of Our Discontent. A fair portion of the past decade had been spent abroad, in France and England, and it felt to him as though he had somehow lost touch with America and Americans. In a letter to his close friend Frank Loesser, he wrote:
In the fall—right after Labor Day—I’m going to learn about my own country. I’ve lost the flavor and taste and sound of it. It’s been years since I have seen it. Soooo! I’m buying a pick-up truck with a small apartment on it, kind of like the cabin of a small boat, bed, stove, desk, ice-box, toilet—not a trailer—what’s called a coach. I’m going alone, out toward the West by the northern way but zigzagging through the Middle West and the mountain states. I’ll avoid cities, hit small towns and farms and ranches, sit in bars and hamburger stands and on Sunday go to church. I’ll go down the coast from Washington and Oregon and then back through the Southwest and South and up the East Coast but always zigzagging. Elaine will join me occasionally but mostly I have to go alone, and I shall go unknown. I just want to look and listen. What I’ll get I need badly—a reknowledge of my own country, of its speeches, its views, its attitudes and its changes. It’s long overdue—very long.
Part of what makes Steinbeck’s best fiction so compelling is the author’s intimate sense of landscape, both natural and human, and the crucial knit of people with their setting. It has been argued by critics that his powers of creativity dwindled to some extent after the 1930s, and that his physical removal from California had something to do with this diminishment. “Steinbeck should never have left California,” mused his friend Elia Kazan some years after his death. “That was the source of his energy.” Steinbeck himself felt that contact with the land and its people was important to him as a writer; he wanted to see the natural landscape, to hear the voices of ordinary men and women at work and play. These experiences were a kind of fuel to his imagination, and without them he felt abstracted, detached, impoverished. Having just finished what would prove to be his last novel, Steinbeck badly needed rejuvenation. As Elaine Steinbeck put it: “This trip across America was just something John had to do. And he had to go alone. He wanted to prove to himself that he was not an old man, that he could take control of his life, could drive himself, and could learn things again.”
It was difficult for Elaine to let her husband go by himself on such a journey (and, in fact, she apparently did visit him along the way, although he never mentions this in the book). She was worried about him, with good reason, as she had recently witnessed episodes in Italy and France where Steinbeck passed out without obvious cause. He had also suffered several attacks of what appear in retrospect to have been small strokes. His fingers would go numb, and he would have difficulty grabbing objects; his speech would slur. The robust good health that had been part of his persona through middle age was waning, even though in 1960 he was only fifty-eight.
As he would, Steinbeck prepared carefully for the journey, outfitting this truck with a camper on its back as comfortably as possible. He christened his impressive new vehicle “Rocinante,” after the hero’s horse in Cervantes’s Don Quixote. “I was advised that the name Rocinante painted on the side of my truck in sixteenth-century Spanish script would cause curiosity and inquiry in some places,” wrote Steinbeck. “I do not know how many people recognized the name, but surely no one ever asked about it.” Perhaps the people who noticed the name were simply being polite!
Steinbeck’s trip was delayed by hurricane Donna, which swept the Atlantic coast late in the summer, wreaking havoc. He describes the storm evocatively in one of the opening passages of Travels with Charley: “The wind struck on the moment we were told it would, and ripped the water like a black sheet. It hammered like a fist. The whole top of an oak tree crashed down, grazing the cottage where we watched. The next gust stove one of the big windows in.” He watched helplessly as the wind ripped “at earth and sea.”
In his later years, Steinbeck spent the summer in Sag Harbor, New York, which in those days was an idyllic fishing village on Long Island. The proximity of the sea reminded him of Monterey, where he had spent his summers as a boy, and he spent a good deal of time on his motor launch, which he called the Fayre Eleyne—a double allusion to his wife, Elaine, and to a character in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur—a book that Steinbeck had recently translated into modern English. As Steinbeck tells the story, the hurricane suddenly tore his beloved boat from its moorings: “She was dragged fighting and protesting downwind and forced against a neighboring pier, and we could hear her hull crying against the oaken piles.” By this time, the wind exceeded ninety-five miles per hour, and even the houses near the shoreline were severely threatened. Steinbeck insisted on going out into the storm to rescue his boat, ignoring his wife’s protests.
She followed him into the wet, lashing wind and watched in disbelief as he plunged into the water toward the boat, fighting his way through crashing waves—no small feat for a man in his uncertain health. Working on pure adrenaline, Steinbeck managed to cut the Fayre Eleyne loose and jump into it. Luckily, the engine started at once, and he was able to steer the boat safely into the bay, where he dropped anchor. “Well, there I was,” Steinbeck writes, “a hundred yards offshore with Donna baying over me like a pack of white-whiskered hounds.” It was clear that no skiff could possibly make it across the roiling sea to bring him back, so he had no choice but to swim ashore.
A branch floated by in the water, and Steinbeck jumped in after it. The wind happened to be driving toward the shore, so all he had to do was hang onto the branch and let it pull him in. Before long, Elaine saw his head bobbing in the water. Soon he was back at the kitchen table, a whisky between his palms, with a towel around his head.
This little adventure before setting out is fetchingly told by Steinbeck, and it forms a paradigmatic moment in the larger arc of the story. Here is the weakened but still-courageous hero-narrator caught in a storm yet plunging forward to rescue something that is dear to him. The sheer abandon—and slight madness—involved in just plunging ahead into turbulent waters is crucial to the tone of the book. The writer has complete faith in his ability to enter a scene, to figure out what is going on, and to do the right thing. He also believes that, finally, he will return to his own fair Elaine, and that the storm will pass.
The journey described in Travels with Charley might be considered a classic example of the heroic journey, the archetypal myth that lends an essential structure to so much narrative literature. In the traditional myth, a hero—whoever he might be—abandons his safe haven and pushes forward into the wilderness (or depths) in order to test himself against the odds; in the course of this testing, he either discovers his own rich resources or comes into contact with higher powers that assist him. The story inevitably involves a returning, which completes the cycle: the point being that, upon returning, the hero has been immeasurably strengthened by the knowledge gained in the course of his difficult journey.
Steinbeck set off from Sag Harbor on the morning of September 23, 1960, with Charley, his tall and gregarious French poodle, for company. “I remember when he asked to take Charley Dog,” his wife later recalled. “He said rather meekly, ‘This is a big favor I’m going to ask, Elaine. Can I take Charley?’ ‘What a good idea,’ I said, ‘if you get into any kind of trouble, Charley can go get help.’ John looked at me sternly and said, ‘Elaine, Charley isn’t Lassie.’” He drove north toward Massachusetts, stopping by to visit John, the youngest of his two sons, at the Eaglebrook School in Deerfield. From there, he moved north through Vermont and east through the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Steinbeck writes: “The climate changed quickly to cold and the trees burst into color, the reds and yellows you can’t believe. It isn’t only color but a glowing, as though the leaves gobbled the light of the autumn sun and then released it slowly.”
D. H. Lawrence once observed that greatness in literature is often connected to a particular author’s feeling for the natural world in his or her native region; he pointed to Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Hardy as good examples of writers with a highly particularized sense of nature. The same is true of Steinbeck. What makes his California novels so compelling is their attention to a specific, highly concrete environment; the lives of his characters are intimately bound to the rhythms of nature: weather, geography, cycles of planting and harvesting. What makes Travels with Charley so readily accessible to even the most casual reader is the deft evocation of the natural world, the colors and textures of leaves on the trees, the rich smells of earth, the slur of rain on pavement, the sharp rays of the sun as they pillar through a scud of clouds. Indeed, one can hardly open a page of this book without stumbling upon some bright image from nature.
Steinbeck’s first major destination was Maine. Its rough and dense woods, thick with tall Norway pines and feathery spruce, reminded him of northern California. He drove north toward the Canadian border: “I wanted to go to the rooftree of Maine,” he says, “to start my trip before turning west. It seemed to give the journey a design, and everything in the world must have design or the human mind rejects it.” This is clearly the novelist talking, the man in search of narrative coherence; it’s also a signal to readers, a way of saying that what lies before them is a shaped work, a kind of fiction (from the Latin fictio, which means “shaping”). In other words, this story has an elaborate design.
A stranger passing through an organic community quite naturally has some difficulty in coming into contact with the people who actually live and work there, and Steinbeck was no exception. “I soon discovered,” he writes, “that if a wayfaring stranger wishes to eavesdrop on a local population the places for him to slip in and hold his peace are bars and churches. But some New England towns don’t have bars, and church is only on Sunday. A good alternative is the roadside restaurant where men gather for breakfast before going to work or going hunting.” It so happens that laconic New Englanders were often unwilling to offer much of themselves over coffee and pancakes, as Steinbeck soon discovered. He came to rely on local radio stations for a feeling of human community: “Every town of a few thousand people has its station, and it takes the place of the old local newspapers. Bargains and trades are announced, social doings, prices of commodities, messages.”
As ever, Steinbeck has a keen eye for transactions among people, and Travels with Charley is full of them. Every few days or so, Steinbeck would stop at a motel, not for the bed but for “the sake of hot, luxurious bathing.” In this regard, Travels with Charley has something in common with Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel of the mid-1950s. That novel had at its center a journey, with Humbert Humbert swooping across America from motel to motel with his beautiful nymphet, Lolita, in tow. Nabokov held up to the light the gaudy particulars of American lower middle-class life: the details like butterflies caught in the pincers of a sharp-eyed lepidopterist. Similarly in Steinbeck, the kitsch of contemporary America is savored: Swiss Cheese Candy, seashell emporia, and Dairy Queen roadside stands with huge bathtubs parked in front.
The sleazy human landscape of this country is also subjected to Steinbeck’s rueful gaze. Writing home to Elaine in early October, Steinbeck said he was full of “impressions.” “One is of our wastes,” he says. “We can put chemical wastes in the rivers, and dispose of bowel wastes, but every town is ringed with automobiles, machines, wrecks of houses. It’s exactly like the Christmas Eves I described—opened and thrown away for the next package.” No wonder environmentalists have seized on Steinbeck as an early advocate of their cause; years before it was popular to do so, Steinbeck argued that the trashing of America was suicidal. He urged restraint and conservation of natural resources. He considered the wastefulness he saw everywhere around him and lack of caring for the environment as part of a greater malaise that seemed to have overwhelmed America.
With horror, he noted that trailer parks were cropping up at the edge of most towns. The people inhabiting these rootless buildings, which were propped on wheels or temporary foundations, seemed to him like alien creatures. “These are Martians,” he writes home to Elaine, “and I wanted to ask them to take me to their leader. They have no humor, no past, and their future is new models.” He added: “If I ever am looking for a theme—this mobility is a good one.”
Indeed, the theme of rootlessness became integral to Travels with Charley. Past and present play against each other in the traveler’s mind as he proceeds. There are frequent flashbacks, often to his childhood or young adulthood in California, as when he writes: “Long ago I owned a little ranch in the Santa Cruz mountains in California. In one place a forest of giant madrone trees joined their tops over a true tarn, a black, spring-fed lake. If there is such a thing as a haunted place, that one was haunted, made so by dim light strained through the leaves and various tricks of perspective.” By contrast, of course, the new American “finds his challenge and his love in traffic-choked streets, skies nested in smog, choking with the acids of industry, the screech of rubber and houses leashed in against one another while the townlets wither a time and die.”
This is, indeed, a terrible indictment of so-called progress. The fictional aspects of Travels with Charley are noticeable on most pages, the chief of these being the use of dialogue—perhaps the most obvious of fictional techniques employed by this master novelist. Steinbeck offers a sequence of human encounters, creating characters and dialogue as a true novelist would. For instance, when he crosses the Canadian border near Niagara Falls, he has a lovely, amusing exchange with the customs officer that could easily sit in the text of a short story. Steinbeck had no tape recorder, so it’s made-up speech, based on real conversation. Nevertheless the dialogue goes on for pages, and there is a beginning, a middle, and an end. Discrete scene gives way to discrete scene in the mode of picaresque fiction invented by Cervantes, and it seems fitting that the driver of a truck called Rocinante should inhabit a similarly shaped narrative.
From the beginning of his journey, Steinbeck avoided big highways, “the great high-speed slashes of concrete and tar” that crisscross the nation. Perhaps for that reason, he dawdled in New England, where the turnpike is alien territory. Back roads, even dirt roads, were infinitely preferable to him: more scenic, reminiscent of a bygone era. But the American continent is vast, and Steinbeck finally had little option but to seek out a superhighway, where he could make time. He eventually turned onto U.S. 90, moving at high speed through Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois, where he noticed at once a shift in human attitudes. “I don’t think for a second that the people I had seen and talked to in New England were either unfriendly or discourteous,” he writes, “but they spoke tersely and usually waited for a newcomer to open communication.”
In the Midwest, strangers seemed to talk to each other freely, without the reserve he had noticed in the Northeast. With a touch of alarm, Steinbeck noted that the rich differences in local speech patterns he remembered from his own youthful travels across America in the 1920s and 1930s were disappearing or already gone. “Forty years of radio and twenty years of television must have this impact,” he concludes. A national speech was, perhaps inevitably, replacing the nuanced inflection of local dialects. “I who love words and the endless possibility of words am saddened by this inevitability,” he says. The loss of colorful idioms, local conversational rhythms, and idiosyncratic figures of speech offended him deeply. He hated the notion of “a national speech, wrapped and packaged, standard and tasteless.”
After a brief visit to Chicago, where he reunited with Elaine (who had flown in from the East to meet him), he set off by himself again, heading west through Wisconsin (“the prettiest state I ever saw”) and Minnesota. Everywhere he went he listened, asked questions when he found an opening, then listened again. Every night, in a motel (or sometimes a nice hotel, though he does not mention this in the book) or huddled in Rocinante, he would reconstruct his day’s journey, the landscapes witnessed, the people met, the incidents along the way. From these diary-like notes, he created the book, which had no title until he called home one night from a pay phone and Elaine suggested Travels with Charley on the model of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey, one of Steinbeck’s favorite books. Steinbeck avoided the most obvious tourist sites along the way, with Niagara Falls an exception. Who could bypass this miracle of nature?
Sometimes he would seek out a place of private interest, such as the birthplace of Sinclair Lewis—a novelist whose journalistic approach to fiction interested him greatly—in Sauk Centre, Minnesota. Wherever he paused to look around, he made some effort to meet the people who lived there. He wanted to experience for himself the emotional lay of the land. He wanted to know what America was thinking, although he soon enough came to believe that very little was on the mind of the average U.S. citizen. East of the Mississippi, the conversations he overheard usually revolved around baseball; west of the Mississippi, the topic was hunting. Even though this was the autumn of an election year—Kennedy versus Nixon—there was no rigorous political debate to be heard anywhere.
As Steinbeck moved slowly toward California, he grew steadily more disenchanted with everything but the natural world. In fact, he grows increasingly lyrical in writing about the sublime aspects of nature as he moves westward. “I drove across the upraised thumb of Idaho and through real mountains that climbed straight up, tufted with pines and deep-dusted with snow,” he writes. The prose gets increasingly lush and cadenced as he reaches Oregon and heads southward into redwood country. “I stayed two days close to the bodies of the giants,” he says, referring to the massive trees of his childhood:
There’s a cathedral hush here. Perhaps the thick soft bark absorbs sound and creates a silence. The trees rise straight up to zenith; there is no horizon. The dawn comes early and remains dawn until the sun is high. Then the green fernlike foliage so far up strains the sunlight to a green gold and distributes it in shafts or rather in stripes of light and shade. After the sun passes zenith it is afternoon and quickly evening with a whispering dusk as long as was the morning.
The arrival in California brought with it problems he might have anticipated. The coastal area he knew so well as a young man seemed warped by recollections of what it used to be like, and with what happened to him there. Memories distorted the present scene, and every image that cropped up became a palimpsest: a picture drawn over a picture. He was dismayed by the clear lack of architectural distinction and differentiation, seeing little boxy houses, all too much alike, in row after row. It upset him that wild hilltops where coyotes sang all night had been razed, and that television stations now beamed their nervous pictures to thousands of tiny houses “clustered like aphids beside the roads.” The overall picture was distressing, to say the least.
The situation worsened when he arrived in Monterey County, the landscape of his dreams. He visited his sisters, who began to argue with him about politics in a way that was only upsetting. Indeed, dinner conversation degenerated into silly arguments about the personalities and moral irregularities of Kennedy and Nixon. “You talk like a Communist,” cried one of his sisters. “Well, you sound suspiciously like Genghis Khan,” he fired back. When he entered Monterey itself, he was startled to discover that one of the movie theaters had been renamed the John Steinbeck Theater. He had become, in effect, his own theme park, and this was upsetting. “Tom Wolfe was right,” he reflected. “You can’t go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory.”
Wisely, Steinbeck quickly fled his native region, leaving behind “the permanent and changeless past where my mother is always shooting a wildcat and my father is always burning his name with his love.” In a poignant moment, in flight from Monterey, Steinbeck says that he wished he could say that he went out to find the truth about America and found it. But he knew better; he understood that no single “truth” can ever be found. “I discovered long ago in collecting and classifying marine animals that what I found was closely intermeshed with how I felt at the moment. External reality has a way of being not so external after all.” In this, Steinbeck sounds tremendously contemporary, almost poststructuralist. The idea that objectivity is inevitably tainted by mere expression—and by the fact that a single human being has but a single viewpoint—permeates this travelogue, making all of Steinbeck’s conclusions tentative, as they should be. “This monster of a land,” he writes, “this mightiest of nations, this spawn of the future, turns out to be the macrocosm of microcosm me.”
One of the contradictory elements of Travels with Charley occurs at this point. “From start to finish I found no strangers,” he writes. “If I had, I might be able to report them more objectively. But these are my people and this my country. If I found matters to criticize and to deplore, they were tendencies equally present in myself.” Given the comments to Elaine about “Martians” who lived in trailer parks, and given his fierce critique of the ruined, industrialized landscape seen from coast to coast, one must take this urge to identify and celebrate “his people” with a grain of salt. This is the soft side of Steinbeck, a sentimentality that crops up here and there.
He might, I think, have done better to stand apart, saying, “I don’t know these people.” He pretty much did this in Texas, where he headed in the book’s final section. Because his wife, Elaine, was Texan bred, Steinbeck understood that he could not avoid that massive, complicated state, even had he wished to do so. He arrived there in time for Thanksgiving with his wife’s family, near Amarillo, and well understood the difficulties facing him in this part of his travelogue: “Writers facing the problem of Texas find themselves floundering in generalities, and I am no exception. Texas is a state of mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word.” Despite his awe and hesitance before a difficult task, Steinbeck writes beautifully about Texas, in fact, characterizing its people and their setting with typical lyricism and imagistic precision. He defines the state by its stark contrasts:
The stern horizon-fenced plains of the Panhandle are foreign to the little wooded hills and sweet streams in the Davis Mountains. The rich citrus orchards of the Rio Grande valley do not relate to the sagebrush grazing of South Texas. The hot and humid air of the Gulf Coast has no likeness in the cool crystal in the north-west of the Panhandle. And Austin on its hills among the bordered lakes might be across the world from Dallas.
It was in Texas that Charley’s prostate problems, which had been surfacing periodically throughout the journey, reached a crisis point, and he was tended to by a pleasant young vet. This problem solved, the newly risen poodle and his owner headed off for the last major stop on their visit, New Orleans. Steinbeck writes:
While I was still in Texas, late in 1960, the incident most reported and pictured in the newspapers was the matriculation of a couple of tiny Negro children in a New Orleans school. Behind these small dark mites were the law’s majesty and the law’s power to enforce—both the scales and the sword were allied with the infants—while against them were three hundred years of fear and anger and terror of change in a changing world.
A group of appalling women—white “mothers,” if that word may be used in this context—gathered each day to jeer at the black children as they entered or left school. They were known in the press, ironically, as the Cheerleaders, and Steinbeck wanted to see them for himself. It was somehow incomprehensible to him that human beings could act like this. Pretending to be an Englishman, from Liverpool, he joined the throng outside the school one day. A taxi driver explained to him that it was the New York Jews who were causing all of this trouble. “Jews—what? How do they cause trouble?” he asked the man, who said, “Them goddamn New York Jews come in and stir the niggers up.” The man actually proposed lynching these trouble-causing Jews, much to Steinbeck’s amazement and disgust.
Asked later the same day if he is traveling for pleasure, Steinbeck replied: “I was until today.” The naked face of racism and prejudice, witnessed in the Cheerleaders and their hate-fueled behavior, filled him with a “weary nausea.” His own childhood experience of black people in Salinas was so very different from this; he had, as he recalls, known only kind, considerate people, not the “lazy” ones derided by the racists he encountered on this final, unhappy leg of his journey. The contrast was difficult to accept.
In a moving little vignette on his rush homeward to Sag Harbor, in Alabama Steinbeck picked up a black hitchhiker. He and the young man fell into a conversation about Martin Luther King, Jr., and his “teaching of passive but unrelenting resistance.” Steinbeck was obviously in favor of King’s approach, and he found himself shocked by the response: “It’s too slow,” the young man told Steinbeck, ruefully. “It will take too long.”
This was, in fact, a uniquely pivotal year for Steinbeck to set out upon such a journey, with the whole country poised on the edge of some extraordinary shift of consciousness. The Civil Rights movement wished to transform America’s way of looking at itself, and even Steinbeck—in his role as Wise Man—was unprepared to deal with the consequences of these changes. He understood that the innocence of the 1950s was based on fixed notions of class and racial boundaries, but he did not dare to look too far ahead. He refused, at last, the prophetic note that might have lifted Travels with Charley above the level of a merely charming and absorbing travelogue, a well-shaped narrative that seeks to portray the United States at a particular moment in history.
Steinbeck rushed home to Sag Harbor now, exhausted by his nearly four months on the road. He had hoped to emulate Don Quixote, “who thought it fit and proper, both in order to increase his renown and to serve the state, to turn knight-errant and travel through the world with horse and armour in search of adventures, following in every way the practice of the knights-errant he had read of, redressing all manner of wrongs, and exposing himself to chances and dangers, by the overcoming of which he might win eternal honour and renown.” Alas, Steinbeck had not really done much of this, although the book was warmly received by reviewers and became a huge bestseller. It certainly increased the renown of its author.
What People are Saying About This
“Pure delight, a pungent potpourri of places and people interspersed with bittersweet essays on everything from the emotional difficulties of growing old to the reasons why giant sequoias arouse such awe.” The New York Times Book Review
“Profound, sympathetic, often angry . . . an honest moving book by one of our great writers.” The San Francisco Examiner
“This is superior Steinbecka muscular, evocative report of a journey of rediscovery.” John Barkham, Saturday Review Syndicate
“The eager, sensuous pages in which he writes about what he found and whom he encountered frame a picture of our human nature in the twentieth century which will not soon be surpassed.” Edward Weeks, The Atlantic Monthly