Steinbeck sets out to rediscover his native land accompanied by his French poodle.
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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.
Jay Parini who teaches English at Middlebury College, is the author of five novels including Benjamin's Crossing and The Last Station.
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
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I'm sure that at some point in one's life Steinbeck was a mandated read for any student who found themselves thrown into a high school literature course. Like most, I, too, received the dreaded assignment and begrudgingly cracked open the book, struggling to get through the mind numbing task in an effort to at least gain enough knowledge for the following week's class discussion, or the even more dreaded written book report. Now, decades later, with s few gray hairs and approaching the same age as Mr. Steinbeck when he penned this story, I have made my own choice to return to Steinbeck. In all truth, I chose this book as I believe all visionaries and dreamers like myself have, at least at one time in their life, planned a trip to explore beyond their immediate borders; whether the borders are real or imagined, and whether the trip comes to fruition or only remains in their mind. I also happen to like dogs. :) This story, however, is more that simply a journal of a man and his dog on a 3 month trek across the country. Steinbeck paints a picture with his words that you can visualize with such clarity, as if you were a stowaway in his customized van and were personally witness to all that he experienced. He describes places and people that are from a different era than we now know, and yet, these descriptions also hold elements that ring true today. Steinbeck takes you through the sad, scary, laughable, heart-warming and awesome moments with the people and landscapes he met along the way, along with the feelings for a love one left behind and the anxious yearning that we all feel when we've been away from home too long. Steinbeck's vocabulary has a richness and depth that is so singular in style that there is no doubt he rightfully earned his title as one of the Great American Writers. DLB2
In Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck with his poodle, Charley, sets out to rediscover the country he is known for writing about. In their pickup truck and camper, the duo embarks on a journey that spans from New England to California, from Midwest to Southwest, and from Yellowstone to New Orleans. On his journey, Steinbeck reflects on what makes America "America" and how our country had changed in the 1960's. As you may have guessed from the other reviews, this was overall a good read, it's John Steinbeck writing it after all. He gives plenty of details about all of the sights he sees and uses his great word choice to describe them, plus it's pretty entertaining, especially if you have a dog like Charley (I do). However, as a high school student, I found it hard to relate to. It deals with pretty universal themes, travel and what makes America "America". But, it also deals quite a bit with less universal themes, like aging and changing times. These themes are evident by Steinbeck's crotchetiness towards things like highways and vending machines. So as you could imagine, I couldn't always pay attention whenever he was complaining about plastic wrap or just being old. I suppose then the target demographic I would be referring to is anyone who can relate to a world that has changed dramatically in their adult lifetime, so you'd probably have to be a bit older than I am. Some major events have happened since I was born, but I was just a little kid who didn't really understand it and what it meant as far as change goes. You'd have to be someone who is old enough to compare one decade to another because you've lived as an adult through them. But don't lose hope if you're not old and crotchety! You will enjoy it if you're the kind of person who likes to travel or just are interested in the history of America in the 1960's (like I am), but maybe not as much as the former. If you do like Travels with Charley, it'd be worthwhile to read Steinbeck's other works or anything by similar authors, specifically Earnest Hemingway and The Old Man and the Sea.
I absolutely love this book. I enjoyed very much everything that John Steinbeck wrote, but it was all fiction. This is a more or less a factual account of one trip across America. Apart from the fact that I am planning such a trip myself, I could not put the book down, he is so entertaining, you laugh, you muse and you enjoy the beautiful stops with him along the journey. I recommend this book to everyone that enjoys traveling.
Reading the work of a literary giant is an experience in understanding what writing truly can be. To have the occasion to hear the words of a legend read aloud adds to the experience while lowering “the fourth wall” between the writing and the reader. When John Steinbeck gave expression to his thoughts, they were found to be concise, intelligent and had the ability to bring the reader to explore parts of her/him that were previously unknown. When I found this audiobook in one of my sources, I was expecting a quality “read,” and one that would bring hours of reflection, frequent smiles and a few moments of “oh, My!” I was not disappointed. When he was nearing 60, John Steinbeck purchased a 1960 GMC pick-up truck, had a custom camper made for it (maybe the first such camper in existence), took his Blue Standard Poodle, Charley, on a eleven-week, 10,000 mile journey across America. He hoped to learn “what America really is (was)” by traveling the small roads, visiting the towns and talking to the people he met. The unique camper and his “ambassador” (Charley) opened the way for him to meet people whom he would have had little opportunity to meet. What he found on this journey was that Americans were people, unique as individuals but not distinctive from other Americans. On this trek, he meet: Canadian migrant workers in New England, farmers in Wisconsin, an actor in the Northern Plains, old friends in Salinas, family in Texas and bigots and civil rights workers in the South. All were people very real and very much alive. The majority of the book was delightful. His conversations with Charley are the stuff of cherished friendships. His thoughts on the things he saw reflect his powers of observation and his ability to effectively convey those thoughts to his readers. The nights he spends in “Rocinante” (the name of Don Quixote’s horse and the moniker given his truck) were relatively few (the book indicates he suffered insomnia as well as he frequented motor courts) but it served as a place to entertain his new friends. The painful part of the book was his account of his experience in the segregated South. My “home” region has much to offer – beautiful landscapes, great food, distinct music, exceptional literature – but its history is not without serious stains. When Mr. Steinbeck visited on this trip, the South was in the early skirmishes of the Civil Rights movement. He saw the ugliness of those who were frightened of equality because they knew only how to be slaves to themselves. He met quiet heroes who “forgot” to see color and therefore saw only fellow human beings. He witnessed kindness and cruelty, beauty and depravity, tranquility amid chaos. Then he wrote of what he saw so well the reader could feel the humidity, see the craziness and hear the groans of the labor pains of a culture being reborn. I look forward to reading many (perhaps all) of Mr. Steinbeck’s 32 published books. But I doubt any will top the road trip I completed with him and Charley.
In this book, Steinbeck decides to cure his "restless urge" to travel and drives cross-country in a camper top attached to three-quarter-ton pick up truck with companion, french poodle, Charley. His journey spans from New England to California, from Midwest to Southwest, and from Yellowstone to New Orleans. All throughout, Steinbeck attempts to "re-discover" America and realizes all the common changes throughout the country and also the attributes that make each destination unique. The book also highlights the relationship between Steinbeck and Charley as well as Steinbeck's fascination with the concept of travel. Overall, I thought this book was pretty good but it was not what I was expecting. after reading Of Mice and Men, I was expecting a book with awesome use of literary devices and allusions as well as powerful twists (I now realize this was a lot to expect from a non-fiction novel, but I thought Steinbeck could pull it off). The fact that Steinbeck was traveling with a dog made it even more appealing to the avid animal lover that is me, however, I thought the book was excruciatingly boring at parts and had an inadequate amount of references to Charley (not enough for me, anyway). I did like Steinbeck's opinionated, artistic point of view, however. I also agreed with a lot of his opinions about America in the 60's. I think the book could be appreciated more if it were read slowly, to savor all the details, but am not a slow reader and frankly, would not recommend this book to anyone looking for a short-read, or anyone with a limited amount of patience either. However, if you choose to give this book the time it requires to be enjoyable, then you may think otherwise.
I bought this book on a whim and I wholeheartedly enjoyed it. It was a different version of Walden with all the lyricism and simple beauty in tact.
In the fall of 1960, Civil Rights was still an ugly snarl and a hopeful young presidential candidate was waiting in the wings. Steinbeck was well into his fifties at the time and decided to take a final tour of his beloved America. He packed up his converted pick-up truck and along with his French poodle named Charley, he set out. From Sag Harbor New York, he followed a northerly route, ending up in Monterrey California and then returned, covering the southern part of the country. This book contains his thoughts and observations about the people he met and the towns he visited, along with a sharp commentary about this vast beautiful landscape, we call home. This is his view of the Badlands:¿They deserve this name. They are like the work of an evil child. Such a place the Fallen Angels might have built as a spite to Heaven, dry and sharp, desolate and dangerous, and for me filled with foreboding. A sense comes from it that it does not like or welcome humans.¿The second half of the narrative is a bit more dry and wordy but it does conclude with a devastating event in the deep south, where a very young black girl is being escorted into a ¿white¿ grade school, amid a torrent of verbal abuse from a matronly group of women, who call themselves ¿The Cheerleaders¿. Steinbeck is so shaken, he immediately returns home in a daze. This is a very good book, by one of America¿s finest writers.
When I said that I found Steinbeck depressing, a wonderful librarian responded, "Read Travels with Charley." My mind is changed. Listening to the audio book consistently put a smile on my face. What a treasure.
John Steinbeck takes a journey across the country with his dog. On his journey he meets a lot of people and sees a lot of things that paint a grim if realistic portrait of the United States at the time. Steinbeck has an insightful eye and writes a brilliant memoir of his travels.
I bought this book in the middle of my road trip; it touches you right at the heart and brings back good memories. In a way all of us are travels. Me I took my one individual journey for finding what is America and discovered my one answer.A good piece of art..
This is my fourth Steinbeck read and he has become one of my favorite authors. I think he could have made the Yellow Pages into a riveting book if he'd had a mind to. No matter what the subject I find that his prose just seems to move me along like a lovely boat ride on calm water¿it just flows.This book was about a circular trip around the USA, conceived because he wanted to get the feel of what made America a cohesive country and learn about her character. When he finished he decided he really didn¿t learn what he thought he would and he was left with more questions than answers. However, I learned a lot reading this book, not the least of which was much about Steinbeck himself as he shares his impressions of the people, places, and events he witnesses. His musings on his experiences were enlightening and reminded me of the saying ¿the unexamined life is not worth living.¿ (Wasn¿t that Thoreau?) Steinbeck shows us the Good, Bad, Ugly and Beautiful of our country in 1960. This was the America of my youth which made it somewhat of a nostalgic read for me because I have been to many of the places he visited and found his observations striking chords of remembrance for me. One thing that made me smile, as long ago as 1960 Steinbeck was complaining that newspapers were more about giving us opinion than news! It¿s only gotten worse!One of the most riveting and disturbing part of the trip was near the end when he went through the Deep South. This was at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement and he gives a very good and balanced picture as an outsider observing what was happening and speaking to some of the people. I moved from California to Savannah, GA about a decade after Travels was written and observed over the next about 25 years the gradual changes that took place in the Civil Rights problems--not enough and not fast enough. However there have been gains made that give me hope for the future--but like Steinbeck it probably won't happen in my lifetime.The Centennial Edition (2002) contains a final chapter that was left out of the original publication that is really fun.Bottom line: Steinbeck¿s account of his passage through America is interesting, thought provoking, and in the end, delightful. Highly Recommended
This was one of the first travelogues I ever read, and it's fair to say that it hooked me on the genre. The Steinbeck you get to know in this book is more human, yet remarkably observant in his understanding and compassion for all of the people he meets. There is a wry sense of humor to this book that makes his travels, and the history he highlights, so inviting and powerful.
I have a feeling that if I had read Travels with Charley back in high school instead of The Grapes of Wrath or even Of Mice and Men, I would have actually liked Steinbeck rather than merely appreciated him.Part of my Steinbeck indifference was obviously influenced by my teenage attitude. At 15 there were other things I'd much rather have been doing than reading novels about the great depression. Also, I had that "what does this have to do with me" attitude I saw so frequently while trying to teach my college freshmen literature from the Vietnam War. But the other half of the problem was that I was exposed to those two books by a teacher who taught these novels as The Greatest Literary Masterpieces Ever. Great Literary Masterpieces have themes and symbols and (like vegetables) are consumed for (intellectual) nutrition and not for enjoyment. The image of Steinbeck that I took away from that class one of a Very Important American Author, sitting behind a grand oak desk, pondering which Important Theme to tackle next.Reading Travels with Charley showed me that my imagination was grossly mistaken. In place of the grand desk was a pickup truck and trailer and a poodle named Charley. Steinbeck ponders road maps instead of Important Themes and I was pleased to note that while he has me licked in literary masterpieces, my directional sense is far superior to his. Also, Steinbeck is funny. Really funny. And he uses his wit and dry humor to provide a commentary on American life that is still accurate today.I have a new appreciation for Steinbeck now. He's still an Important American Author, but one that shares philosophy with his poodle in the same way that I sometimes serenade my cats with Meatloaf songs. Okay, maybe not the same thing, but the point is, the memoir humanizes Steinbeck and makes him assessable. It's a shame I didn't read this sooner.
John Steinbeck hits the road in a camper traveling with his dog Charley, and plenty of coffee with whiskeys. A nice little travelogue of America. Very easy reading.
First read: I started this book with tremendous expectations, I admit. But there is something terribly disappointing about reading a book by an author you admire in which he laments the difficulties of driving in heavy traffic and complains about pollution. I hoped for more intimacy between Steinbeck and the American people, I think. Second read: Reading Blue Highways for the last two weeks somehow led me to pick up a copy of Travels with Charley. It reads like a contemporary travelogue. Steinbeck laments the the pollution and human encroachment of wilderness that he finds wherever he travels. If I¿d not been told this had been written by Steinbeck, I¿d never have guessed it was his child.I liked the book and I didn¿t like the book. He seems to run into the scruffiest of people, people who have run down to their last dollar, who are down on their luck and down on life.No happy people, John? No cheery optimists?
This is my most favorite book on the planet.
by: John SteinbeckA Bantam Book July 19629780142000700From my personal libraryRating: 3.5First off, Charley is a dog. You would think that John Steinbeck would have a manly dog, a lab, a retriever or maybe a shepard? Well you would be wrong. Charley is a poodle and he is blue.Steinbeck decided that he didn't know his country anymore. He felt he was writing about things he no longer knew so he decided to take a road trip around the country. He put a camper on a 3/4 ton truck and stocked food, water, plenty of liquor and dog food. He vowed to stay out of large cities, he would sleep in camp grounds, trailer parks and next to various streams. When he decided he was ripe enough he would spend a night in a motel for the shower. Steinbeck began his trip in Connecticut, made a great loop around through Maine, Michigan, Wisconsin, missed Minnesota due to a pathological fear of traffic, North Dakota, Montana which he claimed as his great love, a short dogleg to Yellowstone which he pronounced nature gone nuts, Washington where he did not recognize the Seattle of his experience, a sweet little city of hills and gardens beside a beautiful harbor, with its freeways and tract housing, thankfully Oregon with its 300 foot redwoods was still a religious experience, California where he was born and raised, Texas (disclaimer: I am a native Texan but notice that I do use quotes to bolster my snobbishness) where he discovered that "Texas is a nation in every sense of the word," and "Texas is the only state that came into the Union by Treaty and the only state that retains the ability to secede at will." 'Nuff said, and finally New Orleans suffering the birth pangs of a sea change in race relations.He met all sorts of people: a submariner, various storekeepers, farmers, crop pickers, waitresses, camp ground owners, police officers of several varieties, cooks, actors, veterinarians, barkeeps, ranchers, reporters, preachers, and Republicans. Steinbeck invited several of these people into the camper for a drink or two and good conversation. A couple of things made me stop and consider and make a note to look at later. Here they are:Prescient environmentalist: "...I do wonder whether there will come a time when we can no longer afford our wastefulness - chemical wastes in the river, metal wastes everywhere, and atomic wastes buried deep in the earth or sunk in the sea. When an Indian village became too deep in its own filth, the inhabitants moved. And we have no place to which to move." On nostalgia for the good 'ole days: "Even while I protest the assembly-line production of our food, our songs, our language, and eventually our souls, I know that it was a rare home that baked good bread in the old days. Mother's cooking was with rare exceptions poor, that good unpasteurized milk touchedonly by flies and bits of manure crawled with bacteria, sudden death from uknown causes, and that sweet local speech I mourn was the child of illiteracy and ignorance." So when someone waxes nostalgic you should consider the options. I recommend this book for John Steinbeck fans. There are portions where the story tends to lag some but not for long. Others may find it entertaining if you like travel books or Americana.
A must for Steinbeck fans. The audio version I listened to was really well done. It was reflective and often amusing and when it was done I felt like I had sat down and had a good long talk with John himself.
When I recently read this book, I was concerned that ¿Travels with Charley¿ might be outdated, because it was in 1960 when John Steinbeck made a road trip across America with his French Poodle, Charley. I did not need to worry. Human nature and dog nature never really change over the years.John Steinbeck decided, despite his health (he died just a few years after ¿Travels with Charley¿ was published), that he would go ahead and drive across the country¿ alone but with Charley¿ in a truck with a custom-built camper that he dubs ¿Rocinanate¿ after the horse in Don Quixote. He says:¿My wife married a man; I saw no reason why she should inherit a baby. I knew that ten or twelve thousand miles driving a truck, alone and unattended, over every kind of road, would be hard work, but to me it represented the antidote for the poison of the professional sick man. And in my own life I am not willing to trade quality for quanitity. If this projected journey should prove too much then it was time to go anyway. I see too many men delay their exits with a sickly slow reluctance to leave the stage. it¿s bad theater as well as bad living. I am very fortunate in having a wife who likes being a woman, which means that she likes men, not elderly babies.¿You go, John Steinbeck! I think that was a very good mind-set for him to have. So, he sets off from his home in New York City with Charley, drives to Maine, and then from there drives through to California with many stops along the way. From California, he swings over to Texas and Louisiana on the way back home to New York. Of course, he meets many people along the way, and he and Charley are good observers of character.Yes, Charley figures largely in this book. As Steinbeck says,¿He is a good friend and traveling companion, and would rather travel about than anything he can imagine. If he occurs at length in this account, it is because he contributed much to the trip. A dog, particularly an exotic like Charley, is a bond between strangers. Many conversations en route began with `What degree of a dog is that?¿¿Some encounters are amusing, some tragic. One part I thought funny was when Steinbeck encounters a father and son, motel owners or managers, out in the sticks, somewhere in the West, and Steinbeck finds that the boy desires to be a hairdresser someday. The father is unhappy about this¿ but Steinbeck goes on about how great it would be for the boy to become a hairdresser, saying that women place their secret lives in their hairdresser¿s hands¿ and seems to convince the father that it¿s all okay, after all.Tragic was when Steinbeck goes through Louisiana and observes the ugliness of racism there¿ observing white women screaming, daily, at little African-American girls being escorted in a school building that is being de-segregated.Description of place tend to be still true today as they were back in 1960. When he speaks of Texans, he says:¿We have heard them threaten to secede so often that I formed an enthusiatic organization¿ The American Friends for Texas Secession. This stops the subject cold. They want to be able to secede but they don¿t want anyone to want them to¿.Charley helps Steinbeck through the occasional lonely times on the road, and as quoted earlier, helps Steinbeck with meeting strangers. I loved Charley¿s personality and agree he would be a great travel-mate. John Steinbeck isn¿t a well-known writer for nothing, and his way with words are evident here as they are in his better known novels such as ¿Grapes of Wrath¿ and ¿East of Eden¿. ¿Travels with Charley¿ was a very good read, and I think many of you would enjoy it also.
The year is 1960 and highly acclaimed American novelist John Steinbeck has decided to make a three month driving tour of the United States. His means of travel is a three-quarter ton pickup truck with a well provisioned and appointed camper mounted in the bed. His sole traveling companion is his poodle Charlie.Steinbeck begins his journey in Sag Harbor, New York shortly after Labor Day with a short loop through New England before plowing through the upper Midwest. Along the way, it is his hope to ¿rediscover¿ America after having written about it for so many years. He is touched by the almost innate wanderlust within himself and many of the people he encounters.Much of the book reads as a travelogue, and to be honest these were the most entertaining and enlightening. When Steinbeck begins to philosophize, as he does extensively throughout his travels through Texas and then the Deep South (this is 1960, remember), he loses my interest. The book is interesting and entertaining, though at times pedantic and irritating. Most irritating to me was the obviously fictional encounters that Steinbeck creates in an around New Orleans in which he confronts four obvious stereotypes of the region and time frame: The wise, old white gentleman who acknowledges the sins of his race; the elderly black gentleman who is utterly subservient and beaten down; the fire breathing middle aged white racist and the idealistic young black freedom rider. Overall, not a bad read.
charming, feel-good quick read; reliable every time.
If any recently read book has reminded me of the importance of giving a writer and his or her words the care and attention they deserve, it is John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley: In Search of America. If you happened to have read this post (sorry, we're back to Hardy again . . .), you'll know that I came late to this book, just a few weeks ago. And during those weeks, I've been reading it at a gentle pace. Because that is what it demands. Yes, you could speedread it in a couple of hours but you would miss so much in the rush to reach the last page.But how could one rush at a book that opens thus:"When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked."When Steinbeck and his standard poodle headed off in a camper van called Rocinante, (named after Don Quixote's horse) to rediscover the author's native land, the heart disease that was to end his life just a few years later had aready made its presence known. This was to be Steinbeck's last opportunity to reconnect with his roots and to note what remained and what had changed in America, especially in parts of the country he remembered from his youth and earlier life.His travelling companion, the eponymous Charley, was "an elderly gentleman", struggling - nobly as dogs do - with the infirmities of age; Steinbeck's concern to preserve his venerable canine's dignity is poignant yet never sentimental.But not only did Steinbeck write great opening lines, he wrote great closing lines too - and pretty well everything in between is as good as it gets. Every word counts; every sentence is carefully crafted. Nothing is superfluous. Emphasis and inflection, when needed, arise as they should from the words and the images themselves, not an exclamation mark in sight.Here is a writer at the very height of his powers; a writer who, in just a few words, can give us the measure of a man or a woman: a lonely lake guardian in northern Michigan, who "wanted his pretty little wife and . . . . something else" and who "couldn't have both"; an equally lonely and loquacious elderly woman stuck in the Bad Lands, with her "dying vestiges of a garden", or the vagabond actor with his handwritten note from John Gielgud, which he kept "in a carefully folded piece of aluminium foil".When I was in my teens and early twenties, I read every Steinbeck I could get my hands on; landmark novels, such as The Grapes of Wrath informed my political thinking, as well as my thoughts on writing. But, somehow, this one book had passed me by. I'm grateful, however, to have discovered and read it at more or less the same age as Steinbeck was when he wrote it. Perhaps one needs to be this age to understand why he noticed the things that he did and the responses that they evoked in him.And he was such a perceptive observer of the human condition; as readers, we marvel at his ability to translate his thoughts and reflections into words that speak to us all. Read Travels with Charley and you will know what it is to write from the heart, as well as from the head. If you've not yet had the good fortune to sit down with this wise, compassionate and exquisitely written book, buy or borrow a copy as soon as you can, take it slowly and know what it is to read from the heart.
An enjoyable read. John Steinbeck travels round America with his poodle Charley. The thoughts of Charley often feature as Steinbeck interacts with the dog, people and places he meets on route. One should remember that the America of the 1960s (when the book was written) was of course different from the America of today. An well written and eleoquent book
The only previous knowledge I had of John Steinbeck's 1960s travelogue was from a reference in a Stephen King novel, where the author-insert character considers writing a similar account, but with the title 'Travels with Harley'. However, the original is still effortlessly readable, if a little dated in places. Driving a camper van across America - allegedly because he knew he was dying, and wanted to see 'his' country one last time - with his poodle Charley, Steinbeck stops off in New England, Montana, Texas and New Orleans, among other places, and chats with a variety of people along the way. His narrative is witty, sharply observational, and suitably descriptive, evoking a sense of both the author and his dog (and I was quite concerned about Charley's health at one point, but don't worry, he makes it!) and the amazing landscapes they take in. Similar to Bill Bryson's Notes from a Big Country, Steinbeck discovers that you can't go home again - when he returns to his hometown of Salinas, California, he feels like a ghost left behind while the city and faces of his youth have moved on. I love how relevant Steinbeck's assessment of America remains, his sentiments echoed in Bryson's book some thirty years later, and probably still true today. 'I cannot commend this account as an America that you will find', he writes, but although there have been positive changes, the seeds of modernity and equality that Steinbeck describes are still very much a part of American culture. 'Can I then say that the America I saw has put cleanliness first, at the expense of taste?' he bemoans, objecting to the replacement of small, individual towns and friendly roadside cafes with sprawling cities and homogenised plastic-packed, mass-produced food in vending machines. I think everyone, wherever they come from, can relate to that particular corruption of 'progress'!Steinbeck is an entertaining and eloquent travelling companion, and his snapshot of America, circa 1961, is both a historical document and a series of literary vignettes. Charley the dog is also full of character, suffering from 'old man' problems and getting hopelessly filthy. One of my favourite quotes is: 'For Charley, is not a human; he's a dog, and he likes it that way. He feels that he is a first-rate dog and has no wish to become a second-rate human'. Who can blame him?
This was the first adult book I ever read; I'checked it out of the junior high library and I've always had a fondness for it. I remember a playmate's friend telling me, "You are going to love that book", and I guess I did. I've dipped into it or reread it a few times over the years, but this time was prolly the first time in 25 years. I found that my rereading coincided with the 50th anniversary of the trip that Steinbeck documents and also that I was almost the same age as he was when he made his drive. He says in the book that he doesn't begin to know what the world will be like in 50 years, and I guess he didn't. I had forgotten how disppointed he was with the America he was trying to rediscover, largely because nobody would talk to him about the sociopolitical topics which interested him. I wonder what he would make of us today, with every Main Street blowhard crouching in wait for someone to ask the time so they can tell you what they think about the president, or the government in Whatzitstan, or the plight of the common man. It remains a classic of travel writing, and one of the earliest examples of travel writing as a vehicle for introspection.