Travels with Charley: In Search of America, John Steinbeck. New York: Penguin Classics, 2012 (originally published in 1962).
Summary: John Steinbeck’s memoir of his 1960 roadtrip in his truck/camper Rocinante with his French poodle Charley.
It was 1960. Richard Nixon and John Kennedy were in a race for president. Highways from town to town were being replaced by high speed Interstate highways. The South was in deep conflict over desegregation. Mass media was expanding its impact on the culture. And John Steinbeck was aging. His son, Thom, said Steinbeck knew he had the heart condition from which he would die in 1968. And he wanted to see the America that had been the backdrop of his stories one more time,
So he bought a 3/4 ton truck on which a custom camper top was installed with bed, stove, lights, and facilities and dubbed his vehicle “Rocinante,” after Don Quixote’s mount. One wonders if he thought this journey quixotic in nature. He sets out from New York City north to Maine, across New England and New York, along the south of the Great Lakes through the Midwest, across the northern states all the way to Washington, down to California including revisiting his old stomping ground, trekking across the Southwest, through Texas, stopping in New Orleans during a desegregation crisis which he witnesses, across the South, up through Virginia, and New Jersey and back home.
Accompanying him is his faithful old companion, his ten year old French poodle, Charley, who would go “Ffft” when Steinbeck was too slow to take him out. One of the most endearing parts of this work was the bond between them, often evoking some of the strongest emotions Steinbeck has throughout–contempt for the government bureaucracy that wouldn’t allow them to cut through Canada without Charley’s inoculation papers, surprise at Charley’s fierceness when they spot grizzlies, anger at a veterinarian whose indifference to Charley’s bladder problems, frustration at Charley’s lack of interest in the greatest of the redwoods, and warm affection for another vet who cared for his old dog. As the title suggests, Charley is perhaps the main character in this memoir besides Steinbeck himself.
Steinbeck remarks the changes that have occurred throughout the country. He speaks of the massive growth of the cities, which he tries generally to avoid (one exception is Minneapolis, and the nuclear evacuation route he followed, reflecting on the traffic jams that would have made this route worthless). He describes listening to jukeboxes, where the same songs were #1 wherever you went, a harbinger of the growth of mass culture. He remarks on the odd phenomenon of the reticence of people to talk about the presidential election.
Christian Smith has described American religion as “moral therapeutic deism.” Steinbeck noted this even in the 1960’s as he traveled across the country, contrasting what he found in one Vermont church with what he found elsewhere:
“For some years now God has been a pal to us, practicing togetherness, and that causes the same emptiness a father does playing softball with his son. But this Vermont God cared enough about me to go to a lot of trouble kicking the hell out of me. He put my sins in a new perspective…I wasn’t a a naughty child but a first rate sinner, and I was going to catch it” (p. 61).
Steinbeck said he felt so revived he put $5 in the offering plate and commented of the pastor: “He forged a religion designed to last, not predigested obsolescence.”
These larger observations of society alternate with personal encounters, many at breakfast counters across the country, taciturn in New England and more voluble as he entered the Midwest. Then there is the very human encounter with a property manager who informed Steinbeck that he was trespassing, and as they talk and share some coffee with something added, the manager shows him a place to park and takes him fishing. Like so many, they saw Steinbeck’s camper, and wanted to be him.
In the end, Steinbeck wanted to get home. Something seemed to change once he reached California. Spotting coyotes he could have easily taken down and done others a favor, he cannot. He witnesses the viciousness of white women (the cheerladies) when a little black girl tries to integrate a school in Louisiana. Encounters with two hitchhikers, one white, one black underscore the deep racial divide of the time. Strikingly, the black man fears him, and gets out before reaching his destination, preferring walking to fear.
Getting lost, being misdirected and directed runs through the narrative. Even back in New York City, he requires directions from a policeman to make it home. One senses that it is a lost man who is in search of America with his dog. And what did he find? In his own words, “I do know this–the big and mysterious America is bigger than I thought. And more mysterious.”
I have to admit, the older I get, the more I find myself in agreement with Steinbeck. All the things I thought I knew about the country, I know no longer. What I thought I knew has become mysterious. And I find myself longing more and more for people like that Vermont preacher. Someone needs to kick the hell out of us.