Review: Travels with Charley in Search of America

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.

Review: Cannery Row

Cannery Row

Cannery RowJohn Steinbeck. New York: Penguin Books, 1992 (originally published 1945).

Summary: Steinbeck’s Depression-era narrative of the residents of Cannery Row, eking out an existence on society’s margins, and forming an unlikely community in the process.

“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.”

Steinbeck had me at this first sentence and drew me in with his ensemble of oddball characters–Henri the painter who has been building a boat for seven years; Lee Chong, the grocer whose emporium has a little bit of everything from every when; Doc, the marine biologist who collects marine life for research, and functions as a kind of doctor for the bodies and souls on the Row; Dora, the madam of the Bear Flag Restaurant where sailors and others could get far more than a sandwich from her girls; Mr. and Mrs. Malloy, who turn an abandoned boiler into their home; and Mack and the boys of the Palace Flophouse, whose exploits drive the narrative of this book.

For the most part, this is a group scraping by during the Depression. Mack and his boys might be described as “discouraged workers” taking odd jobs or even working a stretch at the canneries–just enough to get by and buy some cheap whiskey (“Old Tennis Shoe”) from Lee Chong. Eventually the boys get the idea to throw a big party for Doc, a sad man who listens to music as he reads at night unless he has a lady friend in, but who cares for delinquents, girls from Dora’s who get “in trouble,” and anyone else in need. The party ends up a comedy of errors. There is an elaborate tale of borrowing Lee Chong’s decrepit Model T, nearly getting run off an old captain’s property until they heal the captain’s dog, drink up his whiskey with him, and clean out a pond full of frogs they plan to sell to Doc to raise money for the party. The night of the party, Doc is recovering from finding a young girl’s body and doesn’t arrive home until the morning, to find his lab trashed, his record albums broken, and the remains of the party everywhere.

A pall settles over Mack, and the boys, indeed over the whole Row. Doc lashes out and busts up Mack’s mouth. But the boys are undeterred, and plan another party, at Doc’s place, of course, and all the residents get involved. How it all ends, I will leave for you to discover.

Behind the madcap exploits of Mack and the boys and their interactions with other denizens of Cannery Row, one gets a sense of what it was like for those on the margins to eke out a life during the Depression, how hard and sometimes tragic it was. This strange set of characters somehow help each other survive. Doc, the best off and most educated, shares the hopelessness of this group, finding a beautiful young girl dead in the water and finding himself unable to help a young delinquent he’d befriended. Like the others, he anodizes the pain in alcohol when books, music, young women, and his marine expeditions are not enough.

In the end, what seems to get them all through are the relationships, the bonds they form with each other in this crazy assemblage of humanity. There is no thought here of the possibility of a deeper Relationship or a Higher Purpose that can make sense of life. Nevertheless, this group of people faced with the challenges of their lives,  decides they must celebrate a birthday, and in doing so that there is some meaning, some worth to their existence, because you never care about or celebrate something without worth.

Review: The Grapes of Wrath

Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of WrathJohn Steinbeck. New York: Penguin Books, 1939 (original edition), 2002 (this edition).

Summary: Steinbeck’s classic narrative of the migrations of displaced farmers from the Depression Dustbowl to a California controlled by large landowners who wanted their labor as cheaply as possible while despising the influx of people.

I’m not sure how I escaped reading this book in high school. I first discovered the genius of Steinbeck in East of Eden and have been reading his other works since. I think I would probably rank this second in greatness to East of Eden of Steinbeck’s works.

The story line breaks into roughly three parts. First there is the displacement of small and eventually tenant farmers to big land-holding interests using lower cost mechanized methods that eliminated even the tenuous grip of these farmers on their way of life. Most dramatically, this is portrayed as a cultivator demolishes part of the Joad family home, making it unlivable. The second part is the migration of these families to California, where handbills advertise plentiful and good paying jobs picking California crops. The Joads, with Tom, their recently paroled son, Al, the skirt chaser who keeps the truck running, Rose of Sharon, their pregnant daughter and her husband Connie, Ruthie and Winfield, the two younger children, Ma and Pa, Grampa and Granma and Jim Casy (disillusioned preacher and eventual labor organizer) all pile on the truck with whatever belongings they can fit. We see the struggle to keep run down vehicles going across the desert, and the toll this takes as Grampa dies enroute and Granma as they arrive.

All this sets up the third part where we see these migrants unwelcome and constantly threatened by the police fearing vagrants, the terrible conditions of the Hoovervilles, and the exploitation of landowners who recruited these migrants so that they could continually cut the rates of pay as desperate people would agree to work for less and less, as families like the Joads struggle day to day to survive and fend off starvation. Most harrowing is the winter, when no work is to be had and people start dying of pneumonia and starvation.

Throughout the novel, Steinbeck uses an interesting device of narrating the tribulations of the Joad family against the larger fabric of events they represent that helps us understand the desperate straits many families faced. We also see the cruel ways the rich and powerful exploit them every step of the way.

The standout character in the story is Ma, who keeps the family fed and together when the men and her daughter are at sea in the bewildering maelstrom of the Depression and the exploitation of the destitute. In some ways, Tom Joad, who killed one man at the beginning of the book, and another later in sudden outlashings of wrath represents the simmering rage these conditions foster, captured in these words of Steinbeck that allude to his title:

“and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

Steinbeck raises for us the question how long an underclass of people can be exploited and oppressed until wrath is unleashed upon a society, a question as relevant in our own day with its growing disparities of wealth and poverty, as in that of Steinbeck. It seems there is this idea that as long as men hold on to wrath, they won’t be broken.

Yet in Steinbeck’s novel, it is the value of family and of human decency in desperate circumstances that shine through again and again, represented by Ma. It is Ma who permits the shocking break of convention in the final scene to do what can be done to save a human being.

All this suggested that while wrath may accumulate and threaten like an approaching storm, the deeper and more powerful quality that truly bestows dignity on human beings is neither overweening power, nor accumulated grievance, but a compassion, a simple human decency, reflected in Ma, and in the government-run camp, that does what can be done, and somehow is enough. The novel raises for each of us the question of what kinds of measures will we choose should we face desperate times.

Don’t Judge a Classic by Your High School Experience!

Publisher’s Weekly recently ran a post titled, “10 Classic Books You Read in High School You Should Reread.”  Most of the post is devoted to a list, which by and large I think is pretty interesting. The writer notes that there are some choices that would evoke a “meh” from him, such as Moby Dick or The Scarlet Letter.  Not sure I would agree with either, even though the latter was pretty tough going. Here are some of my thoughts about why we shouldn’t write off the “classics” we struggled through in high school.

1. Most of us were more pre-occupied with the girl or boy sitting next to us than what the whale symbolized, or the complexities of sexuality we encountered in Anna Karenina that were still years ahead for us.

2. In high school, we just didn’t have that much life experience to find the life experience in these works making much sense. It seems to me that one of the attractions of Young Adult fiction is that it connects to current, not future life experience. I also suspect for this reason, it will be less interesting as these Young Adults go on in life.

3. Conversely, as we do go on in life, we need works that explore life in its complexities and ambiguities, that explore the depths of human experience and character.

4. Not all high school teachers were created equally. Some were able to capture the imaginations of their students enough to have them explore worlds beyond their own in the literature they read and then find the connection back to their own world. Others were less inspiring and not a match for the works they were called on to teach, as valiantly as they tried.

5. Hopefully you are a better reader now than then, though that cannot be assumed. As I explored in “Digital Brains?” our internet usage may militate against the kind of attentive, slow reading great books require. Along the way, I hope you have had to do enough of the attentive, focused reading that you are able to engage the worlds of classic writers.

I really didn’t get into Steinbeck in high school. Reading him more recently, I discovered what a great work East of Eden  is and the profound insights into mid-life, and human nature more broadly that we gain in Winter of our Discontent. What I find as I go on in life that I hunger for something deeper than quickly browsed stories on the internet, tweets and status updates. I long for something deeper than I find in a “beach read”.  Centrally, my faith answers to that longing, but great works that explore the human condition also capture my imagination and “read” me.

What high school classic have you reread and what was your experience.?


Review: The Winter of Our Discontent

The Winter of Our Discontent
The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I just read this–again. As I noted in a recent blog post, this was a happy accident, because a re-reading enriched my understanding of one of Steinbeck’s last novels. Here is what I wrote after my reading of the book in 2012:

What do we do when life doesn’t work out as we had dreamed it? What do we do when our status is inferior to that of others and the community around us including our family point this out to us? John Steinbeck explores this dilemma through the narrative of Ethan Allen Hawley, the descendant of an old New England family of sea captains. Hawley, however, is reduced to being a clerk in a grocery store he lost to debt that is now owned by an Italian immigrant.

Though not unhappy himself with his lot, prodded by the urgings of others and discontent within his family, he enters a “winter of discontent” and suspends his own sense of honor and ethics in setting in motion a series of events to change his standing in the town. The question he does not consider is, will he be able to live with the outcome for him and his family and what he may become?

A probing novel that explores how we confront our own discontentedness.

John Steinbeck during his trip to accept Nobel Prize in 1962 Attribution: By Nobel Foundation [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

John Steinbeck during his trip to accept Nobel Prize in 1962
Attribution: By Nobel Foundation [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I would concur with all of this but in my re-reading, I was much more aware of Steinbeck’s commentary on the hypocrisy of our social morality, where cutting corners, ruthless competition, under-cutting friends, and betraying loyalties are just the way the game is played and the main rule is not to get caught at it. Hawley’s character serves as a mirror that exposes this in all its ugly detail in his honesty and lack of driving ambition, and then in the turn in which he carries the logic of betrayal and ruthlessness to its logical conclusion and ends up playing the game better than all the others, betraying friends resulting in the deportation of one and death of another, and in ruthless negotiation that leaves the “petty immoral” wondering what they have created.

All this comes at a cost for Hawley as he realizes that his own “light” has died. How will he live between an ambitious son already caught up in the game, and a daughter still “holding onto the light” in the form of a family talisman? And his own struggle raises the question of what it means to live with oneself in the “little deaths” to integrity that “playing the game” seems to require.

Even in the larger Christian community these are pressing issues as we’ve been regaled by stories of a prominent pastor who plagiarized work and employed those who manipulated publication data. Negotiating the “winter of discontent” in our lives and not allowing our “light” to be extinguished is a challenge we all face. And one wonders why Steinbeck situates Ethan’s moral turning point between Good Friday and Easter? Does this not point up the alternatives of betrayal and denial versus the dying to self that alone sustains life and light? I don’t know if that was in Steinbeck’s mind, but it is something I cannot help considering.

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Re-reading by Mistake

Have you ever had this happen? You picked up a book that looked interesting, began reading it and had this vague suspicion that the book you thought you were reading for the first time was in fact one you had read before? And as you go along, suspicion becomes certainty. This is what happened to me recently when I started reading an edition of John Steinbeck’s The Winter of our Discontent. Not only did the plot seem familiar, but I discovered I had read this book a couple years ago and had written a Goodreads review.

Sigh! I suspect this reflects one of the hazards of reading lots of books! From the date of the review, I’ve probably read over two hundred books since then. I suspect the different edition may have thrown me, leading me to believe I hadn’t read this book. At least my memory isn’t totally failing–I recognized the plot and characters as familiar once I began reading!

John Steinbeck during his trip to accept Nobel Prize in 1962 Attribution: By Nobel Foundation [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

John Steinbeck during his trip to accept Nobel Prize in 1962
Attribution: By Nobel Foundation [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

So what do you do? Do you lay it down because you’ve already read the book? There are probably some books where the answer would be yes. But this is Steinbeck and I’ve come to love his writing. I know that I would someday like to re-read East of Eden for example. In the case of this book, Steinbeck explores the issue of personal integrity and the choice many of us wrestle with between integrity and “playing the game” where one maintains a veneer of being upstanding while cutting all kinds of ethical corners because that is just what it takes to get ahead.

I’m glad I’ve re-read the book. My previous reading focused on the main character, Ethan Allan Hawley, and his personal “winter of discontent”. What I’ve noticed this time through is social context and Steinbeck’s treatment of the hypocrisies of prevailing morality and the ironies of who is really “honest”.

There are books I’ve re-read intentionally, sometimes four or five times over the years. I do so because of their richness that seems to grow with each re-reading, perhaps because I’m at a different place in life as well, and the book reads me differently. I think something like that is going on with my “accidental” re-reading of Steinbeck.

Have you ever had this happen? What books have you come back to and re-read and what was that experience like for you?