Travels with Charley: in search of America

Travels with Charley

John Steinbeck and his dog, Charley.

One of my favourite writers is John Steinbeck and his two best books are Of Mice and Men and Charley’s Travels. I know what you’re thinking… Grapes of Wrath. East of Eden. Tortilla Flat. All very good, I agree. But not my favourite. In fact, after the first two mentioned, my next preferred Steinbeck story is The Red Pony.

The issue is that while Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden are classics, they are long, complex and involved. In each are gems of words; passages that stabbed me through the heart with their quality but these were shared out sparingly.

In my favourites though, I find pure enjoyment on almost every page; concepts and endeavours that stick with me years after I’ve read them.
Travels with Charley is a simple travel log of the author’s three month road trip with his dog, Charley. The observations shared within these pages are often poignant, always visual, and occasionally look into a future since unravelled.

Steinbeck comments on nuclear war, wasteful humanity, and Americans and their guns. There are customs, attitudes, myths and directions and changes that seem to be a part of the structure of America… And the first of these has to do with hunting.

I could not have escaped hunting if I had wanted to, for open seasons spangle the autumn. We have inherited many attitudes from our recent ancestors who wrestled this continent as Jacob wrestled the angel, and the pioneers won. From them we take the belief that every American is a natural born hunter.

Steinbeck was not against hunting persay or the killing of animals yet saw past the activity to the reasons men hunted.

… it isn’t hunger that drives millions of armed American males to forests and hills every Autumn… Somehow the hunting process has to do with masculinity.

His observations on humanity’s materialism and wastefulness are as insightful as they are a contradiction to his own practices. Like many of us, seeing and understanding issues is not the same as positive action to tackle them.

American cities are like badger holes, ringed with trash – all of them –surrounded by piles of wrecked and rusting automobiles, and almost smothered with rubbish. Everything we use comes in boxes, cartons, bins, the so-called packaging we love so much. The mountain of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use.

Steinbeck goes on to note that in other countries such waste is put to a second use,

and I do wonder when there will come a time when we can no longer afford our wastefulness – chemical wastes in the rivers, metal wastes everywhere, and atomic waste buried deep in the earth or sunk in the sea.

Somewhat prophetic for an aging writer in the early 1960s and yet two pages later he notes that,

There are so many modern designs for easy living. On my boat I had discovered the aluminum, disposable cooking utensils, frying pans and deep dishes. You fry a fish and throw the pan overboard, and makes no apparent connection between his moveable badger hole and the permanent mounds around the cities.

Oh, well.

But it’s his poetic descriptions of nature where with a few words he can show us what he is experiencing that makes Travels with Charley a stand out piece of travel writing. This encounter of the Aurora Borealis, for instance, after he’d stopped for the night at a disappointing and dissatisfying sterile, plastic motel.

I put on clean clothes and went out with him [Charley] into the star-raddled night. And the Aurora Borealis was out. I’ve seen it only a few times in my life. It hung and moved with majesty in folds like an infinite traveler upstage in an infinite theater. In colors of rose and lavender and purple it moved and pulsed against the night, and the frost-sharpened stars shone through it.

Throughout, Steinbeck shares with us his stories. Not those that have been published but the ones he’d lived; his memories, family, old friends and places; his wisdoms. Steinbeck travelled widely, wrote fiction and non-fiction, wrote screenplays and made films spent time as a war correspondent, undertook scientific pursuits, and researched and translated Morte DArthur.

His first published work was The Pastures of Heaven in 1932. His last novel, The Winter of our Discontent, was published in 1960 followed by Travels with Charley in Search of America in 1962 (the same year he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature), and finally, America and Americans in 1966.

John Steinbeck died in 1968.

Steinbeck linked landscape with people and community so well we are drawn into a world we already live in; where there is no whole truth only truth as any individual experiences it. A place where people live their lives as if travelling a road map, not often looking around or taking unplanned turns unless forced to. Steinbeck’s characters show us not how other people live but how we could live (not always for the better, I might add, let’s not idealise the situations and people he writes about).

Travels with Charley gives us a glimpse into a writer’s life showing us how a writer sees the world without glossing over his own part in it.
I recommend reading this after his more well-known works and if you can pick up a copy of Steinbeck: a life in letters, edited by Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten, read that as well. Only then will you be ready to fully understand Travels with Charley’s and perhaps have an idea of what made John Steinbeck tick.

For some other reviews of Travels with Charley, visit GoodReads

For more information on John Steinbeck, start here at the Authors Road and the National Steinbeck Center

travels with charley TravelsMapWb

Map of John & Charley’s travels.

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2 thoughts on “Travels with Charley: in search of America

  1. You’ve done a fine job of pointing out Steinbeck’s strengths as a writer and explaining why everyone interested in what made him tick should read “Charley.” But for those who care to know the whole truth about Steinbeck’s book, trip and persona, there’s much much more to read in “Dogging Steinbeck.” My Amazon.com ebook recounts how I learned that “Charley” is mostly a work of fiction and not an accurate or honest account of his 1960 road trip, who he met on it or what he thought about the America he saw. Bill Steigerwald

    • Hi Bill. I saw your book when I was looking around for images, but couldn’t find out what it was about. I hadn’t heard previously that there was any sort of “controversy” around Charley before. I think I read in the introduction though that he didn’t really like to open up about himself so I wouldn’t be wholly surprised that his version of the trip might have hidden a few things. Thanks for dropping by to comment.

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