TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY is the “non-fictional” account of Steinbeck’s road trip across America in 1960. (I put the word “non-fictional” in quotes because although Steinbeck portrayed his journey as a cut-and-dry retelling of actual events, much scrutiny has been put to its authenticity in recent years.) Steinbeck’s son has said in interviews about the book, “He just sat in his camper and wrote all that shit.” This camper’s name was Rocinante, the same as Don Quixote’s horse, which is perhaps a small hint to the book’s romanticism vs. its reality. But whatever its connection to actual events, Travels with Charley remains a touching series of reflections about the passage of time and the changing landscape of American life.
At the time of this trip John Steinbeck was at the end of an illustrious and polarizing career. He cut the figure of a now basically extinct species of male writer—the Great Man of Letters who, having been misunderstood by his critics all his life, says what he means without qualification and for breakfast puts a little coffee in his whiskey. Before his journey he even attempts to save his boat from a hurricane, running headlong into the mighty gale, but, tellingly, doesn’t succeed in preventing it from being banged up. Even in the twilight of his career in his quiet Long Island retreat, Steinbeck projects this figure:
I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory, or slobbed for a time in utter laziness. I’ve lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as a punishment.
JOHN STEINBECK TAKES OFF with his dog Charley in Rocinante, starting from Long Island, New York to California via the Northern route through North Dakota and Montana, and then back via the Southern route through Texas and New Orleans. The observations and encounters with people fit the pattern and regularity of a spontaneous travelogue but the overriding theme of all these is the moral weight of progress. Television, in this regard, is a huge non-presence in Travels with Charley. Steinbeck, the American writer of the time, travels across America and, he tells us, wasn’t recognized a single time. Already in 1960 literacy was in decline with the rising tide of TV:
Radio and television speech becomes standardized, perhaps better English than we have ever used. Just as our bread, mixed and baked, packaged and sold without benefit of accident of human frailty, is uniformly good and uniformly tasteless, so will our speech become one speech… Communications must destroy localness, by a slow, inevitable process.
You can hear the frustration as he’s driving along the highway, struggling to describe a tasteless and efficient American language—his own medium—which has been cauterized by mass media. This and others like this are the quintessential passages in Travels with Charley. Is everything that progress brings good?
Other highlights include a discussion with an itinerant homeless actor, a few shots of bourbon with a Canadian family of potato farmers, and beautiful descriptions of the redwood forests.
THE BOOK TAKES SOMETHING of a left turn on the journey home when Steinbeck confronts Jim Crow-ism in the South. Here Steinbeck’s reflections are nothing ground-breaking and are even a little drab in places but their juxtaposition against his earlier entries enlivens Travels with Charley to a new level of profundity. While bemoaning some of the negative effects of commercialism in the North, Steinbeck cannot help but also see value in the consensus provided by some forms of mass-communications against harmful provincialisms in the South.
In one scene Steinbeck stops Rocinante to pick up a hitchhiking black student:
We discussed the sit-ins. He had taken part in them, and in the bus boycott. I told him what I had seen in New Orleans. He had been there. He had expected what I was shocked at.
Finally we spoke of Martin Luther King and his teaching of passive but unrelenting resistance.
“It’s too slow,” he said. “It will take too long.”
“There’s improvement, there’s constant improvement. Gandhi proved it’s the only weapon that can win against violence.”
“I know all that. I’ve studied it. The gains are drops of water and time is passing. I want it faster, I want action—action now.”
“That might defeat the whole thing.”
“I might be an old man before I’m a man at all. I might be dead before.”
“That’s true. And Gandhi’s dead. Are there many like you who want action?”
“Yes. I mean, some—I mean, I don’t know how many.”
We talked of many things then. He was a passionate and articulate young man with anxiety and fierceness just below the surface. But when I dropped him in Montgomery he leaned through the window of the cab and he laughed. “I’m ashamed,” he said. “It’s just selfishness. But I want to see it—me—not dead. Here! Me! I want to see it—soon.” And then he swung around and wiped his eyes with his hand and he walked quickly away.
This part of Travels with Charley, when combined with the beginning, dramatizes the human problem of change vs. stasis. Sometimes social change results in the sad death of valuable and irretrievable worlds once known. Other times change cannot come quickly enough. And these two things can both be true at the same time. It’s tempting at certain places in Travels with Charley to laugh at what Steinbeck considers new. The book after all was written more than fifty years ago. For instance truck stops to Steinbeck are a thing of the future when, to my 21st century mind, they are worn out eyesores and even points of nostalgia. But even this heightens the poetry of Travels with Charley, reminding us that the death of one man’s world is the birth of another’s.
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