Read the world: Travels with Charley

John Steinbeck’s travelogue is not only a beautiful record of America in a crucial period of change but a journey into the abstract relationship between place and the self

John Steinbeck remains best known for astute social commentaries like The Grapes of Wrath, a magnum opus inspired by his earlier reportage of oppressed migrant workers for The San Francisco News. When accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, he would argue that the writer’s role had always been to expose society’s flaws.

A couple of years earlier, he was based in New York City and had spent about a decade traveling in France and England. He was deeply concerned that he had lost touch with the truth of his country, and that this would impair his writing. 

So, on 23 September 1960, he set off on a four-month voyage around America with his journalistic eyes at the ready. He sought to extrapolate the universal from the local, the profound from the quotidian, and would therefore avoid big cities in favour of places like ranches, hamburger stands and churches.

On the top of his truck (named “Rocinante” after Don Quixote’s horse) was a purpose-built living space. And to keep him company was Charley, his sociable French poodle whose ‘diplomatic nature’ would vanish exclusively in the presence of drunks, neurotics, and the bears of Yellowstone National Park. 

Steinbeck recorded the journey in Travels with Charley: In Search of America. Although the book is defined by evocative prose, thought-provoking aphorisms, and humour that will have most readers laughing, it’s a bittersweet experience. For Steinbeck details many prescient concerns about where it seemed his country was heading. 

He perceived the ubiquity of consumerism and selfishness displacing community values, deplored that his country had begun throwing away mountains of waste, and theorised that decades of television and radio had led to the loss of charming regional dialects, in their place ‘a national speech, wrapped and packaged, standard and tasteless’.

Steinbeck’s being alarmed by the prevalence of philistinism throughout his country is also clear. He found Americans everywhere saying nothing of substance about the impending election between JFK and Richard Nixon. And he was troubled by the depraved state of book publishing, wondering if the emotional life of the nation had been rendered ‘so bland it must be spiced with sex and sadism through the medium of the paperback?’

The most emotionally draining part of the book is set in New Orleans, where Steinbeck was shocked by the prevalence and degree of racism and antisemitism. He witnessed the New Orleans school desegregation crisis, providing a first-hand account of the demented cruelty of the notorious “Cheerleaders”. These were racist mothers who gathered to scream obscenities and throw food at anyone (white, black, child, parent…) entering the desegregated William Frantz Elementary School.

But the disillusionment doesn’t end there. Steinbeck also grappled with his own sense of failure throughout the adventure. He slowly realised the impossibility, no matter how far he travelled, of ever getting away from what presuppositions about places were printed indelibly on his mind.

Seeing Vermont’s colour-splashed autumn forests for the first time in person, he recalled his childhood incredulity at pictures he had seen, and the landscape continues to assume the appearance of a fantastical kingdom in his mind. He later derived meaning from the Mojave Desert by reference to a multitude of stories in which desert settings, with their crowded firmaments and death-defying ecosystems, served as catalysts for certain profound ideas. 

Indeed, realising halfway through the journey that he still had no idea how to describe America, Steinbeck despairingly appealed to Charley for a summary of the country according to its smell. And by the time he crossed into New Mexico, he found his eyes no longer capable of processing anything.

On arriving home, New York City had become an alien place because it was being perceived by a changed man. As Steinbeck says, ‘people don’t take trips – trips take people’. And the reader may feel something similar by the closing pages of this gritty, moving odyssey…

By Nicholas Ross. Nick is a traveller, writer and lover of literature

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