I was introduced to John Steinbeck pretty early in my academic career, when I read The Red Pony in the seventh grade. I honestly don’t remember much about that book–is that one of the ones where the pony dies but Disney made it live at the end of the movie?–but I don’t remember hating it. Anyway, I’d encounter him two more times in junior high and high school, reading The Pearl in eighth grade and Of Mice and Men in ninth grade. Years later, I’d become part of a book club (well, a wine club with a reading problem, really) and read East of Eden and then picked up The Grapes of Wrath about a summer later. Those two books really put my appreciation for this great American writer on a whole new level.
Prior to my rediscovery of Steinbeck’s works via his two epic novels, however, I picked up a copy of Travels With Charley in Search of America back in 2003 and read most of it while in Paris on my honeymoon. I really enjoyed it then and when I undertook this reading project last summer I knew that this was back on my list. Funny thing, though–my copy seems to have disappeared from my bookshelf. I’m pretty sure that I loaned to to a student or to my brother-in-law, but it’s a pretty easy to find book so I went to a copy of the local library and checked it out. And on an aside, Travels With Charley and a number of other Steinbeck works was actually among the “young adult” books, which I found awesome. I pictured some unwitting teenager wandering through the stacks looking for something after making their way through The Hunger Games and Twilight and coming across Of Mice and Men, and starting on an amazing literary journey.
Anyway, back to Travels With Charley. I think the reread of this one took me about three days, which is about the same amount of time it took the first time I read it nearly a decade ago. If you’re unfamiliar with the book, Steinbeck decided in 1960 that he wanted to see the country way that he would be unnoticed–he’d become pretty famous as a writer by this point–so he had a pickup truck converted into a camper and named it Rocinante, after Don Quixote’s horse (the camper itself was not hard to picture, as I’d encountered many such vehicles when I worked at Robert Moses State Park during my college summers). He began his trip by heading up to New England by way of the Orient Point Ferry (something I’m also familiar with–my parents take the Orient Point Ferry on their way to New Hampshire every year) and then eventually made his way through the midwest and into the northwest before heading to Texas and then through the deep south. His traveling companion was a poodle named Charley, who Steinbeck gives as much attention in the book as he does the scenery and people he encounters on his trip.
The story that he tells is truly what the subtitle of the book says: he is searching for America, and in doing so he offers a snapshot of the country and its people through what he encounters, and he seems to find that there is a gentility among the average American, and he also seems to find the same sort of congeniality that Heat-Moon does on his journey in Blue Highways. I liked that there was a “universality” to the personality being explored in both books and how they almost echo one another. What also makes Steinbeck’s memoir even more important than its simply being a chronicle of a trip, however, is his recollection of his time spent in the south in the final part. Travels With Charley takes place at the height of the conflict concerning integrating schools and he has an extended conversation with both people he meets as well as the reader about the nature of this debate and racism itself.
It’s almost a historical document, in a way, and while it might not be wholly accurate (there’s a whole section on the book’s Wikipedia page regarding the book’s veracity), Steinbeck writes in a way that puts you in the truck with him and his dog and in those conversations he is having with people because while it’s not necessarily a treatise on the politics and current events of the time, Travels With Charley does offer a nice snapshot of the country and makes you think about how much has changed and how much has not.