Friday, July 16, 2010

Travels with Charley

Travels with Charley in Search of America
© 1962 John Steinbeck
246 pages

Author John Steinbeck is perhaps most famous for The Grapes of Wrath, the story of the displaced Joad family who travel to California from their home in  Oklahoma in search of work, experiencing the land and its people as they do. In the early sixties, Steinbeck felt that he ought to make a journey of his own -- to truly experience the North American continent and the people of the United States. Since becoming an established author, his travels amounted to air trips between metropolises. Seeking a more familiar perspective, he set out in his camper-truck Rocinante, accompanied by his French bleu poodle Charley, and set forth. Starting in New York, he travels first to Maine, then across the midwest to the Pacific northwest, then down through California, across Texas, and curves upward through the south until he's in New York once more.

Steinbeck writes here with an intentional conversational tone. He often addresses the reader directly, as he does in the beginning when he informs the reader that we should imagine him talking to us while he drives or cooks at night. His reflections about his experiences sometimes take the form of a conversation with his dog, Charley -- and sometimes, Charley talks back.  Steinbeck is gifted at describing the scenery he not only sees, but in the case of wonders like the Redwoods, experiences.  Although he appears to enjoy his conversations with the people he visits,  visiting the South -- in the throes of the Civil Rights movement, where a band of middle-aged women delight in yelling racial slurs at young black children who have won admittance into a whites-only public school --  sours his mood as he returns home.

A recurring theme in Steinbeck's observations is the increasing homogeneity and staleness of American culture. National television and radio outlets have created a standard American language, and he despairs the loss of regional dialects. He has little love for the increasing role of plastic in everyday lives, and what it represents: mass-produced artificiality.

Although the trip ends on a poor note and Steinbeck does not like all of what he sees, he tempers his grumbling with the knowledge that is the nature of people to resist change in their old age. Perhaps America has lost some of its wild vivaciousness, but he doesn't take his complaints as withering criticisms. Travels abounds with humor,  benefiting from Steinbeck's dry wit and some of the conversations he has themselves.  I read this first in 2005, and it has lingered with me since:  this was the first work I ever read that grappled with changing culture in a real way. For its story, Steinbeck's musings, and his humor, I would recommend Travels with Charley.

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