Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck

imageIn 1960 John Steinbeck, feeling disconnected from his native land set off on a 10,000 mile road trip accompanied only by his standard poodle Charley.

This is officially a work of non fiction (more on this in a moment). However within nonfiction it’s hard to classify. It’s not a biography or memoir. Some may claim its a travel book, but if it is its a very poor one, some states he passes through I passed over in a paragraph and their is no information on where he stops, eats etc. You certainly could not plan a trip from it. The best way I can explain it is, it’s the philosophical musings of Steinbeck, one of the great American novelists, on a country he once knew so well but feels he has lost touch with.

There are rumours and suspicions that it is not a pure work of non-fiction. There is evidence to suggest that Steinbeck camped out far less then he would lead us to believe and there are questions about whether he could truly have met the people he does, the way he does. Personally I suspect, given the fact Steinbeck is first and foremost a novelists, that he couldn’t resist embellishing and enhancing events. I also suspect the characters he meet are an agglomeration of multiple characters he may have met, and whom he introduces when convenient. There is a sense that often the characters appear at opportune moments to illustrate a point or provide comfort, like the Christmas Ghosts in A Christmas Carol, right when Steinbeck needs them. While they feel real, as they should given Steinbeck’s skill as a writer, they are a tad too neat in their thoughts, expressions and feelings in a way people rarely are.

Steinbeck’s purported reason for the road trip was he no longer felt he understood his country anymore, a country which he was renowned for representing in his books. He felt disconnected and set out to rediscover the land. Whether he succeeds I don’t know, you can decide for yourself. My overarching impression is of a man who feels lost (indeed Steinbeck gets lost with alarming regularity), and believes his country has lost its way. He reflects on the past with nostalgia, something we can all be accused of, and seems to fear the future and the emerging world. This is most notable when he is forced to pass through large towns or cities. He finds the fast paced traffic and highways stressful. This is 1960. We know from history that the 60s would become one of those turning points in human history. It is the point at which forces which had been building since the end of WW2 would fully come to the fore. It is the point at which our modern society fully emerges. Americas position as the new superpower is fully established. Our consumerist society gains traction (Steinbeck comments on how cars aren’t built like they use to be, not built to last, and every reference to a motel includes a comment on the widespread use of plastic). It is a decade which would see man walk on the moon, the civil rights movement, the women’s liberation movement and the sexual revolution. It is a world which stands in contrast to the world of Steinbeck’s books set primarily during 20s and 30s, the depression pre war era. When someone mentions Steinbeck, I immediately think of men in blue overalls, which I suspect has something to do with the cover of Of Mice and Men which floated around the house for a number of years. It’s an image which contrasts strongly with my image of the 60s full of plastic and synthetic materials. It’s a world which Steinbeck doesn’t understand, which scares him.

I’m not the biggest Steinbeck fan, but it was an interesting read, and for those who are fans of Steinbeck it is definitely worth a read.

Rating: 3/5

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