Biography & Autobiography. History. Travel. Nonfiction. HTML:An intimate journey across America, as told by one of its most beloved writers To hear the speech of the real America, to smell the grass and the trees, to see the colors and the lightâ??these were John Steinbeck's goals as he set out, at the age of fifty-eight, to rediscover the country he had been writing about for so many years. With Charley, his French poodle, Steinbeck drives the interstates and the country roads, dines with truckers, encounters bears at Yellowstone and old friends in San Francisco. Along the way he reflects on the American character, racial hostility, the particular form of American loneliness he finds almost everywhere, and the unexpected kindness of strange
Otherwise, this memoir of Steinbeck's tour across the continental US in a
Steinbeck says he started his journey in the hopes of finding out "what Americans are like," but he never claims to either figure that out or even to bring objectivity to the process. He tells the story of going to Prague several years before this 1960 adventure,
...and at the same time Joseph Alsop, the justly famous critic of places and events, was there. He talked to informed people, officials, ambassadors; he read reports, even the fine print and figures, while I in my slipshod manner roved about with actors, gypsies, vagabonds. Joe and I flew home to America in the same plane, and on the way he told me about Prague, and his Prague had no relation to the city I had seen and heard. It just wasn't the same place, and yet each of us was honest, neither one a liar, both pretty good observers by any standard, and we brought home two cities, two truths. For this reason, I cannot commend this account as an America that you will find. So much there is to see, but our morning eyes describe a different world than do our afternoon eyes, and surely our wearied evening eyes can report only a weary evening world.
As his travels bring him to his own home area, near the Redwoods of southern Oregon and northern California, he captures a feeling that I have experienced but could never have described such:
The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always. No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferrable. From them comes silence and awe. It's not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any tree we know, they are ambassadors from another time. They have the mystery of ferns that disappeared a million years ago into the coal of the carboniferous era. They carry their own light and shade.
Finally, Steinbeck describes his travels through the south. In 1960, the south was in the middle of the boiling, broiling heat of integrating the schools, undoing the years of brutal and thoughtless Jim Crow laws that had effectively silenced generations of African Americans. Steinbeck provides witness to the human ugliness and the human beauty of this time in this place. At one point, Steinbeck gives a Black man a ride and is initially puzzled by the man's palpable fear of the white man in the driver's seat. He asks the man questions about how he feels about what's happening in the south and is deeply confused by the man's reluctance to talk. Then he reflects again on an event he experienced a few years prior, when he was living
...in a small brick house in Manhattan, and, being for the moment solvent, employed a Negro. Across the street and on the corner there was a bar and restaurant. One winter dusk when the sidewalks were iced I stood in my window and looking out and saw a tipsy woman come out of the bar, slip on the ice, and fall flat. She tried to struggle up but slipped and fell again and lay there screaming maudlinly. At that moment the Negro who worked for me came around the corner, saw the woman, and instantly crossed the street, keeping as far from her as possible.
When he came in I said "I saw you duck. Why didn't you give that woman a hand?"
"Well, sir, she's drunk and I'm Negro. If I touched her she could easy scream rape, and then it's a crowd, and who believes me?"
"It took quick thinking to duck like that."
"Oh, no sir!" he said. "I've been practicing to be a Negro a long time."
And now in Rocinante (his truck) I was foolishly trying to destroy a lifetime of practice.
I love this poignant description of Steinbeck's gut-getting of white privilege.
I love this memoir and it makes me want to get a camper van, fix it up with all I need, get a good dog, and head out across the country. I'll never do it, so I'll settle for planning a re-read of this delightful work by John Steinbeck.
âThey deserve this name. They are like the work of an evil child. Such a place the Fallen Angels might have built as a spite to Heaven, dry and sharp, desolate and dangerous, and for me filled with foreboding. A sense comes from it that it does not like or welcome humans.â
The second half of the narrative is a bit more dry and wordy but it does conclude with a devastating event in the deep south, where a very young black girl is being escorted into a âwhiteâ grade school, amid a torrent of verbal abuse from a matronly group of women, who call themselves âThe Cheerleadersâ. Steinbeck is so shaken, he immediately returns home in a daze. This is a very good book, by one of Americaâs finest writers.
This book was about a circular trip around the USA, conceived because he wanted to get the feel of what made America a cohesive country and learn about her character. When he finished he decided he really didnât learn what he thought he would and he was left with more questions than answers. However, I learned a lot reading this book, not the least of which was much about Steinbeck himself as he shares his impressions of the people, places, and events he witnesses. His musings on his experiences were enlightening and reminded me of the saying âthe unexamined life is not worth living.â (Wasnât that Thoreau?) Steinbeck shows us the Good, Bad, Ugly and Beautiful of our country in 1960. This was the America of my youth which made it somewhat of a nostalgic read for me because I have been to many of the places he visited and found his observations striking chords of remembrance for me. One thing that made me smile, as long ago as 1960 Steinbeck was complaining that newspapers were more about giving us opinion than news! Itâs only gotten worse!
One of the most riveting and disturbing part of the trip was near the end when he went through the Deep South. This was at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement and he gives a very good and balanced picture as an outsider observing what was happening and speaking to some of the people. I moved from California to Savannah, GA about a decade after Travels was written and observed over the next about 25 years the gradual changes that took place in the Civil Rights problems--not enough and not fast enough. However there have been gains made that give me hope for the future--but like Steinbeck it probably won't happen in my lifetime.
The Centennial Edition (2002) contains a final chapter that was left out of the original publication that is really fun.
Bottom line: Steinbeckâs account of his passage through America is interesting, thought provoking, and in the end, delightful. Highly Recommended
His New York license plate repeatedly causes folks to let him know they've been to New York and hated it. But they also repeatedly tell him they wish they could go with him. Not caring where he's going, just wanting to go, like him, on a journey.
He's insightful, and obviously loves to talk to people (seems like not the most common quality in an author). He could conceal his identity in 1961 probably better than he could today. He's very funny at times, including his description of how American men assume they genetically are crackshots and go out in hunting season blasting away, to the danger of everyone nearby.
Some of what he finds is predictable, like leaving New England, where people were neither "unfriendly or discourteous, but they spoke tersely and usually waited for the newcomer to open communication", and crossing the Ohio line to a friendlier, more open midwest. In his hands it's all personal, though, and as if we were sitting at the camper table with him. "The waitress in a roadside stand said good morning before I had a chance to, discussed breakfast as though she liked the idea, spoke with enthusiasm about the weather, sometimes even offered some information about herself without my delving. Strangers talked freely to one another without caution." He had forgotten how "rich and beautiful" the countryside was, and thought, "the earth was generous and outgoing here in the heartland, and perhaps the people took a cue from it."
Charley is a good travel companion, and feels quite stylish after visiting a beauty parlor in Chicago. Eventually they make it to Seattle, where Steinbeck is taken aback by all the modernization since he last was there 20 years ago. He is comforted when he gets back to the older, largely unchanged part of the city near the water. As they make their way down the coast, a tire blows out in a part of Oregon nowhere near civilization, leaving them "no recourse but to burst into tears and wait for death." I'll leave it to you to find out how they nonetheless manage to travel to his old haunts in Monterey, and to Texas.
POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT? Eventually they make it to New Orleans, where a disheartening strain of racism is on full display, as a school is desegregated and nightmarish "Cheerleaders" lead the crowd in screaming bestial "invectives" at children. White parents bringing their children to such a school suffer even worse. It makes for a disturbing, revelatory coda, as this man who loves this country and its people tries to sort out its most damaging and unsupportable flaw.
I said coda, but there is more as he makes his way back home. He did us a real favor writing this book - there's an age-old question about what writers you'd like to have join you at a dinner party. He's done it one better by letting us all travel with him around a remarkable, imperfect, country.
-From Travels With Charley In
John Steinbeck is best known for his fiction. So I was surprised when I learned that he had written several nonfiction books, including Travels With Charley In Search of America - a bittersweett and philosophical travel memoir. In 1960 Steinbeck felt he had lost touch with his country, and this feeling (along with what might have been a late mid-life crisis) prompted him to make a journey from New York to California and back again. He chose to take no companion with him except for his aging standard poodle, Charley. They journeyed in a truck named Rocinante which Steinbeck outfitted with a camper shell and all the supplies he would need. Steinbeck's plan was to avoid the major highways, instead following the wavy backroads of America where he could see the country and meet the people.
This book is a delight on many levels. Steinbeck's wonderful descriptions of Charley made me laugh out loud at times.
'Actually his hame is Charles le Chien. He was born in Bercy on the outskirts of Paris and trained in France, and while he knows a little poodle-English, he responds quickly only to commands in French. Otherwise he has to translate, and that slows him down.' -From Travels With Charley In Search Of America, page 7-
'In establishing contact with strange people, Charley is my ambassador. I release him, and he drifts toward the objective, or rather to whatever the objective may be preparing for dinner. I retrieve him so that he will not be a nuisance to my neighbors - et voila! A child can do the same thing, but a dog is better.' -From Travels With Charley In Search Of America, page 51-
Steinbeck is amazingly prophetic in this slim book. He expounds upon the environment ('...I do wonder whether there will come a time when we can no longer afford our wastefulness.' - page 22-), entertainment ('...what of the emotional life of the nation? Do they find their emotional fare so bland that it must be spiced with sex and sadism through the medium of the paperback?' -page 109-), migrant workers ('I hope we may not be overwhelmed one day by peoples not too proud or too lazy or too soft to bend to the earth and pick up the things we eat.' -page50-), and racism ('And I know that the solution when it arrives will not be easy or simple.' -page 207-).
In true Steinbeck style, he recreates the natural world using beautiful and simple language, and then weaves the heart of the people into the setting in which they live.
This book made me want to read more of Steinbeck's nonfiction, including a book of nearly 1000 pages of his letters to family and friends over his lifetime (Steinbeck: A Life in Letter, edited by Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten and published in 1975).
Travels With Charley In Search Of America is a must read and highly recommended.
But how could one rush at a book that opens thus:
"When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked."
When Steinbeck and his standard poodle headed off in a camper van called Rocinante, (named after Don Quixote's horse) to rediscover the author's native land, the heart disease that was to end his life just a few years later had aready made its presence known. This was to be Steinbeck's last opportunity to reconnect with his roots and to note what remained and what had changed in America, especially in parts of the country he remembered from his youth and earlier life.
His travelling companion, the eponymous Charley, was "an elderly gentleman", struggling - nobly as dogs do - with the infirmities of age; Steinbeck's concern to preserve his venerable canine's dignity is poignant yet never sentimental.
But not only did Steinbeck write great opening lines, he wrote great closing lines too - and pretty well everything in between is as good as it gets. Every word counts; every sentence is carefully crafted. Nothing is superfluous. Emphasis and inflection, when needed, arise as they should from the words and the images themselves, not an exclamation mark in sight.
Here is a writer at the very height of his powers; a writer who, in just a few words, can give us the measure of a man or a woman: a lonely lake guardian in northern Michigan, who "wanted his pretty little wife and . . . . something else" and who "couldn't have both"; an equally lonely and loquacious elderly woman stuck in the Bad Lands, with her "dying vestiges of a garden", or the vagabond actor with his handwritten note from John Gielgud, which he kept "in a carefully folded piece of aluminium foil".
When I was in my teens and early twenties, I read every Steinbeck I could get my hands on; landmark novels, such as The Grapes of Wrath informed my political thinking, as well as my thoughts on writing. But, somehow, this one book had passed me by. I'm grateful, however, to have discovered and read it at more or less the same age as Steinbeck was when he wrote it. Perhaps one needs to be this age to understand why he noticed the things that he did and the responses that they evoked in him.
And he was such a perceptive observer of the human condition; as readers, we marvel at his ability to translate his thoughts and reflections into words that speak to us all. Read Travels with Charley and you will know what it is to write from the heart, as well as from the head. If you've not yet had the good fortune to sit down with this wise, compassionate and exquisitely written book, buy or borrow a copy as soon as you can, take it slowly and know what it is to read from the heart.
But, a recent visit to another beach house in Hawaii has made the world right again. Travels with Charlie! Oh, my goodness. It's been at least 40 years since I read that book, and I still remember it fondly. And, 40 years on, it was just as good--maybe better, because I had forgotten how funny it was. What a joy to read about the America of my youth. A time when a camper pick-up truck was a big deal, and the small towns of Steinbeck's youth were growing up and becoming cities. I guess one of the pleasures of growing older is that you get to revisit your youth every once in awhile. This was a most pleasant two-day read and has me looking on every book shelf I meet for a copy of East of Eden, one of the books that made me a life-long reader.
By Virginia, he is fed up of travelling and says the 'journey' has ended for him. From that point onwards, you get the sense that he is in a hurry to get home and is just driving, driving, driving. Anyone who has done a long trip in an RV can probably relate to that!
His relationship with Charley comes across very strongly and is lovely to read about, There are health worries for Charley along the way and a sense throughout that owner and dog are able to communicate with one another, 'ftt' being a well used phrase! The passage describing the approach to the giant redwoods, anticipating Charley's reaction and the disappointment at the actual reaction were very amusing. But the funniest part is the ending, when having driven all around the states, Steinbeck has to pull over in Manhatten rush hour traffic because he is lost!
Great read, slightly disappointing as a travelogue, but great as a memoir.
Save prearranged meetings with his wife in Chicago and then in Texas for Thanksgiving, Steinbeck and his loyal canine Charley traverse various sections looking to get back in-touch with other Americans that heâs missed by flying over or traveling abroad. Quickly though Steinbeck learns that the uniqueness of speech and language was beginning to disappear into a standardize English in many sections of the country. He finds the Interstate and Superhighway system a gray ribbon with no color in comparison to state roads that show color and local character of the area. And his amazement about how towns and cities have begun to sprawl losing local character as they became mini-versions of New York or Los Angeles which includes his own home town in the Salinas valley, highlighting the changes the country had occurred to the nation during his life time alone by 1960.
Yet Travels with Charley isnât gloom or despair, Steinbeck writes about the national treasure that is the various landscapes around the country that help give locals their own personality even in the face of âstandardizingâ. His interactions with people throughout his trip, whether friendly or hostile, give the reader a sense of how things remain the same yet are changing in the United States at the time of Steinbeckâs trip. But Steinbeckâs interactions and observations of this travel companion Charley are what make this book something that is hard to put down. Whether itâs Charleyâs excitement to explore that nightâs rest stop or Steinbeckâs amazement at Charleyâs nonchalance at seeing a towering redwood or Steinbeckâs concern over Charleyâs health or Charleyâs own assessment of people, Steinbeckâs prose gives Charley character and lets the reader imagine the old dog by their side wherever theyâre reading this book.
Written later in the authorâs career, the reader is given throughout the entire book the elegance of Steinbeckâs prose that embeds what he his writing about deep into oneâs subconscious. Though there is debate about how much of Travels with Charleyy is fiction or if an individual is a composite of several others or even if events are ordered correctly, what the reader learns is that Steinbeckâs journey is unique to himself as theirs would be unique for them as well.
Written almost 60 years ago Travels with Charley details a changing America through the eyes of one of its greatest authors, even today some of Steinbeckâs passages resonate with us in todayâs cultural and political climate. But if like me you wanted a book by Steinbeck to get to know his style and prose than this is the book to do so.
Steinbeck gathers impressions of people, places and cultural differences. His companion Charley is a peaceable poodle attracting attention, breaking the ice with strangers, and serving as a sounding board for Steinbeck's ponderings along the way. Events of humor intertwine with those reflecting hard truths.
Whether this work is one of non-fiction or fabrication - or a mix - may be controversial but really not important for this work. Steinbeck's experiences are real enough to teach us all a bit about ourselves.
Highly recommended. Enjoyable read.
There is a lot to say about the impressions that Steinbeck shares, both about the United States of America and the act of traveling itself. For instance, the feeling that right before you start traveling your bed feels the most comfortable and you are actually questioning on why to leave at all, is something that I can really relate to. You spend all this time planning a trip and really looking forward to eventually leaving - Steinbeck diligently packed his Rocinante and took much more with him than he needed, something that many of us are also familiar with - only to have second thoughts right when it is time to leave. Once you overcome those second thoughts the journey can be delightful. Starting out in New York City, Steinbeck wanted to go west, but he started going east and then north up the coast until the northernmost point of Maine. Only then did he slowly make his way west. Eventually he arrives 'home', in Monterey, California, where he grew up and where many of his novels are set. When he sees his home, he sees many differences and finds it altogether changed from what he remembered, concluding that you should never return home expecting it to have remained the same over all those years. Rather, you should just keep the fond memories you have.
Taking a closer look at how the book is written, I find Steinbeck's writing to be just as perfect as in his fictional works. His descriptions of nature, landscapes and surroundings are superb and really add to his experiences on the journey. The encounters with strangers that the author describes make for a vivid portrayal of the journey and the time it was written in. I find his experience in New Orleans and his commentary on watching the so-called "Cheerleaders" insult a black girl going to school highly remarkable. When Steinbeck is asked shortly after seeing this whether he was traveling for pleasure, he simply answers: "I was until today." Quite frequently Steinbeck compares human behavior and interaction with the behavior of his dog and comes away with the conclusion that many things would be a lot easier if people were not constantly fighting each other for something they do not want to have anyway, if people listened to each other more, if opinion and facts were not as blurred in the media as they have become. Especially this last observation could not be more accurate today, when ever more frequently personal opinion becomes fact through sheer repetition and sharing.
Overall, I really enjoyed Travels With Charley immensely. 5 stars for an insightful and witty travelogue.
"In my flurry of nostalgic spite, I have done the Monterey Peninsula a disservice. It is a beautiful place, clean, well run, and progressive. The beaches are clean where once they festered with fish guts and flies. The canneries which once put up a sickening stench are gone, their places filled with restaurants, antique shops, and the like. They fish for tourists now, not pilchards, and that species they are not likely to wipe out. And Carmel, begun by starveling writers and unwanted painters, is now a community of the well-to-do and the retired. If Carmel's founders should return, they could not afford to live there, but it wouldn't go that far. They would be instantly picked up as suspicious characters and deported over the city line. The place of my origin had changed, and having gone away I had not changed with it. In my memory it stood as it once did and its outward appearance confused and angered me....Tom Wolfe was right. You can't go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory."
It's a nonfiction book written later in Steinbeck's life. He decides that after having written about the underdogs in America for years he has grown out of touch with his beloved country. He decides to take his dog Charley and travel across the United States. The book is about the people he meets and the thoughts he has along the way. The book combines so many things that I love; great writing, travel memoirs, a deep love for pets.
There are a few good stories wrapped in his travel account, most notably his description of the vile Southern white women screeching about brave little six-year-old Ruby Bridges going to school escorted by US marshals in New Orleans, later immortalized by Norman Rockwell's painting. Steinbeck unfortunately ruins his observation by a string of cardboard stereotype encounters of Southerners. Overall, a rather boring and grumpy book.