A book review, and a trip through America

“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.  Four hoarse blasts of a ship’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping.  The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of stomach high up and under the rib cage.  In other words, I don’t improve; in further words, once a bum always a bum.  I fear the disease is incurable.  I set this matter down not to instruct others but to inform myself.”  -John Steinbeck

While in Portland, Oregon for Thanksgiving this past year, my wife and I made our usual trip to Powell’s bookstore–a sprawling collection of new and used books that is more of a warehouse than a bookstore.  Being a bit of a creature of habit in bookstores, I usually cruise by a certain handful of authors to see if any new titles or older collectible editions grab my eye.  One of the more dangerous authors to “cruise by” for me is John Steinbeck because of the sheer number of smaller novels that he wrote.  I can often talk myself out of 400-500 page novels by Dostoevsky (mainly because I already own most of them) or the deeper theological writings of some of the early Christian minds (unless I’m in a particular mood), but I usually struggle to walk by Steinbeck without taking a long, hard look at one or more of his books.  On this particular day, my eye landed on “Travels with Charley:  In Search of America”.

I’m not exactly sure why I bought the book that day.  Perhaps it was because I wasn’t really familiar with the title.  Perhaps I was subconsciously craving a feast of description like Steinbeck is so famous for in his novels.  Or perhaps it struck me as odd that this particular book isn’t a novel at all, but instead is a first-hand account of what Steinbeck experiences as he drives across the country with nobody but his loyal French Poodle, Charley.  Maybe I saw the chance to ride shotgun with a man who can paint such a detailed picture of a person or place with only a sentence or two on a trip that I too have always wanted to take.  Whatever the reason, when I read the above paragraph–the opening paragraph of the book–I knew I had made a wise choice.

By the early 1960’s Steinbeck had already experienced a writing career spanning three decades.  He had already written the novels that would assure his spot on the list of America’s all-time greats, and he was on the verge of winning a Nobel Prize.  But being the “in tune with the common man” writer that he was, Steinbeck was also realizing that America was changing rapidly, and that he no longer felt that he knew the country that he wrote about on such a deep, intimate level.  His own words:  “Thus I discovered that I did not know my own country.  I, an American writer, writing about America, was working from memory, and the memory is at best a faulty, warpy reservoir…In short, I was writing of something I did not know about, and it seems to me that in a so-called writer this is criminal.”

In order to rectify this situation, Steinbeck devises a plan to drive a pick-up truck with attached camper (a rig he aptly names “Rocinante” after Don Quixote’s horse) in a circular loop of the United States that will take him two months.  He travels only with Charley, and makes it a point to never use his increasingly famous name so that he can get the truest conversations from the people he meets.  He vows to stay off of the major interstate highways as much as possible, and tries to keep the few lodging and meal options that Rocinante can’t provide as low-key as possible.  Basically, Steinbeck wants to reconnect with the common folk that drive most of his novels, and to answer the question, “what is America becoming?”  I found the 272 pages spent searching for both of these things nothing short of amazing.

Over the course of his travel, Steinbeck weaves his larger questions about what the country is becoming around interactions with many interesting characters, and in typical Steinbeck fashion, he manages to paint vivid pictures of them with anywhere from a single sentence to a short paragraph.  There was the waitress whose cold interaction identified her as the type of person who “can drain off energy and joy, can suck pleasure dry and get no sustenance from it.”  Or, there was the hell-fire preacher who was “a man of iron with stool-steel eyes and a delivery like a pneumatic drill, (he) opened up with prayer and reassured us that we were a pretty sorry lot.  And he was right.  We didn’t amount to much to start with, and due to our own tawdry efforts we had been slipping ever since.”  Finally, there was the Oregon service station owner who over the course of a couple of paragraphs (and one emergency flat tire repair) changes from being described as “a giant with a scarred face and an evil white eye.  If he were a horse I wouldn’t buy him” to having Steinbeck say “I hope that evil-looking service station man may live a thousand years and people the earth with his offspring.”  These often-hilarious descriptions of people and conversations had along the way are typical Steinbeck–gritty, no-nonsense, and brutally honest in the most humanizing way possible.  In a lot of ways, these people and interactions form the foundation for everything else that is so great about this account.

But the real meat of this book, and the reason that I had to check on several occasions to make sure there were actually 51 years between Steinbeck writing it and my reading it, were the cut-to-the-bone social commentaries that Steinbeck offers along the way.  These commentaries show Steinbeck’s uncanny ability to think simultaneously as a psychologist, sociologist, anthropologist, and real human.  It is in Steinbeck’s ability to recognize the changes in the country that he loved so dearly–where the changes came from and where they were potentially going–that changed “Travels with Charley” from an entertaining read to a can’t put it down and already have plans to re-read it book.  A few examples:

  • While in Maine, Steinbeck camps with a group of French Canadians who have come across the border for potato harvest season.  In the course of his conversation with them, and his reflecting on the migrant workers he’s seen in his time, he states the following:  “It occur(ed) to me that, just as the Carthaginians hired mercenaries to do their fighting for them, we Americans bring in mercenaries to do our hard and humble work.  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.”
  • As he drives into Seattle, a town he knew so well as a child, he observes, “I remember Seattle as a town sitting on hills beside a matchless harborage–a little city of space and trees and gardens, its houses matched to such a background.  It is no longer so.  The tops of hills are shaved off to make level warrens for the rabbits of the present.  The highways eight lanes wide cut like glaciers through the uneasy land.  This Seattle had no relation to the one I remembered…This sounds as though I bemoan an older time, which is the preoccupation of the old, or cultivate an opposition to change, which is the currency of the rich and stupid.  It is not so.  This Seattle was not something changed that I once knew.  It was a new thing.  Set down there not knowing it was Seattle, I could not have told where I was.  Everywhere frantic growth, a carcinomatous growth.  Bulldozers rolled up the green forests and heaped the resulting trash for burning.  The torn white lumber from concrete forms was piled beside gray walls.  I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction.”
  • Finally, Steinbeck’s final leg of the trip takes him directly through the Civil Rights South of the early 1960’s.  Perhaps this portion of the trip resonated with me the most because I knew the place he was speaking of–not because of the full-on racially charged and segregated South that existed then, but because of the shadow of that era that still looms over pockets of the South to this day.  All along this trip I knew that the South would be a part of it, but I guess I hoped for the hospitality of the South to shine through.  Instead, Steinbeck sets up his trip through the South by saying, “Now I had moved through a galaxy of states, each with its own character, and through clouds and myriads of people, and ahead of me lay an area, the South, that I dreaded to see and yet I must see and hear.  I am not drawn to pain and violence.  I never gaze at accidents unless I can help, or attend street fights for kicks.  I faced the South with dread.  Here, I knew, were pain and confusion and all the manic results of bewilderment and fear.  And the South being a limb of the nation, its pain spreads out to all America.”

At the end of his two month travel, I’m not sure that Steinbeck would say that he found what he had set out to find.  I’m not even sure that he would say that he knew exactly what it was that he found.  In so many ways, what he found was change–both positive and negative.  What he found was a country that was becoming the great melting pot, where regional cultures and differences were giving way to American culture.  He found that the country was still full of common people, real people, who were daily dealing with real issues–issues that transcend time and place to a degree.  In each instance Steinbeck (and ultimately us too) wasn’t asking what it meant to be American as much as he was asking what it meant to be human in 1962.  And that’s the beauty of this book:  it gives us a snapshot into the real world of the 1960’s, but also into our world today.  We will forever ask the question of what it means to be human in a changing world.  I just hope there will be plenty of Steinbeck’s to record our attempts at answers.

(I say all of that to say, if you’ve never read “Travels with Charley:  In Search of America,” I would just as highly recommend it as I would “East of Eden” and “The Grapes of Wrath.”)


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4 responses to “A book review, and a trip through America”

  1. Meghan Helsel says :

    Alex, you have done this book a service.

  2. nangua says :

    I remember loving Travels as 12 year old (it was our summer reading) and you’ve made me think I should dip in again. Can I recommend the first 30 minutes of this (http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/494/hit-the-road) as a fine radio complement to the meat of the book?

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