Tuesday, January 6, 2015

John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: Not His Best Idea

As age sixty approached, “the virus of restlessness” overtook John Steinbeck and he set out in a custom modified pick-up truck to “rediscover this monster land.” His sole companion was Charley, an aging French poodle with a balky prostate.

I picked up the book, as I recently did Blue Highways too, to study how a good writer described his travels through America. I will soon be hitting the road with my own balky prostate (sans pick-up, sans poodle), and I am hoping to write about those travels too.

Though his language is never less than silky, Steinbeck’s book is a less satisfying trip than William Least Heat-Moon’s. It is the work of an older, established writer enjoying financial security and a solid marriage. Steinbeck published Travels with Charley: In Search of America in 1962, the year he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. By contrast, Heat-Moon began his Journey Into America along Blue Highways at half the age of Steinbeck, on the very day he lost both his job and his wife. As a result, the younger man’s book has the bumpy, invigorating quality of a life still in search of itself.

In fact, Steinbeck’s Travels struck me as literary grandstanding by an acknowledged master with nothing better to do than to go for a drive. The book is mostly style with little substance. For the first half, as he travels across the Midwest toward his hometown of Salinas, California, Steinbeck’s three principle encounters with “Americans” are a visit with a writer friend on an exclusive Maine island, a night of drinking with a migrant family of French-Canadian potato pickers, and a humorous but desultory encounter with an aging thespian in search of schools that will buy his John Gielgud impersonation. None of it says much about America, though like Thoreau in A WeekSteinbeck is never shy about hanging out on a limb while idly philosophizing.

Then suddenly in the last thirty pages, Travels with Charley changes tempo, as though Steinbeck realized he was running out of time to create an effect. Having parked Charley the poodle with a vet (that prostate problem), the socially conscious author of The Grapes of Wrath dives head-first into the race problem in Louisiana, circa 1960.

He quickly chronicles conversations with five men—three white, two black. These sharp exchanges must have brought readers up short in the early 1960s, pre-Selma, pre–“I have a dream.” Even today, they are powerful and disturbing, though the use of Negro where we would say black or African American marks them as dated. (Two of the whites interviewed use the other N-word too.)

Then Travels with Charley ends in a blur as Steinbeck tires of his trip, drives north from Virginia in a dream, and literally gets lost in his own hometown. That getting lost might sound like a profound analogy to a man and his country, but to me it only suggested that Steinbeck had tired of traveling, like me his reader.

“We do not take a trip; a trip takes us,” John Steinbeck warns at the start of his Travels, and his little book confirms this as fact. The great author conceived of a trip “in search of America” and his idea of a trip took him over. It probably wasn’t such a good idea to begin with.  

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