Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck

Travels with Charley: In Search of America

An intimate journey across and in search of America, as told by one of its most beloved writers, in a deluxe centennial edition In September 1960, John Steinbeck embarked on a journey across America. He felt that he might have lost touch with the country, with its speech, the smell of its grass and trees, its color and quality of light, the pulse of its people. To reassure...

Title:Travels with Charley: In Search of America
Author:
Rating:
ISBN:0142000701
Edition Language:English
Number of Pages:214 pages

Travels with Charley: In Search of America Reviews

  • Diane

    I first read this book in high school, and it's what made me fall in love with travelogues. In 1960, John Steinbeck drove a small camper around the United States with his dog, Charley. He wrote that he wanted to get to know his country again, to learn more about this "new America."

    "For many years I have traveled in many parts of the world. In America I live in New York, or dip into Chicago, or San Francisco. But New York is no more America than Paris is France or London is England. Thus I disco

    I first read this book in high school, and it's what made me fall in love with travelogues. In 1960, John Steinbeck drove a small camper around the United States with his dog, Charley. He wrote that he wanted to get to know his country again, to learn more about this "new America."

    "For many years I have traveled in many parts of the world. In America I live in New York, or dip into Chicago, or San Francisco. But New York is no more America than Paris is France or London is England. 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. I had not heard the speech of America, smelled the grass and trees and sewage, seen its hills and water, its color and quality of light. I knew the changes only from books and newspapers. But more than this, I had not felt the country for twenty-five years. 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. My memories were distorted by twenty-five intervening years."

    "Travels with Charley" was published in 1962, and Steinbeck, who had been in poor health, died just six years later.

    I remember

    this book. I loved Steinbeck's stories about the people he met and the places he visited, and even the details of how he organized the camper and his trip. I have recommended this book to countless friends over the years, gushing about how good it was.

    So you can imagine my UTTER HEARTBREAK because I found out that parts of the story were fabricated or fictionalized. Reporters have verified that some details in the narrative could not have been true, and that Steinbeck made up a lot of the conversations he supposedly had with people along the road. (This news first broke in 2011, but I didn't learn it until I saw it mentioned in John Waters' book about hitchhiking, "Carsick.")

    When the 50th anniversary edition of "Travels with Charley" was published in 2012, it came with a disclaimer: "Indeed, it would be a mistake to take this travelogue too literally, as Steinbeck was at heart a novelist, and he added countless touches – changing the sequence of events, elaborating on scenes, inventing dialogue – that one associates more with fiction than nonfiction."

    So here is my conundrum: Knowing that parts of it have been fictionalized, should I continue to recommend it to others? If the book is as good as I remember, doesn't that outweigh its dubious origin?

    Or I could just live in denial and remember the joy I felt when I first read it.

    I was so upset to learn that Steinbeck had embellished his stories that I decided to reread the book to see how it holds up. It was great! It was glorious! I will even say that I think it's one of the best travelogues written about America, ever. "Travels with Charley" is beautifully written - it is so quotable and insightful that I had dozens of pages marked.

    "It would be pleasant to be able to say of my travels with Charley, 'I went out to find the truth about my country and I found it.' And then it would be such a simple matter to set down my findings and lean back comfortably with a fine sense of having discovered truths and taught them to my readers. I wish it were that easy... This monster of a land, this mightiest of nations, this spawn of the future, turns out to be the macrocosm of microcosm me. If an Englishman or a Frenchman or an Italian should travel my route, see what I saw, hear what I heard, their stored pictures would be not only different from mine but equally different from one another. If other Americans reading this account should feel it true, that agreement would only mean that we are alike in our Americanness... For all of our enormous geographic range, for all of our sectionalism, for all of our interwoven breeds drawn from every part of the ethnic world, we are a nation, a new breed. Americans are much more American than they are Northerns, Southerners, Westerners, or Easterners... The American identity is an exact and provable thing."

    Because it had been criticized by modern reporters, on this reread I paid more attention to Steinbecks' "conversations" with folks around the country, and yes, the dialogue was so smooth and concise that it had to have been finessed. But after considering the issue, I've relaxed on this point because I bet every writer does that. Every writer is going to streamline speech so that it reads well. Steinbeck even talks about writers who can quickly take measure of a place:

    "I've always admired those reporters who can descend on an area, talk to key people, ask key questions, take samplings of opinions, and then set down an orderly report very like a road map. I envy this technique and at the same time do not trust it as a mirror of reality. I feel that there are too many realities. What I set down here is true until someone else passes that way and rearranges the world in his own style."

    I do think Steinbeck got at the spirit of what was going on in America in 1960: it was a big election year between Kennedy and Nixon; racial tensions were high in the South because schools had been desegregated; and there was heightened anxiety about Russia and the threat of the atomic bomb. He even wrote about environmentalism and his concerns for how much waste America was producing, and he contemplated how the new cross-country interstate system would change the country. The guy was prescient, I tell you.

    Some of my favorite parts were when Steinbeck tried to cross into Canada with his dog and ran into a bureaucratic snafu regarding Charley's vaccination paperwork (very amusing); a warm conversation he had with a family of immigrants while they shared a drink in his camper; and when he drove through a forest of massive Redwood trees out West.

    "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 transferable. 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 trees 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. The vainest, most slap-happy and irreverent of men, in the presence of redwoods, goes under a spell of wonder and respect."

    Another theme Steinbeck returns to often is the wanderlust that seems to pervade Americans everywhere. He mentions how many families had started buying mobile homes so they can move more freely about, and how many others gazed at his camper and said they wished they could travel across the country.

    "I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation -- a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any Here. They spoke quietly of how they wanted to go someday, to move about, free and unanchored, not toward something but away from something. I saw this look and heard this yearning everywhere in every state I visited. Nearly every American hungers to move."

    I so enjoyed rereading this book that I will definitely continue to recommend it to friends. I even upgraded my original 4-star rating to 5, because of how gorgeous Steinbeck's writing was. I just wish I could give Charley a biscuit and a belly rub for being such a good traveling companion.

  • Will Byrnes

    John Steinbeck put a house on a pickup, left the wife behind in their Long Island home and traveled the nation for several months. This is his tale of that experience. I found many quotables here, and I guess one should expect that when the traveler’s name is Steinbeck. In a book of about two hundred pages, one can hardly expect a detailed look at all of America. Steinbeck picks his spots. Sometimes they work, sometimes not. It was, of necessity, merely a sketch of some parts of the country. But

    John Steinbeck put a house on a pickup, left the wife behind in their Long Island home and traveled the nation for several months. This is his tale of that experience. I found many quotables here, and I guess one should expect that when the traveler’s name is Steinbeck. In a book of about two hundred pages, one can hardly expect a detailed look at all of America. Steinbeck picks his spots. Sometimes they work, sometimes not. It was, of necessity, merely a sketch of some parts of the country. But some of those sketches should hang in the Louvres. Two in particular grabbed me. His description of “The Cheerleaders,” a group of women who gathered every day at a newly integrated southern elementary school to taunt and threaten the black kids and Steinbeck’s look at the culture surrounding that was chilling, a close portrait of an incendiary place at an incendiary time, and is, alone, a reason to read this book. The other was his depiction of a redwood forest in northern California, where the massive trees alter dawn and blot out the night sky.

    - from the NY Times

    The subtitle of the book is “In Search of America.” What travel books are really about, particularly when undertaken by a literary person, is self-discovery. It works the same as in literature. The road, the quest, the journey all exist in an interior landscape and lead to an inner destination. I did not feel that this was much at work here, and was disappointed. Steinbeck kept his eyes on the external road. Sometimes his snapshots of early 1960s America were uninteresting. Sometimes they were compelling. The compelling parts made the trip one worth taking.

    =============================

    Apparently, there is some thought that not all the material in this book was actually...um...real. GR friend

    sent along a link to a site by a guy named

    , who writes about Steinbeck. Looks like he did a fair bit of research and concluded that Steinbeck's journey may have been more of an internal one than we believed. check it out.

  • karen

    dude, steinbeck is so much better than kerouac.

    and i know that is a totally obvious statement, but if i want to read a story about a man traveling across america and describing his findings, it is going to be a man with a varied vocabulary, a keen eye for detail, and some powers of interpreting his experiences. john, i am listening...

    this is my first nonfiction from steinbeck, and i am impressed with how conversational it reads. he has a real skill in making his experiences near-visible to the r

    dude, steinbeck is so much better than kerouac.

    and i know that is a totally obvious statement, but if i want to read a story about a man traveling across america and describing his findings, it is going to be a man with a varied vocabulary, a keen eye for detail, and some powers of interpreting his experiences. john, i am listening...

    this is my first nonfiction from steinbeck, and i am impressed with how conversational it reads. he has a real skill in making his experiences near-visible to the reader,in both his physical descriptions and his musings about what an "american" is. i feel like he would be a fantastic road-trip companion, and i envy charley.

    and that is another thing. when it comes to dogs, i am completely breed-ist. there are dogs that i love, and then there are dogs i think should be banned from breeding, so i don't have to see them ever again. poodles are among these breeds. they are the silliest of all dogs, and how a man's man like steinbeck could travel across the country with one of them baffles me.

    this is not a dog, it is an aberration:

    but, for steinbeck's sake, i can read about a poodle for a little while, and it is sweet how they bond with each other. but i still think they are ugly and not "real" dogs.

    steinbeck misses out on an investment opportunity:

    of course he is being facetious here, but i for one would kill for some vintage appliances - in another life - in a better apartment - i would have a fantastic kitchen filled with these old timey kitchen things, and i curse steinbeck for not giving a tittle.

    steinbeck does not get sucked into revisionist nostalgia:

    i am so glad my real-world book club finally chose something i can review on here instead of just a short story or an essay or a poem...and this time, i will have something to add! they are all european intellectual types, with their tales of berlin and ukraine and their war stories (as both witness and participant) and i just sit there and drink my wine and play the role of "very good young listener". thank you, steinbeck for giving america some street cred and fodder for booktalks!

  • Kim

    In 1960, when John Steinbeck was 58 years old, ill with the heart disease which was to kill him eight years later and rather discontented with life, he decided to embark on a road trip around the United States in a fitted-out pick-up truck, accompanied by his standard French poodle, Charley. Steinbeck’s plan was to re-connect with the America which had informed his fiction and to assess how much it had changed over the years.

    This book is the result of that trip: part memoir, part travelogue, pa

    In 1960, when John Steinbeck was 58 years old, ill with the heart disease which was to kill him eight years later and rather discontented with life, he decided to embark on a road trip around the United States in a fitted-out pick-up truck, accompanied by his standard French poodle, Charley. Steinbeck’s plan was to re-connect with the America which had informed his fiction and to assess how much it had changed over the years.

    This book is the result of that trip: part memoir, part travelogue, part philosophical treatise … and part fiction. Just how much of the narrative is fiction rather than fact has been the subject of investigation and discussion in recent years, much of it instigated by the work of journalist Bill Steigerwald, who recreated Steinbeck’s trip and exposed what he argues to be the fallacies in the narrative. This article in the

    summarises Steigerwald’s findings and typing Steigerwald’s name into any reliable search engine will locate a range of Steigerwald’s writings on the issue, as well as some responses to his position on the book.

    While I've read Steigerwald’s conclusions about Steinbeck’s journey with interest, it matters little to me that the work has been edited in such a way as to make it look like Steinbeck and Charley were travelling alone almost all the time, whereas Steinbeck’s original manuscript (held at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City) shows that Steinbeck’s wife Elaine was with him for much of the time and that he probably spent more than half the nights he was away sleeping in hotels rather than in the truck. Likewise, it matters little to me that Steinbeck’s reported conversations with people he meets on the way are fiction rather than reportage.

    In relation to this, the fact that Steinbeck preserved and then donated his manuscript indicates that he was not concerned that readers might discover that there was more (or possibly less) to the journey than appears in the book. Further, the narrative itself is full of disclaimers. Steinbeck does not claim that the book is a day-by-day, diary-style account of his journey. Rather, what he conveys is a range of impressions on a number of topics, some insights into issues he considered important and some at times painful self-reflection, all conveyed in Steinbeck’s powerful yet accessible prose. On some matters Steinbeck was ahead of his time. For example, what he wrote about the destruction of the environment and the overuse of packaging products (“The mountain of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use.”), expressed what I doubt was a matter of widespread public concern as early as 1960.

    Other parts of the narrative are much more personal. Steinbeck’s encounter with old Latino drinking buddies in a bar in Monterey is particularly poignant. As Steinbeck’s friend tries to persuade the New York resident to come “home”, Steinbeck names all of their friends who have died and concludes that

    was right: “You can't go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory."

    Possibly the most powerful incident in the book is Steinbeck’s witnessing of the “cheerleaders” in New Orleans – a group of women who stood across the street from William Frantz Elementary school and yelled obscenities at Ruby Bridges - the first black child to attend the all-white school - and at the few white parents who did not comply with the white boycott of the school. Ruby, who had started at the school only a week or two before Steinbeck was in New Orleans, was escorted to school by federal marshalls. Her ordeal is recorded in

    by Norman Rockwell.

    Shortly after witnessing the behaviour of the cheerleaders, Steinbeck decided to cut his journey short and head straight back to New York City. The narrative gives the strong impression that the incident left him heart-sick and distressed.

    Overall, whatever may be this book’s shortcomings as a piece of travel reportage, it's a moving and engaging piece of writing. Steinbeck had become rather a cranky old man by the time he embarked on the journey, and was an even crankier old man by time he finished it. He was certainly no longer the novelist at the peak of his powers. But there’s still passion, warmth and humour in his words and plenty for the reader who loves Steinbeck’s writing to engage with. And there's Charley. Charley is wonderful.

  • Jeffrey Keeten

    John Steinbeck was not feeling very well before he decide

    John Steinbeck was not feeling very well before he decided to take a trip across country. It wasn’t only physical, but also a general malaise about the condition of the country and his own place in it. Early in the book he makes a statement that reveals exactly his state of mind. The words betray a clairvoyance of a near future that would catch up with him in 1968.

    Okay, that is the life philosophy that he has tried to live by, but it is what he says next that shows that he is feeling the tight grip of his impending demise.

    So he is on a heroic quest. He even found the loyal steed to carry him from place to place. He named her Rocinante after the horse in

    as if he’d already decided before starting that for most of the journey he was going to be tilting at windmills. Bill Steigerwald, former journalist, in 2010 decided to unravel the murky, twisting road of Steinbeck’s trip by following in his tire tracks. Instead of a GMC pickup, specially made with a deluxe cabin, Steigerwald took his Toyota Rav4 and slept in Walmart parking lots and used car lots. His goal was to try to part the curtain of pure mythology and actually determine where and what Steinbeck did.

    There are discrepancies. There are holes in Steinbeck’s...lets call it a tale...so large that you could have driven Rocinante pulling the Empire State building through these gaps and still had clearance on both sides.

    Bill Barich wrote in his book

    .

    So the thinking is, that instead of this solo trip where he has cut all ties to the comforts of his life and is out among the people pressing the flesh and writing down his observations of real America, that Travels with Charley is actually a tall tale. The truth is, for most of the trip, he was in luxury hotels, motels, and only camping in Rocinante occasionally. The writing, well crap, he is a novelist. He was not spinning most of it out of whole cloth, but pretty close. The original manuscript, I’m told, has his wife Elaine as a companion through much more of the trip than what he admits in the book. In the story he has her flying out to Chicago as an emergency care package dropping in to give solace to the weary traveler.

    I do find it sweet how attached to his wife he is. He had a hard time leaving her and I’m sure at some point the decision was made that if this trip is going to be any kind of success at all that he needed the care and comfort of his wife along the way. The book doesn’t have the same ring to it as Travels with Charley and Elaine.

    We learn that Charley has crooked front teeth that he makes a Ptth sound through whenever he requires Steinbeck’s attention or as a form of general commentary on the state of affairs. He mutters to himself when agitated and he does have a prostate issue on the trip that required emergency veterinarian help. Unexpected he turns into a demon dog when he catches a whiff of bear in Yellowstone. As Steinbeck refers to him as his suddenly

    . He proves to be a source of comfort to Steinbeck when the blues, which were never far away, would descend upon him.

    The most depressing moment in the trip is when Steinbeck stops in New Orleans to go see “the cheerleaders” and to experience first hand the hatred that was blooming over desegregation of schools.

    These were young, white working mothers who every day stood in front of the schools and screamed the most

    words at little black girls trying to go to school.

    Most white parents pulled their kids out of the schools, but those brave souls that tried to take their kids to school were met with the same vile language and threats. Soon the black girls were the only ones in the two schools.

    It makes me nauseous every time I see footage from this event.

    One of my favorite parts of the book was Steinbeck’s time among the Redwoods.

    If you have never seen them make sure that on any trip to California that you take the time to go walk among giants. These trees are over a thousand years old and over 95% of the original old growth have been logged for their excellent timber. They are the oldest living things on the planet. How baffling it must be to entities, that are time capsules of the activities of the planet, to find themselves being destroyed by these ants on the surface of the earth who with bits of sharp steel can wipe out a 1,000 years of life within moments.

    It shakes the soul to contemplate.

    So let us believe that most of this book is fabrication, that Steinbeck poured himself a cup of coffee liberally laced with Applejack and typed up a series of events that never quite happened. He could throw in a few observations about an America that he didn’t have to stray far from home to determine.

    He could disguise his guile with such pithy remarks as:

    I’ve taken trips with people that when we arrive back home you would think from comparing their memories to mine that we went to the same place, but possibly in a parallel universe. I feel the same way sometimes when I read a review of a person who read a book I liked. I feel as if we had read two different books.

    It is because we did.

    My view of life is different from everyone else’s and so is yours. We have different experiences. We bring those experiences to traveling, to reading, to conversations, and the whole kaleidoscope of it all colors our memories.

    Regardless of the level of truth that this book represents I was able to spend 246 pages with the man John Steinbeck. No biographer can ignore the personal philosophies that sprinkle the pages of this book. This is a weary soul that still occasionally finds moments of brightness. He is not a note taker, because he confessed he generally loses them anyway. He lets what he sees percolate through the stratosphere to the core of his brain until the purest of thoughts lands on his tongue. Some of his “observations” were gems, some feel wooden and maybe needed the deft touch of a healthier man. I took his journey, maybe not the physical one he presents, but the journey of the mind of a writer trying to share a few last thoughts with the readers he felt destined to lose.

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