After reading two frenetic, romantic Kerouac novels (On the Road and Dharma Bums) in a short time, picking up John Steinbeck‘s Travels with Charley was like a breath of fresh air. No more sententious philosophizing, no more blurriness between fact and fiction, Steinbeck presents himself as simply an aging man with a big blue poodle named Charley, a camper truck, and a desire to look for America.
However, that doesn’t mean the book lacks meditations; just that Steinbeck tends to meditate outward, on the nature of travel, on a changing America, on regional differences that together define America, rather than the inward-looking Kerouac. Some of Steinbeck’s meditations are so insightful, so lucid, I found myself putting down the book, staring off into space and saying to myself, “That’s why he’s Steinbeck.” He makes travel writing look easy.
For example, the book begins with a three-paragraph rumination on the relationship between man and travel. Some people are born with the penchant to stay on the move, Steinbeck tells us, even though others claim that penchant will fade with maturity. But for many of us there is no cure. The lure of the open road, track, sea, airway, or trail forever allures, and “We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us” (4). Once we’ve set our plans in place, the trip takes on its own personality and us travelers serve only to witness it unfold.
Indeed, I look forward to the end of the planning of HotT and the beginning of the doing. I look forward to letting the trip take me.
Among its other great meditations, Steinbeck dedicates six whole pages of Travels with Charley to trying to pin down a definition of Texas and identify the essence of that vast landscape. Its people live their lives with authority and pride; its legends travel the world. He says, “Writers facing the problem of Texas find themselves floundering in generalities, and I am no exception. Texas is a state of mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word” (201). You know, I myself have often said the United States oughta let Texas go on its own, and let it take New Mexico and Arizona with it. Although, my wish to throw Arizona in is based on my animosity toward the store clerks and bartenders who refused to facilitate me and my friend George’s catching a buzz when we entered the state on St. Patrick’s Day after driving 24 straight hours from New Orleans back in 2009. I throw in New Mexico, which has done me no wrong, as a land bridge.
But Steinbeck reminds us, Texans only wants to hold it over our heads that they’re the only state with the right to secede; once it starts sounding good to the rest of the country, they take it all back.
Steinbeck’s observations in New Orleans take a more alarming tone.Set on seeing the “cheerleaders“–women who get up in front of the separatist mob gathered in protest in front of public schools forced to integrate white and black children and rile up the crowd with obscene aspersions and ecstatic vitriol–he pushes his way through the crowd to witness “something far worse here than dirt, a kind of frightening witches’ Sabbath” (228). While “[t]he crowd behind the barrier roared and cheered and pounded each other with joy,” the little black girl, protected by state officials, walks shaking up the sidewalk and into the schoolhouse. This snapshot of a depraved and loathsome South caught me almost off guard, as the rest of the country showed none of this violent racism. Thus the book ends somberly and with Steinbeck brought to tears he so badly wants home.
So the America Steinbeck discovers is both multifaceted and incomplete, suffering under its forefathers’ sins and changing at a pace too fast for observation. “When I laid the ground plan of my journey,” he writes in the final rumination on the book’s theme, “there were definite questions to which I wanted matching answers….I suppose they could all be lumped into the single question: ‘What are American like today?'” (215). Of course, he finds no single answer for this question, except to say that some truly American definition must exist–why else would we be so different from each European nationality? But it’s not his fate to find it, only to find quietude and skepticism in New England, politeness in the Midwest, love in Montana, beauty in the Pacific Northwest, memories in California, cayotes in the desert, opulence in Texas, hatred in the South and comfort with his wife in New York.
From another angle, the book is a bit dated. It’s premise of Steinbeck finding America must also fit a publisher’s mold, so the pages are filled with commentary on the nature of excess commercialism and its waste, the encroaching post-modernism that threatens to erase all regional speech and cooking, the ways America’s technological progress both increases and decreases the standard of living. He writes “The new American finds his challenge and his love in traffic-choked streets, skies nested in smog, choking with the acids of industry, the screech of rubber and houses leashed in against one another while the townlets wither a time and die” (65). You can hear his distrust in the social-industrial mechanisms at play, apprehension about the path his country’s on, license to tell people how things ought to be. Steinbeck can, at times, sound like a curmudgeon. But my whole time reading I felt endeared to his voice and a part of his journey.