This is the first of three reviews of John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America. In Part II (April 10) Steinbeck uses humor to look into the American character. Part III (April 17), “The Hunger to be Somewhere Else,” is about Steinbeck’s observations on the restlessness of the American character.
So said John Steinbeck of himself. He was also talking about a defiant, independent streak in the American character. The Nobel Laureate (1962) was writing about the nature of travel in his 25th book, Travels with Charley: In Search of America. (He ultimately wrote 27.) Travels with Charley talks about travel as an enlightening, learning experience. Intrinsic to the trip is gaining a better understanding of the destination. In the fall of 1960, Steinbeck and his beloved standard poodle, Charley and their personified truck-cum-camper, Rocinante, named after Don Quixote de la Mancha’s equally beloved horse, rode 10,000 miles through 34 states. The book’s humor is joyous and vital, unassuming and ridiculous, satirical and clever; in a word, exuberant. Its dialog is calm, agreeable, beginning before you know it has started. It feels right. Both are the subjects of Part II of this review. Steinbeck’s descriptions of nature are arresting. You stop reading to look. Finally, Steinbeck gains a charitable, yet dispassionate understanding of America (Part III).
About travel, Steinbeck says, and it is so true:
In long-range planning for a trip, I think there is a private conviction that it won’t happen.
But, eventually the traveler departs:
Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process; a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.
That discussion, however, did not go into the life span of journeys. This seems to be variable and unpredictable. Who has not known a journey to be over and dead before the traveller returns? The reverse is also true: many a trip continues long after movement in time and space have ceased.
In his introduction to the text, Jay Parini, Steinbeck’s biographer, says, “One can hardly turn a page without stumbling upon some bright image from nature.” Among many, one of the best pictures is Steinbeck’s photo of the Dakota Badlands:
I went into a state of flight, running to get away from the unearthly landscape. And then the late afternoon changed everything. As the sun angled, the buttes and coulees, the cliffs and sculptured hills and ravines lost their burned and dreadful look and glowed with yellow and rich browns and a hundred variations of red and silver gray, all picked out by streaks of coal black. It was so beautiful that I stopped near a thicket of dwarfed and wind-warped cedars and junipers, and once stopped I was caught, trapped in color and dazzled by the clarity of the light. Against the descending sun the battlements were dark and clean-lined, while to the east, where the uninhibited light poured slantwise, the strange landscape shouted with color. And the night . . . was lovely beyond thought, for the stars were close, and although there was no moon the starlight made a silver glow in the sky. The air cut the nostrils with dry frost. And for pure pleasure I collected a pile of dry dead cedar branches and built a small fire just to smell the perfume of the burning wood and to hear the excited crackle of the branches. My fire made a dome of yellow light over me, and nearby I heard a screech owl hunting and a barking of coyotes, not howling but the short chuckling bark of the dark of the moon. This is one of the few places I have ever seen where the night was friendlier than the day.
Travels with Charlie is a superb travelogue. It is a lesson in the ease and transparency that characterizes good writing.
— Tucker Cox, Contributing Writer
This is the first of three reviews of Travels with Charley: In Search of America.
Part II — Steinbeck’s use of humor — “A Taciturn Candidate for Mt. Rushmore” published April 10
Part III — Stienbeck’s “reknowledge” of America — “The Hunger to be Somewhere Else”
For a negative assessment of the book — I have read several — see Charles McGrath’s piece in the New York Times (A Reality Check for Steinbeck and Charley, April 3, 2011). Mr. McGrath comments on Bill Steigerwald’s book, Dogging Steinbeck, asserting that Charley was more fiction than a trip journal. See also a website titled, The Truth about Charley.