(This is the second of three reviews of John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America. In Part I (April 03, 2014) – Steinbeck writes about travel and nature. Part III (April 17), “The Hunger to be Somewhere Else,” is about Steinbeck’s observations on the restlessness of the American character.)
Steinbeck’s use of hyperbole, self-deprecation, ridicule and satire makes us laugh. His humor yields understanding of our national character. About the Yankee preference for getting to the point, no more and no less, he writes of an encounter with a Maine state trooper:
“I seem to be lost officer. I wonder if you could direct me?”
“Where is it you want to go?”
“I’m trying to get to Deer Isle.” He looked at me closely, and when he was satisfied that I wasn’t joking he swung on his hips and pointed across a small stretch of open water, and he didn’t bother to speak. “Is that it?” [I asked]. He nodded from up to down and left his head down. “Well, how do I get there?” I have always heard that Maine people are rather taciturn, but for this candidate for Mount Rushmore to point twice in an afternoon was to be unbearably talkative. He swung his chin in a small arc in the direction I had been traveling. If the afternoon had not been advancing I would have tried for another word from him even if doomed to failure. “Thank you,” I said, and sounded to myself as though I rattled on forever.
If a “stranger wishes to eaves drop on the local conversation the places for him to step in and hold his peace are bars and churches,” said Steinbeck. On a crisp Vermont Sunday, he met descendants of New England Puritans. Their preacher delivered fire and brimstone, a sermon one hears to this day from Baptist fundamentalist based in the the Appalachians of Kentucky, but relentlessly broadcasting over short wave bands from Caribbean island tax havens.
The service did my heart and I hope my soul some good… It is our practice now, at least in the large cities, to find from our psychiatric priesthood that our sins aren’t really sins at all but accidents that are set in motion by forces beyond our control. There was no such nonsense in this church. The minister, a man of iron with tool-steel eyes and a delivery like a pneumatic drill, opened up with prayer and reassured us that we were a pretty sorry lot. He spoke of hell as an expert, not the mush-mush hell of these soft days, but a well stoked, white-hot hell served by technicians of the first order… a good hard coal fire, plenty of draft, and a squad of open-hearth devils who put their hearts into their work, and their work was me. But this God… put my sins in a new perspective. Whereas they had been small and mean and nasty and best forgotten, this minister gave them some size and bloom and dignity… I wasn’t a naughty child but a first rate sinner, and I was going to catch it. I felt so revived in spirit that I put five dollars in the plate [an impressive amount in1960], and afterward, in front of the church, shook hands warmly with the minister and as many of the congregation as I could. It gave me a lovely sense of evil-doing that lasted clear through till Tuesday. I even considered beating Charley to give him some satisfaction too, because Charley is only a little less sinful than I am.
Steinbeck’s humor builds a relationship with his readers by “infecting” them with an ardent “expression of what he feels,” a quality every work of art possess, so says Tolstoy in his “Critical Essay on Shakespeare.”
To read Tolstoy’s comments go to the essay and search (with your web browser’s search command, often ctrl+F) using these key words, “the merit of every poetic work depends on three things”. Click here.
Next week concludes the series with Steinbeck’s observations about American culture.
— Tucker Cox, Contributing Writer
Go to Part I – Steinbeck writes about travel and nature, “I Was born Lost and Take No Pleasure in Being found”, published April 3.
Part III – “The Hunger to be Somewhere Else” – Steinbeck’s “reknowledge” of America – his observations on American society and culture.
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 Travels with Charley.” Mr. Steigerwald’s brief post is at the bottom of Part I.