(This is the third 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. In Part II (April 10) Steinbeck uses humor to look into the American character and to create a relationship with his readers.)
“I have to go alone, and unknown,” said John Steinbeck of the 10,000 mile road trip through 34 states he took in 1960.
“What I’ll get I need badly—a reknowledge of my own country, of its speeches, its views, its attitudes and its changes.”
Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley illustrates the oldest theme in travel literature. Herodotus wrote about it in his travelogues around 450 B.C.: the journey educates and enlightens.
When Steinbeck’s neighbors dropped in to say goodbye, their eyes showed him
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 [Steinbeck’s neighbors] spoke quietly of how they wanted to go someday, to move about, free and unanchored, not toward something but away from something.
Steinbeck saw the same Somewhere-Over-the-Rainbow-desire in the words of a small shop keeper, helping Steinbeck carry his purchase to Rocinante, his truck-cum-camper named after Don Quixote’s horse.
“You going in that?” [pointing to Rocinante]
“Lord! I wish I could go.”
“Don’t you like it here?”
“Sure. It’s all right, but I wish I could go.”
“You don’t even know where I’m going.”
“I don’t care. I’d like to go anywhere.”
Steinbeck saw this rootlessness in hard-working, every-day folks. Harkening back to the Judd Family, protagonists of Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning story about the Great Depression, he writes of a second-generation Italian immigrant he and Charley meet while on the road. Says the Italian-American,
Who’s got permanence? Factory closes down, you move on. Good times and things opening up, you move on where it’s better. You got roots you sit and starve. You take the pioneers in the history books. They were movers. Take up land, sell it, move on. I read in a book how Lincoln’s family came to Illinois on a raft. They had some barrels of whisky for a bank account. How many kids in America stay in the place where they were born, if they can get out?
Could it be that Americans are a restless people, a mobile people, never satisfied with where they are as a matter of selection? The pioneers, the immigrants who peopled the continent, were the restless ones in Europe. The steady rooted ones stayed home and are still there. Perhaps we have overrated roots as a psychic need. Maybe the greater the urge, the deeper and more ancient is the need, the will, the hunger to be somewhere else.
Speaking of the American character, Steinbeck observed that we have more in common than that which sets us apart:
If I were to prepare one immaculately inspected generality it would be this: 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 Northerners, Southerners, Westerners, or Easterners. And descendants of English, Irish, Italian, Jewish, German, Polish are-essentially American…
It is a fact that Americans from all sections and of all racial extractions are more alike than the Welsh are like the English, the Lancashireman like the Cockney, or for that matter the Lowland Scot like the Highlander. It is astonishing that this has happened in less than two hundred years and most of it in the last fifty. The American identity is an exact and provable thing.
Steinbeck gave up asserting that our identity is “exact and provable,” concluding instead that “the big and mysterious America is bigger than I thought. And more mysterious.”
— Tucker Cox, Contributing Writer
Go to Part I where Steinbeck writes about travel and nature, “I Was born Lost and Take No Pleasure in Being found”, published April 3. Also in Part I are Bill Steigerwald’s comments about the veracity of Steinbeck’s travelogue. Mr. Steigerwald wrote Dogging Steinbeck, asserting that Charley was more fiction than a real-life trip journal.
Picture of John Steinbeck and Steinbeck with Charley courtesy of Bing Images