Title: Travels With Charley: In Search of America
Author: John Steinbeck
Original Publication Date: 1962
Edition Read: 2007, Library of America (a collection of Steinbeck novels, including the non-fiction Travels With Charley)
Total Pages: 184
Genre: Classic Travel, Memoir
Reason Read: Skimpy on my Steinbeck exposure. Thought a short, travel focused memoir would be a good place to begin.
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
“To find not only that this bedlam of color was true but that the pictures were pale and inaccurate translations, was to me startling. I can’t even imagine the forest colors when I am not seeing them. I wondered whether constant association could cause inattention, and asked a native New Hampshire woman about it. She said the autumn never failed to amaze her; to elate. ‘It’s a glory,’ she said, ‘and can’t be remembered, so that it always comes as a surprise.'” – Pages 789-790
Steinbeck is talking about his amazement at the splendor of New England fall foliage. How stunning it is when you watch it transpire around you. The way the sunlight makes it glow. Or how the rain darkened bark makes the colors pop. How the leaves falling softly to the ground around your feet make you feel a part of the action. Making it come alive; a gorgeous death for the regeneration of leaves. But beyond his knack for painting a picture so perfectly for your mind, what he does best in this travel memoir is to engage the folks in his path so succinctly. To know the perfect question to ask, in the most appropriate way. Do New Englanders appreciate the gift that nature graces them with every single year? Or do they overlook what is right in front of their nose? Too annoyed to notice the beauty because of the work involved in clearing up the mounds of mess? Is their focus more on the piles of dead, crunchy leaves clogging up their windshields, driveways and gutters? Or do they get blindsided by the beauty in the middle of their raking tasks by looking up on a crisp, clear day? As his subject so beautifully puts it, we notice. And we forgive the extra work, due to this breathtaking display that sneaks up on us every year and distracts us from the inevitable challenge that is winter. The view out of my own window knocks the wind out of me on a daily basis right now. And by the time I remember that fall is a harbinger for the snow plow, it is too late to do anything about it. Mother Nature is clever that way. And Steinbeck is clever in reading people, engaging them and capturing their essence.
This was the last published book by Steinbeck. In health that was sketchy and with his aging Standard Poodle, Charley, by his side, he set out to visit the America he was fond of exposing through written works of fiction. I’m sure that much of his memoir here is fictionalized as well; conversations embellished, persons perhaps placed more strategically in his travel recounts. But what I felt was that he went to explore the regions of our country and to find out what linked or differentiated the regions to or from each other. I felt that the experiences he captured held legitimacy because when he described his encounters with the places I knew myself, a connection was made. Author Bill Barich has said that in Travels With Charley, Steinbeck’s “perceptions were right on the money about the death of localism, the growing homogeneity of America, the trashing of the environment. He was prescient about all that.”
My understanding is that Steinbeck’s novels cover extremely depressing or tragic times and topics. But his language and description is so piercing that it is magnetizing, above the sadness. I have yet to read anything other than The Pearl. This edition that I read contained a collection of some of his most popular fictional works. I did not have the chance to delve into them because my reading time is limited enough with Sammy the Toddler. I had to renew this book multiple times from my library just to get through this brief gem of descriptive discovery. Travels With Charley was far from unsettling. It was quite hysterical and left me laughing and reading passages aloud all along the way to whomever was near me at the moment. Steinbeck certainly espoused on his political views of the time through his dog and his encounters nationwide. He often became melancholy with memories of a different time and world. And near the end of his journey, he delved into a very dark part of our country’s history with race. His travels were more lighthearted in the beginning and became heavy-hearted nearing the end.
I admire and appreciate the courage, time and effort involved in condensing one’s cultural, physical and emotional experience with traversing this country. Though it is obvious from reading that it took place in a very specific time, it demonstrates how similar we all still are to our ways, our regions, our dreams. And it was damn fine writing from one of this country’s giants. I loved getting to know him, his quirks, his passions and his dog. That he waited until the final chapters of his life to share this journey created a stronger impact for me. And that sense of humor didn’t hurt.
“I let Charley out, and suddenly an angry streak of gray burned across the clearing in the pines and bucketed into the house. That was George. He didn’t welcome me and he particularly didn’t welcome Charley. I never did rightly see George, but his sulking presence was everywhere. For George is an old gray cat who has accumulated a hatred of people and things so intense that even hidden upstairs he communicates his prayer that you will go away. If the bomb should fall and wipe out every living thing except Miss Brace, George would be happy. That’s the way he would design a world if it were up to him. And he could never know that Charley’s interest in him was purely courteous; if he did, he would be hurt in his misanthropy, for Charley has no interest in cats whatever, even for chasing purposes.
“We didn’t give George any trouble because for two nights we stayed in Rocinante, but I am told that when guests sleep in the house George goes into the pine woods and watches from afar, grumbling his dissatisfaction and pouring out his dislike. Miss Brace admits that for the purposes of a cat, whatever they are, George is worthless. He isn’t good company, he is not sympathetic, and he has little aesthetic value.
‘Perhaps he catches mice and rats,’ I suggested helpfully.
‘Never,’ said Miss Brace. ‘Wouldn’t think of it. And do you want to know something? George is a girl.'” – Page 799