In Travels with Charley in Search of America, John Steinbeck takes to the American road and shows his dedication to what he called “the ancient commitment of the writer” to expose our faults and failures. But as Jay Prini shares in his Introduction to Travels with Charley, Steinbeck’s commitment to verifiable facts in this travelogue is questionable. It’s true that Steinbeck went on a road trip starting in New York crossing the Midwest to California. Then, dipping down into the South, which he writes “is in the pain of labor with the nature of its future child still unknown.” It was 1960. Although Brown v. Board of Education happened in 1954, schools in the South were just starting to integrate in cities like New Orleans.
It’s also true that Steinbeck took the trip with Charley, his poodle, in a modified camper truck he named Rocinante after the hero’s horse in Cervantes’s Don Quixote. His itinerary in Travels with Charley might not follow reality, and some characters may be figments of his novel-writing imagination. In this book, he did, after all, write, “I am happy to report that in the war between reality and romance, reality is not the stronger.”
During his great American road trip, Steinbeck did his best to stay on winding country roads and off “the great wide traffic slashes which promote the self by fostering daydreams.” He wanted to wander, to see their roadside stands and local stores that make a place its own. “Localness is not gone but it is going… no region can hold out for long against the highway, the high-tension line, and the national television.”
Paragraphs are dedicated to Wisconsin’s beauty. Steinbeck compares the light he sees there in early October to Greece. Highways full of fast-moving traffic hustled him out of Minneapolis and St. Paul before he could get a sense of the place. He falls head over heels for Montana. “I am in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection, but with Montana it is love, and it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it.” He praises the majesty of California’s redwoods as producing a feeling of reverence that cannot be transferred by way of photograph, or anything else.
Steinbeck sees an America full of people who wish they were somewhere else. Even before his trip begins, he notes his neighbors’ desire “to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any Here…not toward something but away from something…Nearly every American hungers to move.” When Steinbeck starts moving north to Maine, his truck is packed with all he needs and more. “My excuse is that in this era of planned obsolescence, when a thing breaks down I can usually find something in my collection to repair it – a toilet, or a motor, or a lawn mower.”
Reading “…this era of planned obsolescence” in Travels With Charley took me back to the early ‘aughts when I read Affluenza and listened to MPR broadcasts about overstuffed McMansions. The planned obsolescence problem I once thought of as new preceded my lifetime by a decade, probably more. As I swiped from one page to the next, I felt I was seeing the exposed roots, circa 1960, of today’s problems: racism, police brutality, and the sort of abdication of responsibility that echoes in the sending of “thoughts and prayers.”
Reading Travels with Charley in Search of America in 2023 is as much a journey back in time as it is an expansive road trip through a complicated country. Cars might move too fast, technology is quick to advance, but meaningful progress is pretty slow. That’s my main takeaway from reading the book.
| By John Steinbeck | Penguin Books | 277 pp.
Fuel our creativity with coffee! It helps us create free content to inspire your future travels and more! Another way to support us is by clicking on the affiliate link below and finding your next great read!