A few weeks ago, I picked a book up that I’ve been meaning to read for years—John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. For such an important writer who left no autobiography or collection of letters, this is pretty much the only chance to hear him speak in his own voice about his own experiences; East of Eden is vaguely autobiographical, but still fiction. This book has come to be seen as a classic of travel writing, a snapshot into a vanishing America, and a candid look at a man who is arguably one of the best writers America has ever produced.
In this 1960 work, a 58 -year-old Steinbeck packs up his truck & sets out with his dog Charley to explore an America he has not seen for years. The cover you’re looking at is the Centennial edition; it’s a nice cover, but flawed: at no point did Steinbeck exchange his truck Rocinante for a sedan. It’s a fantastic book—Steinbeck is looking at the America that is becoming the one we would recognize today—interstates, suburban sprawl, environmental destruction, industrial expansion.
When I read it, I had what I thought was a great idea for a book—I’d buy a truck, pack up my dog & hit the road, following Steinbeck’s route, to see what had changed on his route since 1960. I had no illusions—pretty sure I wasn’t the first person to have this idea, but nobody had done it yet (actually, someone had: Bill Barich, Long Way Home), & I was pretty sure my wife and newborn son would not appreciate this, but it’s the cost of art. I’d call it Travels with Bogart —my dog is named after a Hollywood actor that Steinbeck himself would no doubt recognize.
Needless to say, I didn’t embark on this trip, but read recently that someone else did—as fortune would have it, a journalist named Bill Steigerwald decided to do it, but his focus was instead to expose it as fiction. I find this disappointing & believe it to be missing the point. Worse, he also calls Travels with Charley ‘dishonest,’ and ‘something of a fraud,’ and I find this more than disappointing; it makes me want to fight him. And yes, I’m aware this is quite possibly irrational.
I say it’s missing the point, because it ultimately doesn’t matter. Reading about Steinbeck, keeping to two-lane blacktop and off the smoggy new interstates, camping and staying in motels (though Steigerwald disputes this), roaming vanishing natural landscapes with his French poodle—I know there’s some fiction mixed in with his fact. I don’t really care. He isn’t fabricating events, and even if he is, do we really believe all autobiographical works are one hundred percent truth?
I remember a few years ago, when James Frey was becoming a literary pariah over A Million Little Pieces, thinking that though I didn’t care for his book (though in high school, I would have been all over it), that he didn’t deserve to be publicly pilloried for elaborating in his autobiography. I was pretty sure he wasn’t alone. As a bookseller a few years earlier, I remember reading passages of Angela's Ashes with pages upon pages of dialogue & not really believing he remembered those long gone conversations verbatim. Nor was I offended by their inclusion.
What matters is that Travels with Charley provides an insight into the mind of one of America’s best writers—near the end of his career (indeed, this is really the last book), struggling with aging, pondering his career and the changes in the country he loves. It’s a small work, and one with many rewards. Canadians may well enjoy Steinbeck’s time spent in Quebec & trying to cross the border into Niagara Falls. If you’re paying attention, you’ll see a playful jab at Hemingway—predictably, it’s in the fishing passage, which I believe references The Old Man and the Sea (these rivals both got their Nobels, in the long run).
It matters when Steinbeck smoothes over a family dispute between an Idaho motel owner, and his son, who longs to be a New York hairdresser. It matters perhaps most of all when Steinbeck stops in Louisiana to see ‘The Cheerleaders ‘ —a group of women whose idea of a good time is spewing hate at young black girls on their way to school.
It matters because Steinbeck manages to distill this incident to say as much about the racism of the time of the civil rights struggle in just a few pages as some writers do in entire books. The hatred is bad enough, but the 'Cheerleaders’ preening for the assembled crowds and media also foreshadows the contemporary spate of manufactured public bad behavior as entertainment and spectacle. I can only imagine Steinbeck watching reality TV. Leaving New Orleans, Steinbeck picks up a hitchhiker who is sympathetic to the 'Cheerleaders'—when Steinbeck pulls over and kicks him out, you can’t help but think that anyone who created Jim Joad must have wished to be younger, so he could kick something else.
Clearly, I highly recommend Steinbeck’s book, and you can judge for yourself. There’s a New York Times article here.
… and if you’re interested, Steigerwald’s blog is here.
Of course, this is a blog also, which generally means opinion, and this one has been mine. I could be wrong … but I’m not. To echo Jim Joad: "Whenever there's a guy trashing Steinbeck, I'll be there ... "
A map is below—look for Louisiana ...