Monday, August 15, 2011

2,552: Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

“When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch.  When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age.  In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job.  Nothing has worked.”

Travel writing and I have a bittersweet relationship.  In a world in which I didn’t have to work for a living, didn’t have responsibilities and didn’t have a penchant for luxury hotels with cool, Egyptian cotton bed linen and cocktail bars, I would be a traveller, dragging Mrs F and mini-Falaise to all parts of the compass, just to see what’s there.  Deep down though, that kind of lifestyle wouldn’t really work for me.  I’m always glad to get home from a trip, I don’t deal well with the discomforts of travel and I don’t have the social skills that seemingly enable travel writers to get into story-worthy situations.

All that means that I love reading about travel but always suffer the contradictory pangs of wanderlust and inner knowledge that I’m just not cut out for that kind of life.  Nevertheless, travel writing remains one of my favourite genres and Travels with Charley has been a part of my collection since I first read it in the mid-1990s.  So, when the Classics Circuit announced its Steinbeck tour, I took the opportunity to reacquaint myself with it.

In 1960, a depressed and ill Steinbeck, having long moved away from his roots and feeling a need to reconnect with America, bought a pick-up truck and had a small cabin built on its flat bed.  He then set off on a long loop around America with only his French poodle, Charley, as a companion.  Never revealing his own identity, he sought to meet and engage with people throughout the country.

What emerges is part travel journal, part memoir and part opinion piece.  Steinbeck notes a decline in local cultures as cities expand, with a homogenous culture spreading its wings.  He sees the beginnings of the destruction of the environment, the iniquities of racism and the growth of consumerism.

His emotional journey is a little like a drive through gentle, rolling hills.  He has moments of joy, such as his love of Montana, his pleasure at the variable weather of New England, his new impressions of San Francisco and the kindness of many of the strangers he met, like the garage owner in a nameless town in Oregon who searched and searched to find him new tires on which to continue his journey.

Of course, like the hills, his journey had valleys as well as peaks and there are episodes of palpable sadness like the visit he makes to an old hangout, Johnny Garcia’s bar in Monterey, which descends from joy to bitter recrimination as both he and Johnny realise that people change as time passes and nothing stays the same forever. He also experiences the nostalgic ache of looking into the valley where his parents’ ranch was in Northern California and remembering old times.

There is also anger, most explicitly in his description of the demonstrations against the integration of a school in New Orleans, where a gaggle of middle-aged matrons, known as the Cheerleaders, orchestrate the taunting of a tiny black child and of the white father and child who dared to defy the mob by going to school.

“But now I heard the words, bestial and filthy and degenerate.  In a long and unprotected life, I have seen and  heard the vomitings of demoniac humans before. Why then did these screams fill me with a shocked and sickened sorrow?”
The contrast between the powdered, supposedly God-fearing matrons of Louisiana and the tiny, frightened children, both black and white, is almost visceral.

There’s an overarching sense in Travels with Charley of the impermanence of things, of the ever-changing nature of people and places.  Maybe this is so obvious because of the changes that Steinbeck had sensed in himself with his depression, his illness and his alienation from that part of America that had driven his writings.  Steinbeck had always been a physical man and, maybe, his physical decline affected his view of the changes in America since he had last been rooted in the land:

"I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory, or slobbed for a time in utter laziness. I've lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as a punishment."

Indeed, according to Steinbeck’s son, he made his trip because he sensed he was dying and wanted to see his country one last time.  Fortunately, he was to live for another eight years and would see himself awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Earlier this year, a writer in the USA retraced Steinbeck’s journey and wrote a piece, claiming that much of Travels with Charley was made up, including the amount of time he spent apart from his wife, the amount of time he spent in his truck, Rocinante and most of the dialogue.  Indeed, there is something very stagy and artificial about many of his encounters.

But, does this matter?  I’ve always suspect that much of the best travel writing has something of the fictional about it.  I don’t really believe that all of the reported conversations can be word for word accurate or that every single encounter happened.  It doesn’t matter.  Unless a book sets out to be a factual description of a place or a piece of journalism, I’d rather read a better book that has been “enhanced” than a more mundane book that remains strictly accurate.

In the end, regardless of the facts, Travels with Charley is a beautiful, melancholic, piece of writing with flashes of humour and some serious opinions that still ring true today.

If you’d like to read more posts on Steinbeck’s works, the other tour participants today are:

Bibliographing on The Acts of King Arthur

Becky's Book Reviews on either The Grapes of Wrath or East of Eden


KarenSi said...

I love Steinbeck and I have grown to enjoy travel writing. Like you I am unlikely to have the experiences people write about. To used to my modern cons I think. I also don't have the guts to travel on my own. I love reading about it though and this book sounds right up my street. Adding it to my wish list now. Thanks for the review.

Rebecca Reid said...

I haven't read travel writing at all, but I'm various now about this one, fictional or not. I think Steinbeck is a great writer.

Rebecca Reid said...

* curious. Sorry, writing on my phone

nicole said...

I have a similar ambivalence about travel writing--and traveling. While certain aspects of Travels with Charley should appeal to me (e.g., I have a big interest in regionalism and the same kinds of issues about homogenization Steinbeck was apparently interested in), I'm a bit leery of reading it because it makes me think so much of The Grapes of Wrath, which I really did not like at all.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

I love traveling and reading good travel memoirs. I've read Steinbeck's big books, but Travels With Charley remains my absolute favorite of his books.

Teresa said...

I read this for the circuit too and really enjoyed it. I haven't read the article you mention, but it was apparent that there were some gaps in his narrative, not that that's a problem, but he certain couldn't cover everything that happened, and a lot wouldn't be of interest anyway. I never thought that the dialogues were word-for-word accurate, but I'd be curious as to whether any of them didn't happen at all.

Karen K. said...

This was my very first Steinbeck -- I was so intimidated by the big works like Grapes of Wrath. When I finally read it I loved it and I wanted to read more! I think it's kind of mean-spirited to accuse him of making it all up so many years later. What does it matter? These were his impressions. Either way he was a great writer.

For the Circuit I'm also reading one of his travel books, A Russian Journal. He had a photographer with him so I assume most of it was real. I've barely started it, sounds fascinating. I'd also like to read The Log from the Sea of Cortez someday.

Kim said...

I think that I've only ever read one travel book, and I remember having a kind of love-hate relationship with it. I'm fairly certain that I've read an excerpt from Travels with Charley either as a student or a teacher, but it didn't make me want to read more of the book. Your posts makes me think I would probably like to read more of the book. Good post!

Allie said...

Wonderful review! This was my first Steinbeck and I really fell in love with how he viewed America. It really touched me. And I liked that he talked about all aspects of being American, the good and the ugly.

Song said...

I've never read Steinbeck, and I never read any travel writing before. I think I really should try both. Marco Polo comes to mind as well...I'd love to read about his travels! I'm not much of a travel person, either. I dream of seeing places but at the end, I'm really a homebody...or just plain lazy.:D

Joanne said...

I had never heard of this book before, but your review has really made me want to read it.

JaneGS said...

First rate review of a book I hope to read soon. I also love travel writing as a genre.

>I’ve always suspect that much of the best travel writing has something of the fictional about it.

That's okay as long as it's true, meaning an expression of the writer's experience. I love how you noted the peaks and valleys, joys, sorrows, range, and nostalgia that Steinbeck expressed.

Well done.

Katrina said...

I also read Travels with Charley for the Tour but didn't want to read yours until I'd posted mine. It hadn't read it before but I enjoyed it so much I think I'll probably revisit it sometime. I'm not a great traveller either, I love the idea of it but am too impatient for the reality. I'm waiting for a 'Beam me up Scotty'gadget to be invented so I can sleep in my own bed every night!