John Steinbeck was 56 years old in 1962 when he first published Travel’s with Charley: In Search of America. As a contemporary of Hemingway, Steinbeck believed in the importance of experiencing life fully to help create an atmosphere of realism in his fictional writing. Also like Hemingway, Steinbeck gained experience as a war correspondent and a newspaper journalist, was a lover of the natural environment and was a strong social skeptic. Steinbeck’s experience was unique from Hemingway’s, in that he was a general laborer and a farm worker in his youth near the area he grew up— Salinas California. Subsequently, several of his most notable stories commented on the plight of homeless people, immigrants and laborers in California during and after the great American Depression. This difficult period of American history was best exemplified in Of Mice and Men (1937), and The Grapes of Wrath (1939), and helped Steinbeck earn a Pulitzer Prize in 1940. He was a prolific writer throughout his career. His books Cannery Row (1945), The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), and Travels with Charley continued to emphasize the author’s sympathies with the struggles of American laborers, his love of America’s natural beauties, and his disdain for progress when it defaced or destroyed the natural environment. Such views made him popular with those who supported progressive labor and pro-conservation views and unpopular for those with opinions at the opposite end of the spectrum. However, by 1962 most literary critics had come to the conclusion that Steinbeck’s lifetime body of work was significant enough to earn the highest writing honor—The Nobel Prize for Literature.
In wanting to recognize his important contributions to literature, I chose to discuss one of Steinbeck’s last works, Travels with Charley: In Search of America at my new First Friday’s Classic Literature Book Club in Midlothian Virginia on January 6, 2017. I was both impressed and surprised to find that in re-reading this book for the first time since it was very popular in the 1960’s, that it offers a variety of the literary styles that the author had employed throughout his career. Though he published this book as a memoir, or a work of non-fiction, it also has elements of a fictional narrative, expressive dialogue that made him famous, social commentary, packaged in a humorous, but sometimes tragic, travelogue. Steinbeck, reacting to critics who first reviewed the book as a fake was quick to note that, although he certainly took a journey of 34 states, he did not take notes as his trip was unfolding. He said he could not write as he was in the midst of encountering these events and had to rely on his memory to write much of the book after he returned home. He admitted in later Prefaces of his book that he had to adjust dates and travel details, change the names of characters and locations, and create narrative dialogue. I agree with him on the idea that anyone who tries to tell you that they faithfully reproduced dialogue months or years after an event is not being entirely truthful. Overall, the work would now probably come under the popular genre we presently call Creative Non-Fiction. After re-reading much of Steinbeck’s earlier works of fiction, it seems like he was successful at recapping many of the views and themes that he had emphasized in his previous works of fiction. For example, he complimented French Canadian migrant farm workers. He over-praised a worker who rescued him from a flat tire in Oregon. He praised a young veterinarian who helped heal his companion, a “gentleman” French Poodle, named Charley, and lambasted another veterinarian whose attitude was so callous that Charley did not even want to be healed by him. As in his several of his other books, he extolled the wonders and beauty of the land. He loved New England, Wisconsin, Montana, and the Redwood Forrest of California more than other places. However, he stayed away from national parks, like Yellowstone, that tried to enshrine nature in confined spaces. He stated that “such places no more represented America than Disneyland.” He also did not spare his most biting social commentary in blasting other people and cultural situations he observed. In writing about a New England waitress, he says, “She wasn’t happy, but then she wasn’t unhappy. She wasn’t anything. But I don’t believe anyone is a nothing. There has to be something inside, if only to keep the skin from collapsing. This vacant eye, listless hand, this damask cheek dusted like a doughnut with plastic powder, had to have a memory or a dream. Strange how one person can saturate a room with vitality, with excitement? Then there are others, and this dame was one of them, who can drain off energy and joy, can suck pleasure dry and get no sustenance from it. Such people spread a grayness in the air about them.”
In commenting on the fact that Americans have lost their love of labor work and handed over those jobs to immigrants, he writes, “It occurs to me, just as Carthaginians hired mercenaries to do their fighting for their hard and humble work.” In doing so, Americans are losing important values that build character for both individuals and the society at large. Americans have traded in hard work for a life of leisure.” In one of the discussions in our reading group, there were some different opinions on whether Steinbeck was being sarcastic or praising religion. It has been in his biographies that Steinbeck was religious. His wry observations of such a belief by a church minister reads: “But this Vermont God cared enough about me to go to a lot of trouble kicking the hell out of me. He put my sins in a new perspective. Whereas they had been small and mean and nasty and best forgotten, this minister gave them some size and bloom and dignity. I hadn’t been thinking very well of myself for some years, but if my sins had this dimension there was some pride left. I wasn’t a naughty child but a first-rate sinner, and I was going to catch it. I felt so revived in spirit that I put five dollars in the plate, and afterward, in front of the church, shook hands warmly with the minister and as many of the congregation as I could. It gave me a lovely sense of evil-doing that lasted clear through till Tuesday. I even considered beating Charley to give him some satisfaction too, because Charley is only a little less sinful than I am. All across the country, I went to church on Sundays, a different denomination every week.” Two of the former literature teachers in my reading group thought that Steinbeck’s description echoed Tom Sawyer’s satiric view of his experience of ministers in churches in Missouri, where the author grew up. I partially accept this view, but I also think that Steinbeck, at this point of his life, felt that he needed to hear such a message, at least certainly more than Tom Sawyer did!
On Steinbeck’s voyage, he mostly stayed on rural routes and bi-passed large urban areas. His disdain for these metropolitan areas is best seen when he observes, “American cities are like badger holes, ringed with trash–all of them–surrounded by piles of wrecked and rusting automobiles and almost smothered in rubbish. Everything we use comes in boxes, cartons, bins, the so-called packaging we love so much. The mountain of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use.” Steinbeck concludes that “instead of growing up into a great nation, as we should be, we have shirked our responsibilities and resemble a spoiled child who seeks gratification in every aspect of its life.” However, the author offers several disclaimers in one of his summaries of his book. He warns that readers should not consider what he wrote as a being representative of the America that they know.
In reflecting on the book today, I can safely conclude that Travels with Charley went against the grain of the view of the unquestioned greatness of America that many politicians and journalists were vigorously offering in the early 1960’s when Steinbeck traversed our land with his dog in a mobile home, he named Rocinante (after Don Quixote’s horse). Steinbeck often comments in his book that he was lost and overwhelmed by the extensive scope of trying to capture the pulse of America from a mobile home where he was so sheltered. For this reason, Steinbeck emphasizes that he “cannot commend this account as an America that you will find. So much there is to see, but our morning eyes describe a different world than do our afternoon eyes, and surely our wearied evening eyes can report only a weary evening world.”
Consequently, I agree with several of the members of the First Friday’s Classic Book Club, that Steinbeck was trying to see the world with morning eyes. But, after years of hard living and being in ill-health at the end of his life, the biggest impression that this work makes, is that he wrote it with his tired and resigned evening eyes. He died about 6 years after Charley, in 1968, but left us with many great works of literature. Nevertheless, I believe that anyone who re-reads and earnestly considers the relative merits of Travels with Charley, more than fifty years after its publication, will find that though it is somewhat flawed as a memoir, it still stands as an imaginative and prophetic work of literature. I think it is as good as anything that Steinbeck wrote. In one of my next Litchatte columns, I will discuss why Steinbeck wrote Travels with Charley near the end of his life and career and comment on the extent to which it stands as a Heroic Journey, as described by Joseph Campbell.
Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education at Temple University (1973), a Master’s of Arts in English Literature at VCU (2015), and a Doctorate in Education at Virginia Tech in 1988. He is married and has three adult employed daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. He is the founder and chief editor of the literary blog, www.LitChatte.com. He is an editor for the “Correctional Education Magazine,” and Co-Editor of the 2016 book of poetry, Mystic Verses, by Shambhushivananda. He also serves as a board member, volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and all-around helper at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. He will be teaching literature classes in the OSHER Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Richmond. He started The First Fridays Classic Monthly Book Club in January 2017, and is co-founder and organizer, along with Rebecca Elizabeth Jones, of the VCU English Alumni Working Title Book Club, which will begin in February 2017, with a discussion of Ann Hood’s, The Book That Matters Most.