"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

December 4, 2012

"Travels with Charley in Search of America" by John Steinbeck (Best Non-Fiction)

It was an impossible endeavor. In 1960 the writer John Steinbeck, then living in New York and Sag Harbor, set out with a camper on a 10,000 mile journey around the U.S. He had been cooped up for long years in his apartment in New York and wanted to meet "ordinary Americans" again - the kind of people he had so vividly written about in his great novels of the 1930s like Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck thought he could have deep conversations with them about the state of America, while camping out.

A second reason for the trip was Steinbeck's "macho fixation" - he believed a man should "do things with his own hands" and "live violently" - now at age 58 he wanted to test what was left of his physical powers. As the book tells, already before the trip he could prove his toughness: when a hurricane hits Long Island the day before he plans to leave, he wades out into the stormy harbor to save his boat.

So just after Labor Day 1960 Steinbeck sets out in his green GMC truck, fitted with a custom built camper. He calls it Rosinante after the horse of Don Quixote - he probably knew he was setting out on a Quixotic trip himself. He was accompanied by his sprightly dog, a French poodle called Charley, middle-aged like himself. Starting in Long Island, the fateful journey of one man, one dog and a truck would follow the border of the United States, going all throughout the North, through the Pacific Northwest, down into Steinbeck's native Salinas Valley in California, across to Texas, then through the Deep South, and finally back to New York. Two years later he would publish the book about the trip as Travels with Charley in Search of America, and it would become an instant bestseller.

Steinbeck's original plans were just too megalomaniacal. How much of the country can you see when the landscape just flashes by on such a long trek by car? How many interesting people can you meet when you sit all day long behind the wheel? The first part of the trip, through New England is still fairly detailed and takes up half of the book, but after the Mid-West Steinbeck starts to jump, with bigger and bigger leaps. He must have been driving like mad for days on end, just to complete the journey... Unfortunately, that doesn't leave much of the story.

Despite the intention to test his toughness and loneliness, as we now know, the journey was not at all so hard. Steinbeck broke the trip several times for lengthy stays with his wife - who flew in from New York - in luxury hotels (Chicago, San Francisco) or at the ranch of Texas millionaires. The times he camped out, made his own food and washed his own clothes, were in fact far and few between: most of the time he slept in motels. And during the last part his wife was riding with him in the cabin.

It doesn't matter, unless you are interested in macho stories. What Steinbeck gives us in full is the view of America from the windows of his truck, and that view is authentic.

The same can be said about the meetings Steinbeck describes - we know from his letters that these, too, did not really take place as he writes about them. And again, it doesn't matter. All travel writing contains fictional elements (take the famous In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin!) - authors have to select things, leave out things, and to make the book readable they will reorganize events and discussions. Travel literature is not journalism. By the use of his imagination Steinbeck gives us humor in the portrait of his dog Charley (and his talks with the dog), and he lets us meet several rare characters, as a New Yorker-reading aspiring hairdresser living in the middle of nowhere, or a traveling Shakespearean actor camping out near a river in North-Dakota. Even though Steinbeck has reorganized ("massaged") his impressions, they are not less true.

Steinbeck shows us the America of the early 1960s, a view in kaleidoscopic images of a "new America" that did not live up to his expectations. He is appalled by the sameness he finds everywhere, for example of food and of lodgings, by the loss of dialect, by the environmental destruction. He wonders about the large number of people living in campers, as if Americans have no roots. But there are also beautiful descriptions of landscapes, of Montana that he loves, of California and the giant sequoias, of Texas. There are funny scenes such as when he is advised not to enter Canada as on reentering the U.S. his dog will have to be quarantined, or when almost home he looses his way in New York. And, finally, there is great and justified anger, too, when in New Orleans he observes how black children need police protection to commute to one of the first mixed schools, and how a group of white women ("Cheerleaders") everyday comes to the school gate to shout the basest obscenities at the colored kids. When on top of that a taxi driver tells him "Them goddamn New York Jews come in and stir the niggers up," he is so disgusted with the America he encounters, that he cancels the further trip and just rushes home.

Travels with Charley is great travel literature, an impression of America in 1960 enhanced by the pen of a consummate author. In 1962, Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize in Literature.
I read the Penguin Classics edition. A recent voice accusing Steinbeck of "fraud" is journalist Bill Steigerwald (article in NYTimes, website); a counter-voice can be found here. My answer is, as I have written above, that literature is not journalism and that also travel writing is never a fact-by-fact account.