Travels with Charley— John Steinbeck
–Book Review—Part I
Having just finished the book Travels with Charley I feel as tired as John Steinbeck when he reaches close to home near the New Jersey turnpike. His home was at Sag Harbor on Long Island which is mentioned several times in Moby Dick. The book is rather a pessimistic and despondent view of America’s future as observed in the 1960s. It is also a long journey of 10,000 miles. The name is inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes.
Of course it was an honor to ride with a Nobel Prize winner. He is a great American writer in English. One of my favorites is his “Grapes of Wrath.” I treasure my copies of The Log from the Sea of Cortez, Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row. This book is a worthy component of my Steinbeck library. I found it in one of those wondrous shops that sell old books in New Delhi.
The book attracts because of the secret desire of every person to take off on an explorative expedition of his or her own country. Steinbeck did exactly that despite a reported heart condition which he does not refer to in the entire book. People discredit the book because they allege that a large proportion of it is fiction. A little embellishment should be forgiven and the personal view points of the author on various subjects are very interesting.
The legend on the front page says:–
“The #1 National Bestseller. Now only 75cents.”
Travels with Charley
My copy of the book was printed by Bantam Books in July, 1963 which makes it 52 years old.
IN SEARCH OF AMERICA
It really feels I have been with him searching for the real America of the sixties. He touches upon all subjects in his journey and fills the reader with curiosity and wonder. He has in empathetic awe of things which shines through the pages; I felt it especially when he took me to the Redwood trees in California. He says, ‘The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always.’—-“they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time.’
Though the book has a sombre view of America’s future it makes interesting reading. I am sure he would have been surprised by the material progress of the country and pleasantly shocked on seeing Barack Obama as President of the country. He would be dismayed by the suspiciously prejudiced shootings of black people on the streets of America by the police.
It is a lovely journey taken half a century ago in a GMC truck converted into a mobile home named Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse.
I have always loved Steinbeck. Cannery Row and the Log from the Sea of Cortez are two of my favorite books. Grapes of Wrath made me cry at the sad lot of the migrants from Oklahoma and other states during the depression and the dustbowl phenomenon working in pitiable conditions in California. Everyone loves ‘Doc’ based on his marine biologist friend Ed Ricketts.
I remember once I sort of fell into a chat room of a man and a woman discussing Steinbeck on the Internet. They were pondering over the fact that Steinbeck never wrote funny stuff. I interjected without a pardon me that perhaps they should read Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat. There was a stunned net-silence and net-raised eyebrows and the gentleman said in a profoundly amazed text which I believe was “thank you kind sir” and the chat room shut down.
Steinbeck discusses everything from coin operated machines to hairdressers and real estate. He describes his coffee drinking bouts with strangers in such detail that I had the urge every time to make coffee for myself; I did not add the whiskey which he seemed to proffer to strangers with or in the coffee. It was the same way with me when I was a small boy reading Famous Five books by Enid Blyton. When the Famous Five went on picnics I quickly made sandwiches to appease my aroused hunger pangs.
He is disappointed by the rapid growth of Seattle. The reader gets the unapproving drift from Steinbeck who wrote, ‘I came out on this trip to try to learn something of America.’ He finds the people of Ohio open and friendly as opposed to those in New England—“The natural New England taciturnity reaches its glorious perfection at breakfast. Early-rising men not only do not talk much to strangers, they barely talk to one another.”
I learned and some extra which I had to Google– like the ‘poor boy sandwich’; ‘ci git’; braceros, mulsed, hame bells and fleered.
He has many things to say about ‘resisting change’ Pg107; Lonesome Harry Pg 139; desert and spirituality Pg 214; Texans Pg 225. ‘what are Americans like today’—Pg 241. The South and Negro issue Pg 245.’Cheerladies New Orleans.’
His aphorisms are amusing—“A Texan outside of Texas is a foreigner.”
‘The meanwhile frightens me, sir.’
One of the people he encounters says, ‘I remember a time when Negroes had no souls.’
Elsewhere–“No sir,” he said, “I’ve been practicing to be a Negro a long time.”
“Yellowstone National Park is no more representative of America than is Disneyland.”
“A sad soul can kill you quicker, far quicker, than a gun.”
“There used to be a thing or commodity we put great strike by. It was called the People. Find out where the People have gone.”
He talks about Martin Luther King and Gandhi while discussing the race issue in America. He wanted ‘passive but unrelenting resistance.’ “There’s improvement, there’s constant improvement. Gandhi proved it’s the only weapon that can win against violence.”
Let’s hope you are right ‘Captain Sir’ as the scared old black man who fearfully agreed to take a ride in Rocinante called you. Let’s hope you are right Captain Sir.
Bill Steigerwald in his comments steered me to this page on the net which makes interesting reading including his book “Dogging Steinbeck” on Amazon.com.