Kim's Reviews > Travels with Charley: In Search of America

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck
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Feb 25, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: audiobook, travel
Read from August 11 to 17, 2012


In 1960, when John Steinbeck was 58 years old, ill with the heart disease which was to kill him eight years later and rather discontented with life, he decided to embark on a road trip around the United States in a fitted-out pick-up truck, accompanied by his standard French poodle, Charley. Steinbeck’s plan was to re-connect with the America which had informed his fiction and to assess how much it had changed over the years.

This book is the result of that trip: part memoir, part travelogue, part philosophical treatise … and part fiction. Just how much of the narrative is fiction rather than fact has been the subject of investigation and discussion in recent years, much of it instigated by the work of journalist Bill Steigerwald, who recreated Steinbeck’s trip and exposed what he argues to be the fallacies in the narrative. This article in the New York Times summarises Steigerwald’s findings and typing Steigerwald’s name into any reliable search engine will locate a range of Steigerwald’s writings on the issue, as well as some responses to his position on the book.

While I've read Steigerwald’s conclusions about Steinbeck’s journey with interest, it matters little to me that the work has been edited in such a way as to make it look like Steinbeck and Charley were travelling alone almost all the time, whereas Steinbeck’s original manuscript (held at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City) shows that Steinbeck’s wife Elaine was with him for much of the time and that he probably spent more than half the nights he was away sleeping in hotels rather than in the truck. Likewise, it matters little to me that Steinbeck’s reported conversations with people he meets on the way are fiction rather than reportage.

In relation to this, the fact that Steinbeck preserved and then donated his manuscript indicates that he was not concerned that readers might discover that there was more (or possibly less) to the journey than appears in the book. Further, the narrative itself is full of disclaimers. Steinbeck does not claim that the book is a day-by-day, diary-style account of his journey. Rather, what he conveys is a range of impressions on a number of topics, some insights into issues he considered important and some at times painful self-reflection, all conveyed in Steinbeck’s powerful yet accessible prose. On some matters Steinbeck was ahead of his time. For example, what he wrote about the destruction of the environment and the overuse of packaging products (“The mountain of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use.”), expressed what I doubt was a matter of widespread public concern as early as 1960.

Other parts of the narrative are much more personal. Steinbeck’s encounter with old Latino drinking buddies in a bar in Monterey is particularly poignant. As Steinbeck’s friend tries to persuade the New York resident to come “home”, Steinbeck names all of their friends who have died and concludes that Thomas Wolfe was right: “You can't go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory."

Possibly the most powerful incident in the book is Steinbeck’s witnessing of the “cheerleaders” in New Orleans – a group of women who stood across the street from William Frantz Elementary school and yelled obscenities at Ruby Bridges - the first black child to attend the all-white school - and at the few white parents who did not comply with the white boycott of the school. Ruby, who had started at the school only a week or two before Steinbeck was in New Orleans, was escorted to school by federal marshalls. Her ordeal is recorded in this painting by Norman Rockwell.

Shortly after witnessing the behaviour of the cheerleaders, Steinbeck decided to cut his journey short and head straight back to New York City. The narrative gives the strong impression that the incident left him heart-sick and distressed.

Overall, whatever may be this book’s shortcomings as a piece of travel reportage, it's a moving and engaging piece of writing. Steinbeck had become rather a cranky old man by the time he embarked on the journey, and was an even crankier old man by time he finished it. He was certainly no longer the novelist at the peak of his powers. But there’s still passion, warmth and humour in his words and plenty for the reader who loves Steinbeck’s writing to engage with. And there's Charley. Charley is wonderful.
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Quotes Kim Liked

John Steinbeck
“A sad soul can kill you quicker, far quicker, than a germ.”
John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

John Steinbeck
“In literary criticism the critic has no choice but to make over the victim of his attention into something the size and shape of himself.”
John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America


Reading Progress


Comments (showing 1-26 of 26) (26 new)

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message 1: by Karlyne (new)

Karlyne Landrum I loved this book! I read it first about a decade after he published it, and the account of his travels in the South resonated with me. He wrote about it just exactly the way I, a confirmed Westerner who had never even visited the South, thought it must have been.


message 2: by Kim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kim I'm not up to that bit of the book yet, Karlyne, but I'm absolutely loving it so far. I love Steinbeck's voice. He is warm, humourous, self-deprecating and insightful. I don't even particularly like going on road trips, but I wish I had been on this one!


Chrissie I thought I would listen to this too! You know he was not the only one talking about garbage and packaging back in the 60s. Remember Arlo Guthrie. he had a song about that. I loved it. And remember Alice's Restaurant. Actually this discussion isn't that new!


message 4: by Gary (new)

Gary  the Bookworm I read this in high school. Reading your wonderful review wants me to read it again.


message 5: by Kim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kim Chrissie wrote: "I thought I would listen to this too! You know he was not the only one talking about garbage and packaging back in the 60s. Remember Arlo Guthrie. he had a song about that. I loved it. And remember..."

That's true, Chrissie, although Alice's Restaurant wasn't released until 1967 and is more of a satirical anti-Vietnam War song than a song about environmental concerns. What Steinbeck writes about the natural environment feels much more contemporary than anything I can recall from the 60s.

If you decide to listen to the book, I think you will appreciate Steinbeck's relationship with Charley, to whom he is very attached. However, be careful about it if knowing that it's not all "true" would bother you. Mind you, I'm not persuaded that much good travel literature is a 100% accurate account of a journey. The dull bits are usually left out and the intersting bits enhanced.


message 6: by Kim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kim Gary wrote: "I read this in high school. Reading your wonderful review wants me to read it again."

Definitely worth doing, Gary, even if it's not Steinbeck's best work.


Chrissie Kim, Alice's Restaurant is not the song I am referring to. Arlo Guthrie had another song. It is about this guy that cannot get rid of his garbage. I cannot remember the name of that song, but Alice's Restaurant DID remain fastened in my brain.

I think always when you read such literature you mustn't get to hooked up on the validity of the travel details. In any case, impressions, personal opinions and such are terribly subjective. (Historical facts MUST of course be kept straight, although truth sometimes has a way of twisting...)

I was thinking I would enjoy the bits about Charley.


message 8: by Kim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kim Chrissie wrote: "Kim, Alice's Restaurant is not the song I am referring to. Arlo Guthrie had another song. It is about this guy that cannot get rid of his garbage. I cannot remember the name of that song, but Alice..."

Sorry, Chrissie, my mistake. I thought you were referring to Alice's Restaurant because the character in the song illegally dumps rubbish because the town dump is closed for the day and later is rejected for military service because he has a conviction for littering. I know a bit of Guthrie's work, but I don't know what song you're referring to.

I think you would like Charley. He's a great dog. Late in the book Steinbeck gives Charley his own voice, which the narrator renders in something approximating a French accent, which is quite sweet. The narration is excellent overall.


message 9: by Chrissie (last edited Aug 18, 2012 02:29AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Chrissie Maybe it is THAT song...... I am absolutely no expert. I just very clearly remember the song with the guy who cannot get rid of his garbage. And I have thought how Guthrie was onto an issue so very far ahead of the times! We are talking the end of the 60s I believe.


message 10: by Kim (last edited Aug 18, 2012 02:33AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kim Chrissie wrote: "When did Steinbeck take this trip? ..."

Chrissie, the trip was in the autumn of 1960, although the book wasn't published until mid-1962.


Chrissie Kim, thank you for straightening up my past memories.


message 12: by Kim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kim Chrissie wrote: "Kim, thank you for straightening up my past memories."

:D


message 13: by Lewis (new)

Lewis Weinstein Outstanding review.


message 14: by Kim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kim Lewis wrote: "Outstanding review."

Thanks, Lew.


message 15: by Lisa (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lisa Vegan Great review, Kim! I read this when I was young. I would bet I'd like it even better now that I'm the same age as the author was while writing/experiencing this.


message 16: by Kim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kim Lisa wrote: "Great review, Kim! I read this when I was young. I would bet I'd like it even better now that I'm the same age as the author was while writing/experiencing this."

Thanks, Lisa. I think you woud like reading the book again. It's interesting how being around the same age as the writer or even as one of the characters in a novel can really change your perspective on a work you read early in life.


message 17: by Nsf (new) - rated it 4 stars

Nsf Wow, I had no idea that this nonfiction book I love contains some fiction! It doesn't change my opinion on the book, like you said, because some of my favorite parts include the lonely and personal moments between Steinbeck and Charley. Also, do you agree with Thomas Wolfe's quote: "You can't go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory."


message 18: by Kim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kim Nsf wrote: "Wow, I had no idea that this nonfiction book I love contains some fiction! It doesn't change my opinion on the book, like you said, because some of my favorite parts include the lonely and persona..."

It really doesn't bother me either that some of this is fiction, Nsf. It would not be unusual for a travelogue or a diary written for publication to be edited in a way to make it more interesting.

As for the quote from Thomas Wolfe, whether or not it's true depends. I think, on how long you've been away from "home" and what's happened since you left. Steinbeck obviously loved the Salinas Valley, but the people of the Salinas Valley weren't very kind to him after he wrote The Grapes of Wrath and when he went back there to live after his second marriage broke down, he didn't feel welcome anymore. So I guess I agree with Thomas Wolfe if either you or the place you think of as home has fundamentally changed while you've been away.


Chrissie Kim, why don't Okies like Grapes of Wrath? The Joad family members are resilient, kind, generous and warm people. I see the book as being critical of the Californians who criticize the Okies and of the government that does so little to alleviate problems. I have only read half of the book, so maybe this will be made clear as I progress? Could you explain?


message 20: by Kim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kim Chrissie wrote: "Kim, why don't Okies like Grapes of Wrath? The Joad family members are resilient, kind, generous and warm people. I see the book as being critical of the Californians who criticize the Okies and of..."

Chrissie, you might find this article interesting. It touches on some of the negative reaction to the book at the time in California and the reason for it. There was also some negative reaction from Oklahoma, which is explained in this article. I think it was just a very emotive and sensitive issue at the time. However, the historical record shows that the book is accurate as far as the conditions of migrant worker is concerned. Steinbeck did his research well.


message 21: by Chrissie (last edited Mar 06, 2013 07:39AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Chrissie Kim, I forgot that I asked you here and asked you ALSO in a message! Silly me.

I read both articles and found them interesting. Thank you!

I am almost done with "Grapes of Wrath" and just purchased "Travels with Charley"! I guess this shows how much I appreciate Steinbeck's writing!


message 22: by M.s. (new) - rated it 4 stars

M.s. I agree with you. It is an engaging piece of writing and I really enjoy Steinbeck's work.


BrokenTune Very insightful review. Thanks for this.

I read Travels with Charley and Grapes of Wrath when I was stuck in a high school in west Texas for a year.

At first his premise of going on the road to re-discover the America he once knew was intriguing but I guess Wolfe's quotation about going home also applies to road trips.


message 24: by Kim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kim Ulrike wrote: "Very insightful review. Thanks for this...."

Thanks Ulrike. I suspect that I wouldn't have liked either book if I'd read them when I was in high school, although I'd like to think I would have. Now I have a bit of a crush on Steinbeck!


message 25: by Kim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kim M.s. wrote: "I agree with you. It is an engaging piece of writing and I really enjoy Steinbeck's work."

Thanks M.s. I somehow missed you comment when you posted it.


message 26: by Karlyne (new)

Karlyne Landrum I was in high school when I read Steinbeck, including Travels with Charley, and I loved him even then. I'm sure glad that my library didn't censor him out of my existence...


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