I am sooo glad I reread this book. I wasn’t all in love with it the first time round (a 7!) but this time I had new insight into Steinbeck and his most famous work of non-fiction. I’d heard that the trip Steinbeck and his dog took was largely fabricated and as a result was kind of looking for clues about that – I tended to agree that the actual trip was bogus. But on this reading I came to a surprising conclusion – although Travels With Charley is not a travelogue as I know travelogues, it’s a marvelous memoir of a changing America by one of its pre-eminent writers.
The first time I read Travels With Charlie was in January of 2010, over the Martin Luther King 3-day weekend which coincided with Ruby’s story in New Orleans. I liked it okay back then – but not very well really. The review is in the Prior Reviews page for 2009/10 (a few of them are there).
I said nothing about its being at least partially fabricated at the time. It seems that current research has concluded that Steinbeck never really made the trip. I do remember I wondered at the time I read it.
So this time I guess I’m reading for where the clues are – On the first go-round I did notice that he didn’t write much about life after Chicago. He seems to digress quite a lot rather than talk about specific travel episodes. This reading is … well … here are the ongoing notes –
Finally, in September of 1960, after many months and pages of preparations, (PART I) Steinbeck set out from New York City. The plan was to go across the wide northern country through Pennsylvania and Ohio then dip into Chicago and off to Wisconsin, North Dakota, Minnesota, Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. From there he would head south through California, across Arizona and New Mexico to Texas, to Louisiana and finally back home by Christmas. That’s quite a trip.
So I guess I have to forgive Steinbeck for misrepresenting his book. There are so many other supposedly non-fiction memoirs out there which don’t do nearly the job Steinbeck’s does. And from what I understand Steinbeck’s heart had been in it but his flesh was 58 years old and had been very ill. He’d crossed the US many times over the years – he knew the landscape (maybe not North Dakota). (heh).
I think the business of “fiction/non-fiction” bothers people who are very attached to the book. I’m not terribly fond of Steinbeck after East of Eden – he seemed to turn a bit bitter – I like him better for having reread this book (another unexpected outcome).
Furthermore so much of the book is general that it might just as well be a memoir of people and places – some names changed to protect both the innocent and the guilty – likely more guilty folks in Steinbeck’s weary eyes.
The part about the turkeys in Wisconsin is more about the turkeys he remembers growing up. The Minnesota waitress could be almost any dissatisfied person or one person putting another down thinking it’s funny. The North Dakota actor has nothing really to do with ND – he’s an itinerant performer – I figure Steinbeck might have known a few in his California days or the New York ones.
There was much more written about the very first part of the journey than truly cross-country part. Salinas CA is his home town area so there’s more from Steinbeck on that. But after Salinas he was focusing on more specific events – a Thanksgiving feast in Texas and the racism in New Orleans. At one point he mentions the WPA Guides to the States (under the Federal Writers Project ). On page 134 (Kindle) he says:
“If there had been room in Rocinante I would have packed the W.P.A. Guides to the States, all forty-eight volumes of them.”
I wonder if that’s where he got some of his information. He wrote for them but I can’t find out what he wrote!
“Yet to many, the guide series are treasures. William Least Heat Moon said he wouldn’t have written ”PrairyErth: A Deep Map” (1991) without the Nebraska guide. When John Gunther hit the road for his memoir ”Inside U.S.A.” (1947), his suitcase bulged with W.P.A. Guides. So did John Steinbeck’s when he set out to write ”Travels With Charley: In Search of America” (1962).
”The complete set comprises the most comprehensive account of the United States ever got together, and nothing since has even approached it,” Steinbeck writes in the book. ”It was compiled during the Depression by the best writers in America, who were, if that is possible, more depressed than any other group while maintaining their inalienable instinct for eating.”
Steinbeck points out that many of the printing plates for the guides were smashed in the wake of a late-1930’s witchhunt by Representative Martin Dies Jr., Democrat of Texas, who insisted that the W.P.A. was a Communist plot. But the Library of Congress has hundreds of boxes of the guides’ raw material: correspondence, interview transcripts, slave narratives, research notes and photographs. It is one of the most underused and untapped historical collections in America.”
More later –
Later – there’s so much in the book about Charley – that’s an appeal to animal lovers in general – memoirs about my animal. Then comes the digression on hairdressers. Excuse me, where does this take place, Idaho or Oregon, I think. This is not a travelogue – it’s a memoir – because now comes the part about Rocinate – the truck.
There are a few travelogue type sections in the book – the Redwoods of California is one of them – I’m sure Steinbeck visited prior to 1960 – after all, he was raised just a couple hundred miles down the road.
Love the little ditty on page 195:
The miner came in forty-nine,
The whores in fifty-one.
And when they got together,
They made a Native Son.
(But I’m allowed because I’m a Californian – from the age of 16 – pretty close to native.)
Family fighting about politics is not usually part of a travelogue. (LOL! ) And the rest of the California trip is nostalgia, coming to grips with the reality of his current self in relation to Salinas and a quick leave-taking. He heads to Texas.
He’s now spent four days in the desert with Charlie recuperating and now it’s a week at at Texas ranch. How much time does he have left? It’s Thanksgiving at the ranch so I suppose he’s okay –
In New Orleans a couple weeks after November 14, the day Ruby Bridges enrolled in the public but segregated (is that an oxymoron?) school escorted by Federal Marshals for fear she would be accosted by the protestors. Norman Rockwell commemorated the event with his painting “The Problem We All Live With:
Apparently Steinbeck was so incensed he wrote quoting the “cheerleaders” as saying truly vile things. These had to be edited out. He knew they would be. But they’re still available at Reason.com. The whole segment doesn’t sound realistic at all – Imo, this isn’t travelogue – this is memoir, politics, whatever. But it’s not fiction.
“In the beginning of this record I tried to explore the nature of journeys, how they are things in themselves, each one an individual and no two alike. I speculated with a kind of wonder on the strength of the individuality of journeys and stopped on the postulate that people don’t take trips—trips take people. That discussion, however, did not go into the life span of journeys. This seems to be variable and unpredictable. Who has not known a journey to be over and dead before the traveler returns? The reverse is also true: many a trip continues long after movement in time and space have ceased. I remember a man in Salinas who in his middle years traveled to Honolulu and back, and that journey continued for the rest of his life. We could watch him in his rocking chair on his front porch, his eyes squinted, half-closed, endlessly traveling to Honolulu.”
This tells me that perhaps Steinbeck was incorporating other trips into this book – that these are memoirs of all his travels – with and without Charley.
And then he’s in Virginia with only about 600 miles to Manhattan and after that the trip is a blur – he remembers nothing. He just wants to get home.