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Travel Books - Travels with Steinbeck

John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley has long been on my “to read” list. The other day I had to make a long car journey and thought, “Here is the perfect opportunity.” I borrowed the unabridged audio book from my public library (read by the American actor Gary Sinise) and settled back to enjoy. And I did. So much so that, when I returned, I found a print copy and finished the book on my own.


Steinbeck, aged fifty-eight, had concluded that he’d lost touch with America, and he decided to do something about it. “I, an American writer, writing about America, was working from memory, and memory is at best a faulty, warped reservoir. I had not heard the speech of America, smelled the grass and trees and sewage, seen its hills and water, its color and quality of light. I knew the changes only from books and newspapers. But more than this, I had not felt the country for twenty-five years. In short, I was writing of something I did not know about, and it seems to me that in a so-called writer this is criminal. My memories were distorted by twenty-five intervening years.”

His solution was to purchase a new GMC pickup truck with a camper shell on the back and drive a ten thousand mile loop counter-clockwise around America, beginning at his home in Sag Harbor near the end of Long Island. He dubbed the truck “Rocinante,” after Don Quixote’s horse, and took along an elderly French standard poodle, named Charley, as his companion. His task was to answer the question: “What are Americans like today?”


One of the reasons I had always put off reading this book was that there was nothing unusual in what Steinbeck was attempting. We’ve all gone on road trips like this. (Or at least we did until the price of gas became so high). It’s almost a North American rite of passage. Why should Steinbeck’s trip be any more interesting than hundreds of other road trips?

Well, the answer, of course, is that we can’t all write as well as John Steinbeck. The prose is simple and direct, but the word choice is subtle and captures the scene exactly. Sometimes the mood is comic, sometimes melancholic, but the prose is always readable, even when he is moralizing. The character sketches are wonderful. And the thing that struck me most strongly about this book was how contemporary it felt. His trip took place in 1960, but many of the topics he covered–environmental degradation, racism, and corporate greed–are still relevant today.

In 2010, a journalist retraced Steinbeck’s journey and concluded that he made a lot of it up. I don’t have too much problem with that (in fact, I guessed as much), but it does raise an important question: How much leeway can an author take when reporting his travels? That is perhaps a topic best left to a later blog post.

In the meantime, read Travels with Charley. You won’t be disappointed.

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