|John Steinbeck and Charley.|
For the past two months I've given myself some very tough reads: Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, Bleak House (one of the longest Dickens novels), Dostoyevsky, Malory, and St. Augustine. At the end of it all I gave myself a reward: a re-read of Steinbeck's travelogue Travels with Charley, one of my favourite reads of all time.
The book was first published in 1962; in it John Steinbeck describes his road trip through America in 1960 accompanied by his poodle Charley. It was undertaken because Steinbeck felt out of touch with the 'new' America, a crime he felt given his novels and indeed his success was based on his knowledge and understanding of his great country. He writes,
My plan was clear, concise, and reasonable, I think. For many years I have travelled in many parts of the world. In America I love in New York, or dip into Chicago or San Francisco. But New York is no more America than Paris is France or London is England. Thus I had discovered that I did not know my own country. I, an American writer, writing about America, was working from memory, and the memory is at best a faulty, warpy reservoir. I had not heard the speech of America, smelled the grass and trees and sewage, seen its hills wand 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.
This, coupled with a love and need for getting away and travelling on the open roads (as well as, it's thought, the heart condition which he knew would eventually kill him), motivated Steinbeck to pack some belongings and take Charley and his specially made camper van (Rocinante, after Don Quixote's horse) and learn once more about the United States. It was a time of great tension: not only was the Cold War happening but the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, and as Steinbeck works his way from Long Island, New York through New York State, Connecticut, Maine, California, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Texas and the Southern States (and more besides), back up to New York again, he encounters a great many individuals and discovers a change in the America he once knew and a certain element of hardness in people as well as kindness.
Charley is an important part of it as any of it really; he was Steinbeck's companion throughout and offered some light relief at times, and, in other times, a good companion for Steinbeck to share his thoughts with. And, for Steinbeck, he was also a good way of starting conversations with people, facilitating many a conversation. It ought to be acknowledged that there is some doubt over how much of this actually happened, and exactly how much time Steinbeck really did spend alone with Charley (it's suggested a good part of the journey was with his wife Elaine, contrary to what the book suggests), but that doesn't hamper the enjoyment for me. This is a novel of possibility; indulging (if that's the right word) in wanderlust and acquainting oneself (or reacquainting in Steinbeck's case) with America during a period of great change, and social, racial, and political tensions. As one would expect from Steinbeck there is much to learn from this novel, not only about Americans but about humanity. There's warmth and affection in it, but also some disappointment and what comes from dealing with isolation. It's a very inspiring work, beautifully written too, and for that it will forever be a favourite.