A decade after Jack Kerouac travelled across America in On the Road, American author John Steinbeck, a little older and wiser but with the same curiosity about his country, took a trip of his own. His goal: to answer the question”What are Americans like today?”
One of the answers he discovered is that Americans, young and old, have an unquenchable wanderlust. Steinbeck himself is no exception:
When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked.
Travels with Charley is a personal account of Steinbeck’s journey through nearly 40 states, from Maine through the Pacific Northwest to California, Texas, and Louisiana. He is accompanied by his truck, Rocinante, named after Don Quixote’s horse, and his French poodle, Charley, who provides much of the comic relief in the book. Along the way, he meets other travellers, locals, actors, drunks, cops, migrant potato pickers, and he weaves their opinions and stories together, along with his own observations, to portray his own real, and mature picture of life on the road.
Steinbeck was 58 years old, at the end of his career and ill; he took the trip in part to prove that he was down but not out. According to his son, Steinbeck knew that he was dying – indeed, he died eight years after the book was published – and this trip was him wanting to see his country for the last time.
In Travels with Charley, Steinbeck is still as opinionated, and at times critical, of the government, working conditions and any form of inequality as he is in his novels, such as the Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, or East of Eden. In particular, when he visits New Orleans and writes against the outpouring of racism he encountered there, he reminds the reader that he is the same author that won the Nobel Prize for describing the plight of the downtrodden American.
But Travels with Charley shows a different side to him; it’s refreshing to hear his funnier, more lighthearted voice, when he writes about his dog’s prostate ailments or his own innate ability to get lost:
I knew long ago and rediscovered that the best way to attract attention, help, and conversation is to be lost. A man who seeing his mother starving to death on a path kicks her in the stomach to clear the war, will cheerfully devote several hours of his time giving wrong directions to a total stranger who claims to be lost.
He is self-deprecating and honest as he describes his insights, sometimes hard-won, about:
…not wanting to go on a trip in the first place:
In long-range planning for a trip, I think there is a private conviction that it won’t happen. As the day approached, my warm bed and comfortable house grew increasingly desirable and my dear wife incalculably precious. To give these up for three months for the terrors of the uncomfortable and unknown seemed crazy. I didn’t want to go.
…the loneliness of travelling:
There seemed to be no cure for loneliness save only being alone.
…and of going places just to tell others you were there:
Niagara Falls is very nice … I’m very glad I saw it, because from now on if I am asked whether I have seen Niagara Falls I can say yes, and be telling the truth for once.
I first picked up Travels with Charley about ten years ago, before I had ever travelled anywhere. It was cute, with cute stories about Steinbeck’s dog and truck, but it didn’t hold my attention past the first few chapters. Recently, I picked it up again and couldn’t put it down. Like so much other great literature, you need to be on the same level with it to understand it. Now that I have travelled, and I have my own beloved dog, I can better appreciate it.
The basics of travelling haven’t changed much in the nearly fifty years since he wrote the book and anyone who has been alone on the road will relate to, and laugh along with it.