By J.F. McKenna
Words, John Steinbeck writes, “should be wind or water or thunder.” Not surprisingly, then, his book Travels with Charley is returning autumn—a colorful recasting of our landscape, the compline of an exceptional American wordsmith.
Once again I fetch my copy of his travelogue and hitch a ride. Mine is an irresistible ritual that goes back more than a few autumns; the trip never gets old, which speaks well of our country and its core character and says much about the enduring influence of Steinbeck. As The Saturday Review adjudged at the time of the book’s debut in 1962, Travels with Charley is “a book to be read slowly for its savor, and one which, like Thoreau, will be quoted and measured by our own experience.”
“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 greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ships’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping. The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of stomach high up under the rib cage. In other words, once a bum always a bum. I fear this disease incurable. I set this matter down not to instruct others but to inform myself.”
And so begin my travels, again, with Steinbeck and Charles le Chien, “a very big poodle, of a color called bleu.” All over again I relish the notion of keeping company with such “bums,” even if only vicariously. And I suspect I have not been alone with my two peripatetic companions these many decades.
Admitting guilt to having “at best a faulty, warpy reservoir” of a memory, the mature and celebrated author decided to visit his nation afresh in 1960. The journey covered almost 10,000 miles and aimed to ferret out “the small diagnostic truths which are the foundations of the larger truth.” For today’s writers there can be no better example of integrity than that set by the then-ailing creator of East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath.
“I stayed as much as possible on secondary roads where there was much to see and hear and smell, and avoided the great wide traffic slashes which promote the self by fostering daydreams. I drove this wide eventless way called U.S. 90 which bypassed Buffalo and Erie to Madison, Ohio, and then found the equally wide fast U.S. 20 past Cleveland and Toledo, and so on into Michigan.”
To carefully read Travels with Charley in 2013 is to learn, or even relearn, that the so-called American personality has not been transformed wholesale by faster fast food and personal high-tech hardware, only disguised. Midway through the book, Steinbeck talks aloud to Charley:
“In the eating places along the roads the food has been clean, tasteless, colorless, and of a complete sameness. It is almost as though the customers had no interest in what they ate as long as it had no character to embarrass them….We’ve listened to local radio all across the country. And apart from a few reportings of football games, the mental fare has been as generalized, as packaged, and as undistinguished as the food. ”
During this analysis Steinbeck acknowledges that he has to use his foot to keep Charley awake. I, however, take in every word and every observation.
“In the bathroom two water tumblers were sealed in cellophane sacks with the words: ‘These glasses are sterilized for your protection.’ Across the toilet seat a strip of paper bore the message: ‘This seat has been sterilized with ultraviolet light for your protection.’ Everyone was protecting me and it was horrible.”
“It is possible, even probable, to be told a truth about a place, to accept it, to know it and at the same time not to know anything about it.”
“They refused seconds and I insisted. And the division of thirds was put on the basis that there wasn’t enough to save. And with the few divided drops of that third there came into Rocinante a triumphant human magic that can bless a house, or a truck for that matter– nine people gathered in complete silence and the nine parts making a whole as surely as my arms and legs are a part of me, separate and inseparable.”
At the risk of displaying my long-held bias for the author and his book, I am not surprised that Travels With Charley was a commercial publishing success at the outset and remains so today. Likewise, I am not particularly concerned with the recent scholarship that shows Steinbeck took many liberties with a book categorized as non-fiction. As Steinbeck biographer Jay Parini has written in Steinbeck’s defense, “I have always assumed that to some degree it’s a work of fiction. Steinbeck was a fiction writer, and here he’s shaping events, massaging them. He probably wasn’t using a tape recorder. But I still feel there’s an authenticity there. Does this shake my faith in the book? Quite the opposite. I would say hooray for Steinbeck. If you want to get at the spirit of something, sometimes it’s important to use the techniques of a fiction writer.” Be it resolved, Steinbeck never claimed to be recreating the Congressional Record with this book; his is just one man’s astute perceptions of his country, and his country to be.
For this scribbler, Travels With Charley has been a lucky charm as well as a writing model. In 1989 a Penton Publishing executive, handling the last round of my job interview with Industry Week magazine, asked about my favorite book. A week later I was regularly seeing my fellow Steinbeckian on the corporate floor. And only two years ago Steinbeck’s book was the inspiration for a magazine article about Lady Carol and my regular turnpike shuttles between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. The hook of this human-interest feature was our loud and loveable Beagle, Holly, aka The Duchess of Hollingsworth.
For readers everywhere, Travels With Charley is likely the keystone of what Steinbeck scholar Jackson Benson calls Steinbeck’s moral trilogy, which includes The Winter of Our Discontent and America and Americans. From that literary bully pulpit in the 1960s, Steinbeck warned that “it is historically true that a nation whose people take out more than they put in will collapse and disappear.”
Steinbeck could have written that just this morning, no?
Here’s the timely wisdom I take from my traveling companion and his dog this autumn evening:“In the beginning of this record I tried to explore the nature of journeys, how they are things in themselves….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 has ceased.”
CBR contributor J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a business journalist, former magazine editor and marketing-communications consultant. He also is a member of the LinkedIn group SteinbeckNow.com .Reach him at email@example.com or through his LinkedIn profile: Jos. F. McKenna.