Monday, February 8, 2010


I had read "Travels With Charley" some years ago and re-read it yesterday for an online British book club I recently joined. I soon realized how very little of the book I had remembered. Because I live in North Dakota, his collection of impressions of our state was the one thing that did remain strong with me. 

He wrote that he had always thought that "The West" began at Fargo, because his trusty old map was folded so that the crease was on the ND-MN state line at Fargo. But Fargo on a beautiful October day was totally unlike his mental expectation of it. "The countryside was no different than Minnesota over the river. . . It's bad to have one's impressions shaken up like that. Would Samarkand or Cathay or Cipango have the same fate if I visited?" However, he soon realizes that "the fact of Fargo had in no way disturbed my mind's picture of it. I could still think of Fargo as I always had - blizzard-ridden, heat-blasted,  dust-raddled. I am happy to report that in the war between reality and romance, reality is not the stronger." (Actually, Fargo is and always will be blizzard ridden in winter and heat blasted in summer, but is not dust raddled.)

At Bismarck, where I live, Steinbeck does find the West: "Somebody must have told me about the Missouri River at Bismarck, North Dakota, or I must have read about it. In either case, I hadn't paid attention. I came on it in amazement. Here is where the map should fold. Here is the boundary between East and West. On the Bismarck side it is Eastern landscape, Eastern grass, with the look and smell of Eastern America. Across the Missouri on the Mandan side, it is pure West, with brown grass and water scorings and small outcrops. The two sides of the river might well be a thousand miles apart."

Before he leaves North Dakota, he must cross the Badlands. At first look he feels they are Bad Lands, frightening and disturbing, but before he departs the state, he comes to feel that they are the Good Lands. He senses that they are sentient. He has the same feelings about the redwoods of his native Northern California. I think that Steinbeck must have had Celtic roots, for the Celts, too, believed in the sentience of nature. He also picks up on what might be called the unseen but not unfelt elements of the places he visits.

I was truly, truly shocked to find that there is no description of him camped out on the North Dakota prairie at night, feeling totally alone and afraid. I have carried away and held this false memory for all these years.

It was a shock, too, to realize that Steinbeck took his trip 50 years ago already. The autumn that Steinbeck was on the road, Kruschev was at the UN in New York, banging his shoe on the table. The 1950s-early 1960s fear of "the bomb" was still all prevalent. The Civil Rights Movement was in its infancy. Here we are, 50 years later, the world still not blown to bits, our fears focused more on global warming and on Islamic terrorists than the Russians and Chinese. The Soviet Union is in shambles and we are more afraid of China for the astronomical debt we owe them and their goods flooding our markets. Black people are no longer called negroes, nigras or niggers. And while racial tension still exists, great strides have been made.

In those ways, the book is dated. But in many ways it is fresh. I was amazed to learn that people worried about their cholesterol 50 years ago. The America Steinbeck saw back then was in the main what we still see today if we stay on the Interstates: ugly cities, urban sprawl, the proliferation of mobile homes, ribbons of concrete highways ("wonderful for moving goods, but not for inspection of a countryside").

"Civilization has made great strides {since his last trip}", he writes, tongue planted firmly in cheek. American food, although clean, was to him "tasteless, colorless and of complete sameness." Restrooms and hotels were sanitized and "so incensed with deodorants and detergents that it takes time to get your sense of smell back."

He found America's dominant publication to be the comic book, or paperbacks full of "sex, sadism and homicide." Be it newspaper or radio, the mental fare "has been as generalized, as packaged, as undistinguished as the food." American people in 1960, he though, were indifferent to politics: "strong opinions were just not stated." What would Steinbeck think of today's political situation, its movies and television, cell phones, the Internet, texting, Facebooking? What would the finest portrayer of America's Great Depression think of today's recession?
"Travels With Charley" is not a travelogue. It is rather a journey that is mainly internal. Steinbeck took his three-month trip across America to "find the truth about my country." Toward the end, he wishes he could say he had found it. "It would be such a simple matter to set down my findings and lean back comfortably with a fine sense of having discovered truths and taught them to my readers. I wish it were that easy." Instead, what he found was "closely intermeshed with what I felt at the moment. External reality has a way of being not so external at all."

"This monster of a land," he says, "this mightiest of nations, this spawn of the future, turns out to be the macrocosm of the microcosm of me. If an Englishman or a Frenchman or an Italian should travel my route, see what I saw, hear what I heard, their storied pictures would not only be different from mine but equally different from one another."

He does learn some truths. Despite all our differences, he says, Americans are more alike than we are unalike. "Americans are more American than Northerners, Southerners, Westerners or Easterners . . . California Chinese, Boston Irish, Wisconsin Germans, and yes, Alabama Negroes, have more in common than they have apart . . . It is a fact that Americans from all sections and of all racial extractions are more alike than the Welsh are like the English, the Lancashireman like the Cockney, or for that matter the Lowland Scot is like the Highlander." (What do you think, British readers?)

Returning to his hometown of Salinas, California, he learns from sad experience that what Thomas Wolfe had said was true: "You can't go home again."

And Steinbeck discovers that the human race can be incredibly evil. He had heard about "The Cheerleaders", a group of women in New Orleans violently opposed to school integration. He decides he must see one of their daily demonstrations for himself and is consequently terribly disturbed by the vicious, obscene epithets thrown at "the littlest Negro girl you ever saw."

"I heard the words, bestial and filthy, and degenerate" shouted by "blowzy women with their little hats", he wrote. "Theirs was the demented cruelty of egocentric children, and somehow this made their insensate beastliness even more heartbreaking. They were not mothers, not even women. They were crazy actors playing to a crazy audience."

Steinbeck is at his best when he departs from generalizations to focus on specifics, especially in describing encounters with individuals he meets along the way: The "Canucks" from Canada working as migrant farm laborers in Maine, the young man who plans to kick Steinbeck off his campsite and ends up befriending him, a veterinarian who obviously loves animals and knows his job, an enlightened white Southerner whom Steinbeck dubs Monsieur Ci Git. There is a funny "Catch 22" scene with American border officials when he tries to get his dog "back into" the United States when he had actually never entered Canada. In Idaho, he meets young Robbie, who desperately yearns to go to New York to be a hairdresser. Today we'd call this young man gay. Steinbeck gives him no label but is sympathetic.

For all the people he meets, Steinbeck was essential alone and lonely, at least regarding human company. He did have one great friend, his dog. Charley was a blue-gray French poodle born and raised in France, a fine gentleman and a perfect companion for a long road trip. Because he had crooked teeth, Steinbeck says, Charlie was the only dog in the world who could pronounce the consonant "f". His "Ftt" meant "Stop the truck, I want to pee". A mild-mannered dog with a benign acceptance even of cats, Charlie becomes a raving lunatic at his first sighting of a bear in Yellowstone Park.

Steinbeck's descriptions of his interactions with wise old Charley are among the best in the book. A natural ice breaker between strangers, Charley was a great  judge of human behavior. He disliked neurotics and detested drunks. He was a creature, who, like his four-legged brethern, thought most people are basically nuts, a dog who sometimes gave a person "a quickly vanished look of amazed contempt."
I didn't recall from my first reading that Steinbeck was kind of a futzy guy - such a nervous driver that he panicked in heavy traffic and continually got lost. He spent way too much time (in my opinion) in Maine, but oftentimes he put the pedal to the metal and barreled his way through a bunch of states in a row (granted, he did have the pressure of impending winter to get across the Northern states quickly.)

In the last chapter, he says that "people don't take trips - trips take people." He adds, "Who has not known a journey to be over and dead before the traveler returns?" Steinbeck believed that his personal journey ended at a very specific place, Abingdon, VA. But I felt that his trip, except for his time in Louisiana, was basically over once he left California.   But before that, it was a great ride. I only wish that had gotten off the Interstates and like William Least Heat Moon, had traveled the blue highways - the back roads marked blue on old maps. (Heat-Moon's book is "Blue Highways: A Journey Into America".)

1 comment:

blb said...

Thanks so much for your review. I'm reading Travels with Charley now, and enjoying it.
I plan to dig deeper into your site to read more.