Ah, John Steinbeck.
Travels with Charley is the thirteenth work by Steinbeck that I have had the pleasure to read. Part travelogue and part rant, Travels with Charley is a very conversational piece. It is strengthened by Steinbeck’s wit and insight. No matter what he is talking about, Steinbeck is able to pull his readers in and make them interested. I’m by no means a dog person—and definitely not a poodle person—but Steinbeck’s words about Charley, and his conversations with Charley (yes, Charley talks once or twice), make me love Charley. I want to hug a dog because of this book. And I will.
Perhaps I’m adding my own hopes, but past all of Steinbeck’s sensational insight and humor, I see a story of sadness. It feels as though Steinbeck is saying goodbye. He was in the twilight of life at the time of his travels. When he returns to the place he grew up he finds that many of his friends and associates have died. Goodbye Salinas. Goodbye America.
Steinbeck is at his best the first half of his journey. From New York to his hometown of Salinas, California, every word Steinbeck lays down is golden. He is humorous, philosophical, and genuine (though his story may not have been as we’ll discuss in a moment). The second half Steinbeck has run out of steam. He rushes through the South and back to NY in a daze.
Maybe this departure of self and project is because Steinbeck was sickened by what he saw from the moment he reached Salinas and as he continued throughout the South. Salinas was no longer his home. Then he encountered elitism in Texas (which he took part in) and bigotry in Louisiana.
Or it could be he was struggling with his project—a fictionalization of a journey spent largely in the company of his wife and friends throughout America’s hotels. Yes, Steinbeck’s account in Travels with Charley was exaggerated (if you couldn’t tell already). It’s not surprising to me. The conversations Steinbeck shares with these people seem too perfect. I wonder if he met any of them. And if he did, he certainly was changing their words around. Plus, this is Steinbeck we’re talking about here; despite the popular myth, Steinbeck was far from a realist, he liked to blur lines between fact and fiction.
For me, it doesn’t matter in the least. Yes, I would’ve appreciated knowing that some of these wonderful characters in Travels with Charley were real, that genuine people actually walked the streets of America, but I know what Steinbeck knew, that they’re out there somewhere. Just because he didn’t give them rides in his truck in the fall of 1960 doesn’t mean they weren’t out there somewhere. It doesn’t mean Steinbeck hadn’t met them at sometime in his life. Or at least wished he had.
People put too much stock in fact or fiction. They’ve done plenty of damage to contemporary literature, so they’ve moved back in time, looking for the fiction that masqueraded as non-fiction of our fathers’ and grandfathers’ eras. Yes, you can do all the research you want and learn that it would’ve been impossible for Steinbeck to travel some of the distances he claimed to have traveled in a day, or learn that he actually spent the days conspiring with politicians. It doesn’t matter. Because in the end, Steinbeck is still insightful and Travels with Charley is still a damn good book.
Steinbeck wanted to see his country, his home, one last time. He wanted to chronicle the nation’s people and the times. He wanted to provide the world with insight into a people and offer hope to future generations standing on the threshold of a difficult time. Regardless how he went about it, he was successful with each of his goals.
Goodbye America. Goodbye Charley.