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Book Review: Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck

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Before I had even reached the end of the first sentence, I knew I had found a friend in John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley: In Search of America. Like meeting a stranger who puts you instantly at ease, the opening paragraph settled me into a quick and ready comfort. Indeed, a friendly tone throughout the book breeds a surprising kinship between the reader and one of America's great literati.

"When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me," he begins, "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."

In that I read my past, present and a rather hopeful future. Like Steinbeck, I'm afflicted with that great American disease of wanderlust. We live in a big country, after all, to say nothing of the whole world, and there is always more to see. For me, his introduction revolves around the words "someplace else." Often times the desire to travel is not born out a special urge to see "Paris in the spring" or "Boston in the fall" as it is to simply go. Although his reason for writing the book was "not to instruct others but to inform myself," it nevertheless stands as an inspiration to all of us who sometimes find "here" so oppressive, so mundane, that the promise of "there" simply can't be ignored.

Taking a long and winding route, Steinbeck sets off to get back in touch with the country he had written about for most of his career. After a while, he says, he felt like he had become an American icon who knew little of America anymore. I found this sentiment particularly ennobling. The phrase "proud to be an American" has become something of a cliché, but it's an idea far more complex than a bumper sticker. It seems to me the people who say that phrase the loudest have never been much beyond their home state. With every square acre of land the pioneers claimed, the American identity became more complex. More than any other country, I think, our national sense of self is varied by the breadth of our geography. Being American on the West Coast is much different than being an American in the East, and certainly different than many places in between. It was out of a curiosity to explore these differences that Steinbeck hit the road.

He starts from his home in Sag Harbor, New York, in a pick-up truck called Rocinante (after Don Quixote's horse). He has a camper cabin mounted in the bed, but the idea was such a novelty at the time it had to be specially made. Between his unique vehicle and Charley, his French poodle, there are no lack of conversation starters as he moves north through Maine before heading west, just below the Great Lakes. Past Chicago, he turns north towards Fargo, goes through the Badlands and on towards Yellowstone. From there it's out to the Pacific and a long, slow drive down the coast, visiting friends and family before turning east again. He takes a detour to New Orleans and completes the loop in New York City.

The New Orleans tangent is the only part of the trip which seems motivated by special decision. For most of the book he is wandering about, exploring in the vaguest sense. He goes to New Orleans, though, to see the racially charged fracas created by two black children attending a desegregated school. The kids are young, and yet crowds of people, lead by "the Cheerleaders," would assemble to shout violent obscenities at the children as well as the men escorting them. Steinbeck's dominant emotion through the section is revulsion, but that he included it at all was a stroke of literary justice.

Without the New Orleans piece, the book could have easily become a throwaway. It could have been an American travelogue, following the mild adventures of a rather reticent man and his dog. There are a few funny sections, some a little sad, but all in all the country comes off as pretty enjoyable. By visiting the front lines of the Civil Rights movement, however, Steinbeck gives his readers a much fuller picture of just where the roads of 1960 America were liable to go. Considering the climate at the time, it was a bold thing to include, but had he avoided it I think some of his credibility as a great American voice would have been lost.

While it is a surprisingly compact read, Travels with Charley is essential for all would be road trippers. It's not a great how-to reference, nor was it intended to be. Instead, the narrative captures the spirit of the American road, and gives voice to the average people who populate the roadsides. Steinbeck doesn't judge so much as observe and absorb. In doing so, he strikes something which is uniquely American, something which doesn't seem to have changed much in the 50 or so years since. Our country was made for the epic cross-country trip, and this book is the perfect inspiration for dreamers who long to join the tradition.

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