173 of 177 people found the following review helpful
on July 18, 2003
I have read somewhere that what makes a novel a "classic" is that it must contain some fundamental truths that can withstand changing fads, cultures and eras. I know that "Travels with Charley" is not a novel but a memoir. However, this memoir contains so much truth that it deserves--and has acheived--almost instant "classic" status.
It is about John Steinbeck's trip across America. He begins in New York, drives up through Maine, across the midwest, through Montana to Washington, down the Pacific Coast, through Texas and finally through the American southeast. He was 58 when he took this trip, and his only companions were his loyal dog Charley and trailer Rocinante. I appreciated the way that Steinbeck respected Charley, gave him human characteristics, and looked for Charley's observations on mankind as well as his own.
I have heard this memoir described as an "angry" book, but I think this only describes a small portion of Steinbeck's experiences on the road. Steinbeck was certainly troubled by certain things--chief among them the horrifying "witches sabbath" that occurred in New Orleans. He also looked with sadness upon the "progress" that has diminished our cultural identities and ravaged our beautiful land. However, he was wise enough to know that older people often cling to the past simply because it is familiar, but not because it was superior or even good. He recognized that trait in himself and challenged it.
Some individual passages in this book were so wise I read them several times to try to appreciate the full extent of his wisdom. For example, the passage where Steinbeck remarks that too many older people turn in their exciting lives for healthy and safe ones. He wrote that he was not willing to exchange the quality of his life for slightly more quantity. As I read this passage, I considered that he died less than 10 years after writing this book. Sad, but how many people do a solo, cross-country road trip in their twilight years?
I also appreciated, but was wounded by, his descriptions of racial unrest in the south. The witches sabbath brought tears to my eyes, as it described the young black students as ultimately less pitiable then their tormenters. The students were going places and had their whole lives before them; their tormenters were ugly, twisted people clinging to a past that they cherished simply because they feared the future and the unknown.
Ultimately, "Travels with Charley" is about embracing life. Though Steinbeck saw much that troubled him, he saw much more that was beautiful, like the migrant farmers in Maine, the kind veterinarian in Amarillo, the wonderful tire shop owner in Portland. As Steinbeck remarks, the America that he wrote about in this book doesn't exist anymore. If we followed his exact route today, we would encounter something entirely different--both because of the passage of time and because of our varying perspectives. However, while the America he wrote about no longer exists, the Americans do, and Steinbeck's memoir is a love song to them.
205 of 223 people found the following review helpful
on May 1, 2002
In 1960 John Steinbeck decided to reacquaint himself with America after being away because, in his own words, "I've lost the flavor and taste and sound of it. I'm going to learn about my own country." So he set out on a 3+ month journey with his dog to do just that. Along the way, he met people and made conversation, observed the state of the country, and let his mind wander as he made his journey. Then he returned to his mobile cabin at night and recorded the day's events. These journal entries became "Travels with Charley."
Overall, Steinbeck seems to paint a pretty picture. While driving through New England in the fall, he is taken with the brilliant foliage on display. He is much impressed with Wisconsin, and says about Montana, "I am in love. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection, but with Montana it is love." Later, Steinbeck also speaks glowingly of the California Redwoods.
Steinbeck also has nice things to say about the American people - sometimes. He notes that midwesterners are openly friendly, and again praises Montana, for its inhabitants "had time...to undertake the passing art of neighborliness." However, interspersed throughout his journey, Steinbeck encounters many things which are not so delightful. In fact, some were quite upsetting. He talks of waste - "American cities are like badger holes, ringed with trash" - and of miserable people - "(some people) can drain off energy and joy, can suck pleasure dry and get no sustenance from it. (They) spread a grayness in the air about them." (This was his opinion of a waitress Steinbeck had just met in Maine.) And the waitress wasn't the only one.
Along his journey, he met many close-minded, opinionated, bigoted and rascist Americans, and it made for depressing reading. I don't think Steinbeck was quite prepared for it. I believe he had an idealized vision of a great trip, but in reality, it wasn't, and it took a lot out of him. By the end Steinbeck was burned out and wanted nothing more than to get back home. After California he went straight through to Texas, and then to New Orleans, where he encountered rascism at its worst. That seemed to be the last straw for him. After that, he blew off the rest of the southeast US and went back to New York. He had had enough.
Jay Parini, who wrote the introduction, notes this ominous feeling. He states that the book is filled with "whimsical vignettes, charm, etc., but beneath its surface there is a sense of disenchantment that turns to anger." He goes on to say that Steinbeck "is never quite able to bring himself to say that he was often disgusted by what he saw." But there's no question that he was.
Still, this was a very good book. And it's not demoralizing from start to finish. There are many humors adventures as well - his discussions with border guards near Canada being the most memorable. But one can't help but feel that Steinbeck was sorry he'd gone. He had a pre-conceived notion of what America was, and when it didn't meet his expectations, he was crushed. "Travels with Charley" brilliantly captures what Steinbeck reluctantly learned - that you can't go home again.
42 of 45 people found the following review helpful
Steinbeck clearly thought at the time he was writing The Winter of Our Discontent (1961) that America was in the middle of a serious moral and ethical crises, that the traditions and values this country was founded upon were no longer looked upon as serious guidelines for American behavior. The trip across America detailed in this book was undertaken at least in part as an attempt by Steinbeck to determine if this evaluation of the state of America was valid, if when Americans were approached as individuals, face-to-face, some other picture might emerge.
To facilitate his investigation, Steinbeck brought along his poodle Charley, as companion and ice-breaker, and packed up a camper truck with everything he thought he might need in his travels (probably too much, as he ruefully admits at one point), and proceed to travel across the states in a large circle, from New York to Maine to Illinois to Washington, California, Texas, and the Deep South. As we travel along with him, we are treated to a rather incredible display of the sheer writing talent that Steinbeck possessed, as the people he meets along the way are described accurately and so very concisely, sometimes in just a couple of paragraphs, to where these people come alive to the reader, to where the reader can say "I know someone just like that".
But perhaps more importantly, the book is spattered throughout with Steinbeck's acute observations and opinions on everything from antiques, the virtues of small towns, the value of manual labor, the homogenizing of American language and cuisine due to the influence of radio and television, the beginnings of the interstate system and its influence on everything along its routes, hunters, trash, and many other items, all carefully supported by his actual observations along the road. There are a few comments expressed by Charley here, too (typically a "Fttt" and a sniff). And although this book was written forty years ago, much of what Steinbeck wrote then is still very valid today. Whether this represents a good thing or not, that there has been so little change in some very basic elements of American society in the intervening years, must be decided and thought upon by the reader.
It seems that many writers of stature eventually write some form of 'travel' book. This is one of the best of this genre, due to both Steinbeck's great powers of observation and his ability to distill what he sees to something that is recognizable, distinctive, that resonates with the reader's own experiences. This is not his greatest book - that distinction belongs to his great fiction works of The Grapes of Wrath, The Pearl, East of Eden, The Winter of Our Discontent. But it is a very satisfying look at a great writer and his outlook on the America of his day.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on January 17, 2002
Steinbeck packs his bags at the age of 60, and heads out to discover an America he claims he hasn't known for over 20 years. Since he is a shy person, he takes his dog, a large bleu poodle named Charlie, with him to help break the ice with people as he travels around the country. What follows is an account of the places he goes and the people he meets during this three-month journey.
I hadn't read any of Steinbeck's novels until I picked up this great piece of American literature! I enjoy creative works by individuals who have an unquestionable love for something. I believe Steinbeck was such a person. Travels With Charley is a charming, honest, and in a way, innocent novel about the author's observations of Americans and the Americans people think they know. Alone in his thoughts, it is not a drawn out - chronological book on his life. It is almost a journal, but written in a style that makes you feel like a close and personal friend. It is not only a look at America, it takes you inside yourself. It inspires you to take a deeper look inside of you and the life that goes on around you. He broadens your perspective on subjects that you would never even think about.
John Steinbeck's journey across America was like being in a movie. Everything he did he described in every full and minor detail so I, the reader, was able to follow along with him as if I was really there.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
I liked this book for the most part. It's not so much a story about John Steinbeck taking a trip, but rather a story of a trip, that happened to be told through the eyes of John Steinbeck. Steinbeck, himself, often takes third billing to the miriad of unique individuals he encounters (French-Canadian migrant workers, mechanics, hotel keepers, actors, etc.) and the beautiful scenery that Steinbeck describes so well.
Other reviewers consider "Travels with Charley" the ramblings of a grumpy old man, but I disagree. Yes, his age and his opinions come into play in this book, but the world is always going to be seen through the eyes of an individual. This individual happens to be nearing the end of his life and is apt to compare the world as it is to the world as it was. This comes into play during the meeting of a young man who works on a nuclear submarine and when Steinbeck visits his hometown. Other times, Steinbeck comments on changing American opinions, such as his surprise that many Americans prefer to own a mobile home than own a piece of property--Steinbeck always believed that the stability that comes with a piece of land was superior to the advantages of mobility and he was curious to find out why the shift in attitudes.
As the book neared its end, however, it seems as if Steinbeck got really tired of the project. His travels through the Deep South, during which time he encountered numerous racists was depressing. Furthermore, the ending of the book was quite abrupt. A book as good as this one deserved an ending with more effort put into it. In all, I would recommend this book. It's fast-paced (but with introspection, unlike "On the Road"), witty, and (with a few exceptions) makes you feel pretty good about being an American.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
This book covers the travels of John Steinbeck when he was 60 years old in the autumn of 1960. Steinbeck gets a camper and drives from New York counter-clockwise around the country.
His narrative moves rather quickly with only a few stops described in detail. Being a native Californian, his time there is one of the most complete parts of this account.
I liked 2 things in particular about this book. First, Steinbeck throws in occasional asides on some aspect of Amreican Culture that are incredibly incisive. For example, he sums up modern American Literature as "sex, sadism and murder". Take a look at the best-selling fiction table at your favorite bookstore and see if you can disagree.
Second, Steinbeck picks and chooses only a poignant few occurrences of his trip to examine in depth. For example, he spends time describing his account of watching bigots insult a little black girl who is escorted into a white school. The same bigots insult even worse the white students who attend the school rather than boycott it. This snapshot of American Culture is wonderfully described.
Negatives of the book are that much of it is too brief to be meaningful. Some parts are just a blur of travel. This may be how it felt to Steinbeck, but I don't really want to spend time reading about it.
Overall, there is a wistful, autumnal feel to the book. Steinbeck doesn't come home finding anything other than gradual disappointment and a wish to be home with a few noteworthy exceptions. Overall, an enjoyable, quick read with a few moments of thought-provoking introspection. 4 stars.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on March 16, 2000
I first read this when in high school, now at 40 I have just reread it. As with all of Stenbeck's books it is beautifully written. I don't consider it his most interesting book but it is one of my favorites. His compassionate observations of America and Americans are as relevant now as they were in 1960. You will cringe with disgust when he describes the "cheerleaders." (Unfortunately such people and attitudes still exist in our society.)
Some have complained that this book plods along. I'll admit that it is a bit slow at times but comic books don't plod, but they aren't great literature either.
Read this book and you will love this man - not only for his writing but for who he was and what he believed.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
John Steinbeck witnesses a change in American society during the early 1960s. TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY IN SEARCH OF AMERICA is Steinbeck's autobiographical trek where he shows readers America's metamorphosis. For three months in 1960, Steinbeck and his faithful Blue colored Poodle, Charley, saw history in the making as he drove his camper, Rocinante, which he named after Don Quixote's horse, through the back roads and superhighways. The three travel along a similar route in which Lewis and Clarke may have taken, which directly leads towards the Northwest. However, the beginning of their journey takes them along the New England coast, and they drive through California; They further travel along the Southwest corridor, the deep South, and back up North to New York from where they began. One questions comes to mind, did he know that what he observed during his journey across this vast American landscape would be the seeds of change?
The most pivotal aspect of the book is Steinbeck's account of history in the making. He observes an intense pre-Civil Rights era and five years after Brown vs. The Board of Education, which foreshadows an eminent change on the horizon for race and culture in the United States. He discovers that images and remnants of the America he knew during the Depression fading. But his past experiences while growing up in Salinas, California, has only served as a prerequisite to understanding the people he encountered along his trip.
Steinbeck's simple language and vivid observations allows the reader to feel the experience. However, his observations raise pondering questions and thoughts. He describes several new technological innovations and modern infrastructures as if he was experiencing the inventions that appeared at the New York World's Fair of 1939 finally coming to life. When he describes automobile thruways and rest areas and vending machines, one wonders, has progress surpassed the time when life was simple in America? Steinbeck states: "Civilization had made great strides in my absence" (p. 70).
The Centennial Edition of TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY includes the original proposed ending for Travels With Charley that had been omitted from the first 1962 Viking Press edition. The passage makes reference to John F. Kennedy's inauguration, but it is questionable why it was not included. Nevertheless, it is a somewhat fictitious and surreal passage that completes the story of Steinbeck's TRAVEL WITH CHARLEY.
Overall, this book is engaging and may entice readers to further read and study the issues he discusses that have not disappeared from the time he wrote about them.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on May 3, 2012
When I was a teenager, I read a lot of John Steinbeck - Of Mice and Men (1937), The Grapes of Wrath (1939), The Moon is Down (1942), Cannery Row (1945), and East of Eden (1952). The last Steinbeck book I bought was Travels with Charley - In Search of America (1962). I remember taking it to my first real job when I was 18 and being laughed at by the workmen for reading it at lunchtime. The cover looked "fruity" - a jaunty drawing of a man in a green truck riding with a French poodle. Reading matter at work consisted of girly magazines and Louis L'Amour novels. I must have been one o' them there tinker bells or somethin' reading a book like that.
The title was a bit silly, though, wasn't it? I lost momentum and didn't finish. Twenty years later, I got another copy, having read that Travels with Charley represented a classic piece of travel literature, that most satisfying yet most unrecognized of genres. And who knew Steinbeck wrote other travelogues? Who has heard of his Sea of Cortez (1941), a report about a voyage from California to Mexico, or A Russian Journal (1948), where he heads off for a snoop around the Soviet Union?
Born and raised in California, where many of his novels are set, John Steinbeck spent the second half of his life in New York City, with frequent trips to England and France. At the age of 58, after a couple of strokes, he lit out from his home in Sag Harbor, Long Island with his (also) ailing poodle, Charley, to refamiliarize himself with America, its land and people. In a letter to a friend, he outlined his method of travel and his route.
"In the fall - right after Labor Day - I'm going to learn about my own country. I've lost the flavor and taste and sound of it. It's been years since I have seen it. Sooo! I'm buying a pick-up truck with a small apartment on it... bed, stove, desk, ice-box, toilet - not a trailer - what's called a coach. I'm going alone, out toward the West by the Northern way...."
And that's what he did. In the truck he named Rocinante, which he painted on its side, he and Charley drove to Massachusetts and then to Maine before hitting Wisconsin, Minnesota, Montana.... With a stockpile of booze, he rode around the United States in a giant circle recording conversations, observations, reflections, and offering up delectable vignettes of natural beauty. He writes, "I was told that a stranger's purpose in moving about the country might cause inquiry or even suspicion. For this reason I racked a shotgun, two rifles, and a couple of fishing rods in my truck, for it is my experience that if a man is going hunting or fishing his purpose is understood and even applauded."
Much of what was man-made in America disturbed Steinbeck. He was horrified and angered by the pollution, industrial ugliness, uniformity of communities, soulless trailer parks, and much else. He was also annoyed by people's attitudes towards race and difference.
Where Steinbeck really shines is in his description of the landscape. Setting was crucial in Steinbeck's novels and he's almost showing off, proving to skeptics he still has it. He characterizes Montana as "a great splash of grandeur," and talks about its terrain as "shouting color." Mere samples; he can go on for whole pages, molding topography until the ear hears poetry and the mind sees a portrait. Consider this impression of California's redwoods.
"There's a cathedral hush here. Perhaps the thick soft bark absorbs sound and creates silence. The trees rise straight up to zenith; there is no horizon. The dawn comes early and remains dawn until the sun is high. Then the green fernlike foliage so far up strains the sunlight to a green gold and distributes it in shafts or rather in stripes of light and shade. After the sun passes zenith it is afternoon and quickly evening with a whispering dusk as long as was the morning."
Travels with Charley is nice read - witty, poignant, lyrical - but did its author pull a Bruce Chatwin? Chatwin, a British writer of considerable talent, best known for his In Patagonia, was a first-class fraud. His writing is largely fiction passed off as travel literature. The New York Times thinks Steinbeck embroidered. So does Steinbeck's son, also named John, who said that the conversations in Travels are bogus and that his father hardly talked to anyone. "He just sat in his camper and wrote all that (expletive)."
There's a discussion between Steinbeck and a New England farmer about Nikita Khrushchev's famous shoe-brandishing incident.
Steinbeck says, "What happened at the U.N.? I forgot to listen."
"You wouldn't believe it," he said. "Mr. K. took off his shoe and pounded the table."
"Didn't like what was being said."
"Seems a strange way to protest."
"Well, it got attention."
The chat continues for a page and a half. The only problem, according to Charles McGrath in his 2011 article "Reality Check for Steinbeck and Charley," is that this conversation occurs several weeks before Mr. Khrushchev spoke at the United Nations. McGrath notes several other discrepancies and claims Steinbeck did a lot of the trip with his wife, Elaine, who, in the story, Steinbeck meets briefly in Chicago. Moreover, Steinbeck (and, perhaps, his wife) didn't rough it all that much. He (or they) not only stayed in motels (which he acknowledges), but luxury hotels.
With this in mind, the conversations in Travels seem stilted. I noticed this, but chalked it up to being the vernacular of the times. I now see that it's a bit like dialogue one would find in, well, a John Steinbeck novel.
Vrai ou faux, Travels with Charley quickly became a bestseller (and is still popular, with over 200 peer reviews on Amazon.com), allowing readers to get a glimpse into the literary icon's curmudgeonly yet sensitive personality.
The year this book was published happened to be the same year Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for literature. During his acceptance speech in Sweden, Steinbeck said, "the ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement."
A tiny bit of embellishment is sometimes required in travel writing. But outright invention certainly constitutes grievous fault and failure. John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley is an American beauty, though perhaps not a natural beauty.
Troy Parfitt is the author of Why China Will Never Rule the World
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Later in his life as he reached the age of 60, John Steinbeck decided to take a trip cross-country from Maine to California and back again. He was looking for the average American and what that person was all about. Throughout the book, Steinbeck makes several comments that he could not find anyone that he could pin down as this fictitious average person. And instead, Steinbeck really found out about himself. Three months in a car with his long time friend and pet poodle, Charlie, Steinbeck began to see just how vast and dangerous this country must have been for the early settlers and explorers. Even with the "modern" conveniences of 1960, Steinbeck felt uncomfortable, lonely, and at times inconsolable. Near the end of the trip, he no longer looked forward to seeing anything but home.
It is rare to get this type of glimpse into the earlier days of my life in America, so I enjoyed this short book describing my childhood days. Steinbeck foretold many concepts that were yet to occur but that he could "feel" coming: the continued move away from the cities and into suburbia, people not being able to discuss the political issues of the day, and even that America was getting a little soft.
Near the end, Steinbeck the master is at hand as he describes his visit to the South just as the New Orleans Cheerleaders began their demonstrations at racial integration of the school system. Passion drips from the dialogue. Verbal points and counterpoints are injected as Steinbeck tries to come to grips with what just might tear the country apart. This section is vintage Steinbeck and is riveting reading. His fear of the unknown future is palpable. Unfortunately, this is not the way the rest of the book is handled.
This is somewhat a rambling diary of Steinbeck that hits home on occasion and other times is just a piece of American history. I cannot say that the writing is superb or riveting - except near the end, but there is a comfortable pace to this book and overall I would recommend it to the over 50 year old crowd. I'd also recommend it to a younger person that is trying to find out what the country was like in 1960.