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.
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.
on March 6, 2002
It's amazing how relevant Steinbeck's observations of America are forty years after he wrote this book. In fact, much of what he says seems to apply even more now than when he first wrote it, such as when he observes: "the mountain of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use. In this, if in no other way, we can see the wild and wreckless exuberance of our production, and waste seems to be the index." In a similar vein, he wonders, when considering the expansion of large cities, "why progress looks so much like destruction." Steinbeck's sarcasm also comes to the surface when he notes some of the many odd habits and leisure activities of Americans, such as antique-hunting in omnipresent antique shops, which he felt were "bulging with authentic and attested trash from an earlier time." He was also quite impressed with the country's intrepid hunters, to whom he feared his poodle Charley would look like a buck deer. After spending an evening in Maine with some migrant farms workers from Quebec, he expressed (rather vainly, in retrospect) his hope that the country would not some day be overwhelmed "by people not too proud or too lazy or too soft to bend to the earth and pick up the things we eat." Far from being simply critical though, what comes out of this book is Steinbeck's great love for the country. His view that the "American identity is an exact and provable thing" still rings true today. "Travels with Charley" is not just classic travel literature, it is also a very readable and informative set of observations on America in the mid-20th century and beyond.
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.
on April 11, 2000
Wow! Let me repeat: WOW! Steinbeck is not particularly known for his humor, but in Travels with Charley, he lets everything spill out of the bag. I don't want to ruin anything about this book for those who haven't read it, but it is one of the top five travel books I've ever come upon. (far better than On the Road, and right up there with Travels in Hyperreality).
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. And although he never, in so many words, tells precisely what the White Whale of America is, I think he tells us the following:
America is a land of people who want to go somewhere else so they can be alone; and the only reason they want to go anywhere is so they can come back and tell everyone about it.
A word of warning: You will cringe at Steinbeck's description of the American South, and realize just how different it is than the rest of America.
Also: it is interesting to note that at the height of his career (1960), probably only less famous than Ernest Hemingway of all world literary figures at the time, not a single person recognized Steinbeck in his three months abroad. Tell me that isn't depressing for any Leos out there with literary aspirations. :)
on May 9, 2000
I read Travels with Charley after reading most of Steinbeck's novels. I enjoyed it so much that I immediately read it again. This work lets the reader get a glimpse of John Steinbeck, the American and the man. I put American first because Steinbeck, I believe, was one of those men who loved his country so much, that he seemed to consider himself an American above all else. I enjoy creative works by individuals who have an unquestionable love for something. I believe Steinbeck was such a person. In the early '60's he is dismayed (but loves) America, and so sets out to rediscover her. Since he is a shy person, he takes his dog, a large black 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, but more importantly to me as a huge Steinbeck fan, is the uncovering of John Steinbeck, the man. If you want a vicarious trip into '60's America or want to know John Steinbeck, you'll love this little book. I still love it !
on November 28, 2000
This surely deserves its place among the hallowed shelves of Great American Writing. It stands alone as perhaps the most light-hearted of Steinbecks books, yet also one of the most sensitive and thoughtful, being a partial auto-biography. This is in no way, shape, or form, a boring book, as many disappointed young high school readers have said. Quite sorry, kids, but English class is not meant to be filled with snappy little series books that require little more thought[possibly less] than a telivision show. Steinbeck, perhaps is ''my'' writer in that he seems to capture my thoughts and feelings to the point of perfection, and with frightful clarity. This book is such a suberb rendition of America that the new comer to this country would do well to read it to get a feel for the land. It seems as if the plains of the Heartland, the peaks of the North, the desert land[that I know best] of the South West are all presented as if they are skillful little photographs, taken with a firm and learned hand.
Different from the typical travel book in that it is not so much about the land or people[though they play a tangible role] as it is about the authors own emotions and thoughts on this wonderful country, this totally unique land. Reccomended to all who love Steinbeck, America, and clear thought. Pouncing Fossa
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.
on April 11, 2000
I'm german, but I spent a year in America and I had to write an essay about the book. I didn't know what it was about when I started reading, but after a few pages Steinbeck caught my attention with his way of writing. I was really impressed how he described his feelings towards the journey. After reading "Of mice and men" I had to correct the view I had of John Steinbeck. The way he describes people is just amazing. I mainly read the book to compare the characters I meet during my year in Kansas with those in the book. But not just the people intested me, also how much the society has changed in 40 years. And I was surprised. Steinbeck previewed several themes that are of importance nowadays. for example the enviromental pronlems we have. Also the lack of interest in political matters. But without Charley the book would never be what it is. One laughs about him(yellostone national Park) but one the other hand one suffers when Charley feel bad. I liked to read the book, because it is written in an easy to understad language. That' why I rated the book 5.
on February 25, 2002
This year marks the 100th aniversary of the birth of Steinbeck, and this book is one of the great pleasures of an avid reader. From his home in New York, there and back again, Steinbeck crosses America in a truck named for Don Quixote's horse, (all men should name their car Rocinate, after all), with a French poodle named Charley.
The worst part about the book is it is far too short, leaving a reader desiring more. Steinbeck's journey touches a side of America, the true awe and wonder for the land and her people like few novels. The work is full of humor and insight, both profound and personal. Perhaps only a handful of books pierces the American experience like "Travels with Charley". It is a book that requires a slow pace, to savor the voyage across this great land and her treasures.
My experience in reading the book can best be stated by Steinbeck himself, in an observation made while leaving the state of Maine, "There are times that one treasures for all one's life, and such times are burned clearly and sharply on the material of total recall. I felt very fortunate that morning."