Travels With Charlie: In Search Of America
Viking Press, 1962
I first read this book back in the 1970’s. Back then the idea of being able to take off and travel the country for a couple of months seemed just a dream. Now that this is our life I wanted to read this book again and see what John Steinbeck’s impressions were.
For those of you unfamiliar with this book, here’s My Summary: In 1960 John Steinbeck set off with his dog, Charley, to have a look at America. He was born on the west coast, lived in New York but hadn’t seen the rest of the country in a long time. His goal was to see the “customs, attitudes, myths and directions and changes” in America.
He traveled from his home in Long Island, New York up through New England to the top of Maine. Then he turned west and heads toward Chicago. From there he went north and across the northern-most states until he got to the Pacific coast. Then he went down the coast to mid-central California. From there he went across the bottom of the country and back on home to New York City.
My Reaction: I outlined his itinerary in the paragraph above for a purpose. Its my one disappointment in the book. If he was so unhappy with his coastal viewpoint, why did he just circle around the outline of the country? He totally missed the interior – the heart and belly of the country. Now that I have that out of the way, let me say that I still enjoyed the book. Its basically a road-trip memoir, not a travelogue. Mr. Steinbeck was an excellent observer of people and trends and the countryside as a whole. Let me highlight some of the key observations. Keep in mind this is 1960.
- He saw first hand the growth of the massive interstate highway system that we now take for granted. I agree with the author that after a while all the highways seem alike. We much prefer the back roads. I can only imagine his language if he saw it now.
- For the first time he saw the development of the mobile home industry and he was intrigued. He speculated how this was going to affect the housing industry.
- He was horrified by all the sanitization he saw and how everything is wrapped in plastic. (He was describing a “plastic” motel room and the plastic glasses wrapped in saran wrap.) I was equally horrified by his story of an old Arab in North Africa who handed him tea in a class that “was so coated with use, it was opaque.”
- His observation of people and his search for the unique American character was equally interesting. He listened to people and their speech patterns and was afraid that America would lose it’s regional accents due to radio and TV. He had a wonderful way of getting people to talk to him and he seemed never to meet a stranger.
There is so much in this book. I felt like I had a chance to meet the man, not the author. One characteristic of Mr. Steinbeck’s I found endearing – his ability to get lost. By the end of the book he was even lost getting back to his own house. And I had a chance to meet Charley. He was a unique character in the book. The author often explained the dog’s action as if they were the actions of a human companion.
How did the book compare to our travels across America? Actually, I found it quite similar, but updated by a few decades. The countryside is still rich and majestic. The cities are large and spreading out. The retail chains and big box stores tend to give the cities a similar look and feel. But people are still the same – mostly very kind and helpful to strangers, some are opinionated, most care about others and are curious. Almost everyone we meet is friendly and welcoming. Steinbeck found the same.
All in all, this is a very good read for someone who a.) loves reading about the “good old days” or b.) loves the novels of John Steinbeck and wants to meet the man or c.) loves tales of the open road as it used to be. If that’s you, give Travels With Charley a try.