Pet Travel Thursday
Destination: The American Road Trip
By Edie Jarolim
Woe to the author who becomes a classic, especially one who has been awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature. The uninitiated reader — or the one who only knows the books assigned in high school — is likely to suspect that the author’s works are going to be Good For You, and therefore not much fun.
Nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to the delightful Travels with Charley in Search of America: (Centennial Edition) (Centennial Edition)by John Steinbeck, which I just read for the first time. Of course it helps that Charley is a French poodle. No book with a dog as a title character can take itself too seriously.
Steinbeck was famous for such novels as The Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row by 1960, when he set off on his journey from his home on Long Island, New York, to reconnect with America. He had spent a good part of the 1950s in France and England and was worried that he had become a stranger to the country that had inspired him to write.
I was a little concerned about the book’s potential for pretentiousness when I discovered that Steinbeck had named his custom-designed vehicle — part pickup truck, part RV — Rocinante, after the horse in Don Quixote. I needn’t have worried. Steinbeck not only chose the anti-hero who tilting at windmills to emulate, but he deflates his own literary conceit early on, writing: “I do not know how many people recognized the name [Rocinante], but surely no one ever asked about it.”
That this memoir is neither heroic nor macho was one of the things that surprised me most about it. I’d imagined it was going to be a less druggy, more socially conscious version of On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Far from it. Along with having a dog along as a conversation opener — “A dog, particularly an exotic like Charley, is a bond between strangers” — Steinbeck observes that “the best way to attract attention, help, and conversation is to be lost.” Real men don’t ask for directions, and some of the funniest scenes in this book involve Steinbeck’s doing just that. When he inquires of a taciturn Maine state trooper where Deer Island is, the trooper only points, never speaks. And to the author’s annoyance, a cook at a roadside restaurant in the Twin Cities tells Steinbeck, who has been trying to find Sinclair Lewis’ birthplace, “Nobody can get lost in Minneapolis. I was born there and I know.”
He also talks quite often about his feelings of loneliness on the road. And he clearly misses the companionship of his wife. It has been said that this is the book of an old man (although Steinbeck was 58, which as we know is the new 40). If that’s so, viva maturity.
The other thing that surprised me was how contemporary this book felt. I’d expected a world preserved in amber, a quaint report from another era. Instead, this travelogue feels completely fresh, with Steinbeck complaining about the homogenization of the country, the increase of large highways, plastic wrapping, bland food…. Of a roadside restaurant he writes:
The food is oven-fresh, spotless and tasteless; untouched by human hands. I remembered with an ache certain dishes in France and Italy touched by innumerable human hands.
At the same time, Steinbeck is willing to be open minded about many of the changes in America. He visits people who live in a mobile home and, after listening to them extol the virtues of their life, muses: “Could it be that Americans are a restless people, a mobile people…the pioneers, the immigrants who people the continent, were the restless ones in Europe.”
Steinbeck’s reflections about the nature of his perceptions also struck me as being very modern — or post modern. There are many passages that give a vivid sense of place, but there are more that talk about the nature of the travel experience itself. Steinbeck readily admits his views of nature are based on his mood:
I discovered long ago in collecting and classifying marine animals that what I found was closely intermeshed with how I felt at the moment. External reality has a way of not being so external after all.
I could go on, but this is the first meeting of the Pet Travel Book Club and one of the key features of a book club is a discussion. I’m interested in knowing what you thought of the book, of course, but I’m also interested in some larger questions, spurred by an article by Charles McGrath published earlier this year in The New York Times: “A Reality Check for Steinbeck and Charley.” The gist of the article is that this memoir is really a work of fiction.
Does it matter? As a one-time literary scholar, it probably should to me but it doesn’t. I also suspect that Steinbeck might have ended up being berated by Oprah, as James Frey was, and I find that disturbing.
Do you think that the dialogue is stilted, as McGrath contends?
Do you think this is a dark book, as McGrath says?
This is an unusual book club. It is also meeting on Will My Dog Hate Me , where we will discussing the book as it relates to Steinbeck’s relationship with/depiction of Charley. I hope you’ll join us there too.
Next month we’ll be reading Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship
Note from VMB: What a great choice to kick off the pet travel book club! I’ve been a real Steinbeck fan, and I’ll reply in the comment section to the latest attack on him. But for now, if you want to see more at A Traveler’s Library, these posts were popular: Cannery Row , Steinbeck and McMurtry (with my own review of Travels With Charley), and a guest post by Jessie Vogts about an interview with the author of Steinbeck’s California, a terrific guide for travelers to Steinbeck’s homeland.
All photos here were taken by Vera Marie Badertscher at the Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California. Please do not reuse without permission. The title links to Amazon allow you to conveniently shop for Steinbeck books or anything else that strikes your fancy and at the same time earns a few pennies for Edie Jarolim. She thanks you.