Steinbeck Classic Launches Pet Travel Book Club

Pet Travel Thursday

Destination: The American Road Trip


Book: Travels With Charley, In Search of America by John Steinbeck

By Edie Jarolim

John Steinbeck and Charley
John Steinbeck and Charley

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.”

Steinbeck's Camper Van
The real Rocinante, in The Steinbeck Center

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.

Travels With Charley Map
Travels With Charley Map at the Steinbeck Center

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. 

 

About Edie Jarolim

Edie Jarolim, who has written extensively about travel, food, and pets, has reviewed books about pets and travel for A Traveler's Library. She is working on a memoir of her life as a travel writer called Getting Naked for Money: An Accidental Travel Writer Reveals All. Read more about it at her blog EdieJarolim.com

20 thoughts on “Steinbeck Classic Launches Pet Travel Book Club

  1. I have come late to find this great review and lively comment discussion. Although a strong Steinbeck fan,having devoured all his books- this is one I have NEVER read! Now I must get my hands on it.

  2. I’m a big books on tape — well, I should say CD now — fan too and road trip books are especially fun. If you can match the setting to the book as I did with Tony Hillerman in Navajo country, it’s a real bonus.

  3. I also find this a book that ages well.

    I didn’t read it as a fact-filled memoir but as a story about the road–where all the best stories happen. Whether a particular meeting occurred exactly as reported or not wasn’t important. But the ideas expressed were.

    While I enjoyed reading Travels with Charley, it was even more fun to listen to as a book on tape while traveling myself with my dog in the backseat.

    It brought out my restlessness and desire to explore as well.

  4. Very interesting article. One of the talks I do is on Jazz and the American Identity, and my research on the American character turned up a relevant study that found that there is an identifiable gene of restlessness in many of the people who came to the US through the generations. Basically risk-takers, more prone to innovate, be independent, leave their homes in search of something unknown. So there is some evidence that his observation is well founded.

    1. That’s fascinating about the restlessness gene! I love how artists in these different disciplines converge with similar conclusions about creativity — and identity — in America.

  5. I really don’t care if Travels with Charley is not totally accurate. I don’t care if Steinbeck took liberties with the truth to create a compelling story. I wonder about judging Steinbeck’s half century old work by the today’s Oprah inspired “standards.” Was narrative non-fiction even a genre in 1960? The tell-all memoir is the genre du jour, it wasn’t in 1960. Fiction was. Even if Steinbeck made up a lot of stuff, I don’t believe he faked his love for Charley. Steinbeck’s tone of warmth and tenderness rang true, even if “facts” were embellished

    1. Great points, Deborah. You’re absolutely right about the difference in the conventions of different writing genres now and 50 years ago. I think it’s fun to find out what Steinbeck did and didn’t do but to apply contemporary standards of gut-spilling to a time when that simply wasn’t done is unreasonable — and not very scholarly!

  6. Glad I could spur people to read — or revisit — this terrific book.

    Germaine, it’s my sense that Charley is more a sounding board than a mirror. As I always say, one of the many great things about having a pet is having an excuse to talk to yourself without people (well, a large percentage of the population) thinking you’re crazy!

    1. I promised that I would return in the comment section to opine about the criticism of Steinbeck for not being literally factual in Travels With Charley. So here I am. In my opinion it is a case of a reporter trying to make his own reputation by throwing mudballs at someone who already has a solid rep. Kind of like two guys in the locker room comparing equipment. And in this case, Steinbeck clearly wins. Nobel Prize winner, multi-best-selling author, writer of what everyone agrees is the best American Road Trip Book, which is still selling like mad 50 years later. And, let’s face it, Steinbeck must have been much happier about the successes of Grapes of Wrath or Cannery Row–the serious books–than about this trifle.
      The places where he plays fast and loose with the truth are minor in the face of the impact of the book on the reading and traveling public. We’re not talking facts that will affect world peace for gosh sakes!

      1. As the former newspaper reporter who doglessly followed Stenbeck’s “Travels With Charley” route last fall, I’d like to defend myself. I originally took the trip as a way to compare 1960 America with 2010 America. But in the process of trying to follow Steinbeck’s trail as faithfully as possible, I discovered the 50-year-old “scoop” that the book is filled with fiction and fabrications; I did not set out to do Steinbeck harm or make a name for myself by fact-checking him; my trip with Steinbeck’s ghost just turned out that way. Charles McGrath is a New York Times writer who wrote about my trip and my charge in Reason magazine that “TWC” is “something of a fraud” because it was marketed, reviewed, taught and revered as nonfiction for 50 years; McGrath didn’t “discover” anything about the book. Anyone who is interested in what I really did on my 2010 trip, why I took it, what I found out about Steinbeck’s mythologized 1960 trip and what the so-called Steinbeck scholars thought about it, should go to http://www.TravelsWithoutCharley2010 at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “TWC” is full of wonderful stuff but, sorry, it is mostly made up. Whether that misrepresentation — made to the reading public in 1962 by Steinbeck, his agent, his editor, his publishing company — matters is something I thought would be taken up by the Steinbeck scholars I embarrassed, but it turns out that they are more interested in pooh-poohing my journalism or excusing Steinbeck’s obvious lies and his dishonest account of what he really thought about 1960 America. Just about anything you want to know about “TWC” and Steinbeck’s actual trip can be found at my web site.

        1. Bill, thanks for coming by and commenting here. Since I linked to your article on my blog in the context of my John Woestendiek post, http://willmydoghateme.com/pet-travel/travel-thursday-tailing-john-steinbeck, and you clarified your intentions to me — i.e., that you did not set out to debunk Steinbeck — I specifically did not mention you by name. Also, Charles McGrath mentions other debunkers in his NYTimes story.

          Whatever your intentions, I think the basic criticism still holds: That the book is being judged for its veracity by standards that didn’t exist in 1960 so the discussion is ahistorical.

  7. I *think I read Travels With Charley years ago, but need to revisit. Thanks for the nudge down memory lane.

  8. Edie raises excellent questions. Although it has been a while since I read the book, my recollection is of a journey toward simplicity and one’s own inner life with the author’s canine companion serving as a sort of mirror.

  9. i haven’t read this book in decades (!) and need to pick it up again – thank you! that said, i often get too annoyed for words at people judging other writers for fiction/non. (that said, people should be truthful, to be sure.) it’ll be interesting to watch how it plays out.

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