Have dog, will travel

John Steinbeck hits the road in ‘Travels With Charley’

In 1960 at the age of 58, Steinbeck had already published his last novel (although he didn’t know it), and had less than a decade to live (which he also didn’t know but probably suspected). He was restless, a feeling exacerbated by having spent the past 20 years living in New York and traveling widely in Europe, far from his native Northern California. As he says in the opening pages of Travels With Charley in Search of America (1962, Viking Press), he wondered if he really knew his own country after all that time. So he set out in a custom-built pickup-camper to find out.

The real star of the book, of course, is in the title: Charley Dog, a standard poodle, who Steinbeck clearly dotes on. Every anecdote affirms that Steinbeck is a dog person through and through, and his descriptions of his “conversations” with Charley will be familiar to dog companions everywhere.

It is my experience that in some areas Charley is more intelligent than I am, but in others he is abysmally ignorant. He can’t read, can’t drive a car, and has no grasp of mathematics. But in his own field of endeavor, which he was now practicing, the slow, imperial smelling over and anointing of an area, he has no peer. Of course his horizons are limited, but how wide are mine?

John Steinbeck

The consensus among literary scholars is that Steinbeck’s account was heavily fictionalized, with inconsistencies in the timeline of his travels and dialogue that doesn’t quite ring true. Still, he seemed to capture, and brood about, many of the ways that America was changing in those decades after the end of World War II. Cultural homogenization, from music charts to chain stores and restaurants, was accelerating. Cities were sprawling, the environment was being plundered for profit, hard manual labor was being outsourced to immigrants. And of course the fight for racial equality was coming to a boil.

To that last point: Along the way, Steinbeck deals with bouts of illness, both his own and Charley’s, and automotive mishaps. But the only situation for which Steinbeck seems unable to find a wryly amusing observation is the segment of his journey that passes through the Deep South. He stops in New Orleans to witness in person a situation that made national news: The ugly crowds shouting slurs and profanity at a young black girl outside a white school that was being forcibly desegregated. During the rest of his trip through Louisiana and Alabama he presents conversations with a couple of white men and a couple of black men that serve to cover the gamut of emotions and opinions. The tidiness of encountering a prime example of each set of beliefs was one of the least believable bits of the book for me, but his intention to show the variety of viewpoints and the wide gulfs between them rings true.

Really, so many of the observations Steinbeck made over the course of his journey could be written today. In that sense, it’s a little depressing how little has changed. On the other hand, I had fun imagining how different his trip would have been if he had an iPhone in his pocket.

I’ll leave you with Steinbeck’s gentle skewering of the Lone Star State:

Texas is the only state that came into the Union by treaty. It retains the right to secede at will. We have heard them threaten to secede so often that I formed an enthusiastic organization — The American Friends for Texas Succession. This stops the subject. They want to be able to secede but they don’t want anyone to want them to.

John Steinbeck