Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

One thing I’m aware of in New York is that this city is not representative of America. I can’t hope to come to any sort of understanding of what it’s like to be American just by staring at skyscrapers and going to Museums. After spending a good amount of time in Europe and also in New York, John Steinbeck also had this realisation and decided to reconnect with both the people and the landscape of his country by going on a trip across America. He wrote Travels with Charley to record his experiences over the three months he spent with only his dog, Charley, for company. I thought it would be a great starting point for my year in America, and I wasn’t wrong. I was charmed on every page by Steinbeck’s warm, generous, and non judgemental voice, and by his affection for his country, as well as his little Parisian born dog. By the end, I felt like I had developed an understanding of not just the wide variety of peoples across the expanse of the United States, but also of Steinbeck himself, which I think will greatly enhance my reading of his novels.

Steinbeck’s journey began in New York, from where he drove up to Maine and then worked his way across the East Coast and through the middle, and up to California. He did the trip in the early 60’s, in a converted station wagon called Rocinante, which he fitted up with all the food and supplies he would need. In every town he stopped in, he met locals who shared a little of their lives with him, and Steinbeck makes very intuitative comments about the differences he noticed between states and regions. One observation I particularly enjoyed was the language of road signs; in New York state, Steinbeck notes that the road signs are commands: Stop! No turning! etc, and in Ohio, the language is gentler, with friendly advice rather than curt demands. I also greatly appreciated his sensitive and non judgemental approach towards the people he met. Their lifestyle choices and ways of speaking and behaving may be completely opposed to his, but Steinbeck treats everyone with appreciative respect, curiosity and understanding. Only one incident, watching white people heckle tiny black children attempting to go to a newly mixed school in New Orleans, disgusted Steinbeck, and it also sent a chill down my spine. To know that there were people like that in his country deeply disturbed Steinbeck, but he was also big minded enough to appreciate that those brought up in the Southern states had been exposed to a culture of deeply engrained racism for so many years that they knew nothing else, and had not been educated in a way to develop the more liberal views Steinbeck held.

As a beginner in this great land that dwarfs my own home country, I was fascinated by the contrasts Steinbeck describes between neighbouring states, some with dry, desert landscapes, others with lush green wooded hills and valleys, other with terrifyingly high mountains and deep canyons, others with rolling fields and gentle pastures. Steinbeck captures effortlessly how truly big and varied America is. Each state has its own flavour, its own preoccupations, its own pace, its own unique approach to life. However, throughout the whole journey, Steinbeck notes that there is an ‘American’ identity that ties each of these diverse peoples together; a spirit of ingenuity, of tenacity, of hope, of faith. America is a nation of pioneers, of travellers, descended from those who were brave enough to leave all they knew behind and start again. As such, everyone who Steinbeck met expressed their own desire to travel, to see the world, to get out of their corner of the country, on hearing about Steinbeck’s journey. This restlessness was a very interesting observation to me, and made me wonder whether England is very restful by comparison, as those of us who come from that green and pleasant land are descended from those who stayed put rather than ventured to the new land of opportunity in previous centuries.

What I loved the most about this travelogue, overall, is how Steinbeck found that in rediscovering America, he rediscovered himself, and what he found important and meaningful. In understanding his country, and its people, he grew to understand more about why he felt the way he did about many things, and he also developed a greater appreciation and love of his own home, its comforts, and his wife waiting for him there. In the midst of beautiful landscapes, Steinbeck would find himself going through moments of crushing loneliness, and so would Charley. Despondent together, Steinbeck would soon perk himself up by going into company again, but that feeling of needing companionship was very poignant for me, as though I am greatly enjoying my own little adventure, my home will always be where my heart is, and my heart will always belong in the little corner of England where my family and those I love most are. Steinbeck’s realisation of this, and his renewed love for the land of his birth was touching and heartwarming to read about, and I felt I really got to understand him as a person, and I admire him even the more now for it.

This was such a beautiful, warm and illuminating book; Steinbeck’s voice comes alive off the pages, and the character and the spirit of his little dog are also wonderfully endearing. Read this and enjoy it; it’s a perfect starting point to access Steinbeck’s oeuvre, and it will also open your eyes to the landscape and peoples of America. I couldn’t have started my ‘Reading America’ project in a better place!

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33 comments

  1. This sounds like a great read. I agree it was a perfect way to start your project, but I also think it would be good for those of us who have lived here forever and lost our appreciation for things around us.

    1. It really is, Laura! Oh absolutely – if you want to fall back in love with your country, this will do the trick. It might make you want to chuck it all in and go on a road trip though, be warned!

  2. I do love Travels with Charley. It has been years since I read it last, but Steinbeck is always fresh no matter how many times I encounter him. And though it’s rather late: Welcome to the States!

    1. I think this will be a book I go back to again and again, Sara. There will be something new to delight in each time! Thank you very much – your country has welcomed me with open arms and I feel quite at home already!

    1. You should, Thomas! I think you’d greatly enjoy it. There really is, isn’t there? I hope so too. New York is amazing but I crave countryside and views at the moment!

  3. It is so rewarding to see my country through others’ eyes; first Steinbeck, then yours, Rachel, coming from afar. While I have read other Steinbeck works, I have not read Travels With Charley and should do that. This is a vast country with so many different vistas and regional differences.

    I keep meaning to suggest that when you get to Walden’s Pond, plan time, not only for the wonderful woods and pond, but, to see the Manse and Minuteman Park, where the Revolutionary War began and could be see right out the windows of the Manse. There is a memorial to the British soldiers killed there, as well. A short drive away will be Concord, home to the Alcotts and many more. There I go again, sorry. . .

    1. Penny, I think you would be delighted by Travels with Charley, I really do. I hope to be able to see some of the beautiful landscapes it describes during my time here.

      Thank you for your wonderful advice – I will do as you say. I just need to work out a hire car and get over my fear of driving on the other side of the road and I’ll be on my way! I am so excited to see Concord, and the Alcott home especially.

  4. Hi – Ive just found your blog as someone on mine directed me over to it!

    Im doing a very similar project to you as I am also reading through alot of American Classics. I’ve been looking down your list for lots of ideas.

    1. Thanks JoAnn, I’m glad you enjoyed it! If you love Steinbeck, you’ll love this – you get a real insight into him as a man, and he comes across as such a kind and good hearted person. Which is always nice to discover about people you admire!

  5. I had fear of Steinbeck until I read Travels with Charley, and now I am completely hooked on his writing. I think Steinbeck really captures what’s great about American (and sadly, a few of the bad things). Great review, and I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

    1. Karen, I think anyone who is frightened of Steinbeck should read this, then they’ll realise how wonderful and easy his books are to read. Unlike most ‘classic’ authors, his prose is so clear and pleasant to read. I’m glad you loved this too – I enjoyed reading something positive about America for a change!

  6. I love it that his dog was a standard poodle. My family has standard poodles (because they’re hypoallergenic), and they are just the loveliest dogs. So I think I will enjoy this book when I eventually read it.

  7. We’ve spent a few holidays in New Hampshire and their official motto is ‘Live Free or Die’. It was even stamped on their licence plates! You are so right about each state having their own identity…and considering how populated the US is, it’s not surprising.

    Are you doing some writing of your own about your adventure apart from this blog?

    1. I love that motto! So American! I think each State is sort of like it’s own country in a way…so diverse not just in mindset but in landscape and lifestyle too.

      I am indeed, Darlene! I have two diaries on the go so I shall have plenty of publishable material should anyone request ‘Travels with Chocolate’ in the future! ;)

  8. This is one Steinbeck book that I have missed and will soon pick up. I love this country and all of its variety. I find that whenever I travel, I enjoy it and marvel at the beauty and diversity. When I have to return home, I realize how much I am connected to the land. I love the midwest. I can see both the sunrise and sunset from my home in this flat country. The subtle changes of the seasons are a constant joy. Thank for sharing your experiences.

    1. I love your passion for your country, and your state, Janet! It’s wonderful to so love where you live. I loved the descriptions of America John Steinbeck painted in this book and I can’t wait to see some of the areas he visited with my own eyes!

  9. This was one of the first Steinbeck books I was ever exposed to (mentioned in class alongside the dreadful “The Pearl”) and curiously enough, it was lost to oblivion in my memory until about a year ago when I saw mention of it in an article about Steinbeck. I presumably forgot it because in my mind I tied it to “The Pearl”, but every description I’ve seen of it so far indicates that it could be a good Steinbeck choice, especially given my recent difficulties in reading his less famous books…

    1. Oh this is definitely a brilliant book! What’s so great about it is that you get to really hear John Steinbeck’s voice and understand his personality. I can’t recommend it highly enough! Plus it’s not intimidatingly long like some of his books…

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