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!