Monday, August 29, 2011

A trip through America in 1960

Travels with Charley in Search of America, John Steinbeck

When I read Jenny and Teresa's post about Travels with Charley over at Shelf Love, suddenly I had the strongest feeling of wanting to read this book again.  I had read it in high school, nearly 30 years ago now, and without remembering too much about it, I have always remembered that I liked it.  Never mind my TBR pile, I went Saturday to Barnes & Noble and found a copy.  (On a side note, it was a pleasant surprise to find a book I was looking for on the shelves, and even to see more than one copy.  That doesn't happen very often, though the staff are always willing to place orders on-line. There's just something very satisfying about walking out with the book you want, rather than waiting a week for Amazon to deliver.)

When I read this as a teen-ager, I was living in Washington State.  My family had also lived in Oregon, Michigan, and Georgia, with a lot of traveling back and forth, so I had some idea of where Steinbeck's travels take him.  But it was from a child's perspective, in the back seat, and probably with my nose stuck in a book.  As an adult, I've moved across the country from Washington to Massachusetts, then to Michigan, and most recently to Texas.  I've traveled the same roads that he did, even if sometimes I was moving in the opposite direction.  I had this constant feeling of recognition, even though 30-40 years separated our trips.

Naturally I had a particular interest in Steinbeck's chapter on Texas.  I didn't know much about the state before I moved down here.  I had a "Lonesome Dove" image in my mind, so I was very surprised by the Gulf Coast, and by Houston's crossroads-of-the-world diversity, not to mention its urban sprawl.  I would agree with Steinbeck's statements that "Texas is a state of mind. Texas is an obsession" and "Texas has its own private history based on, but not limited by, facts."  Though occasionally I think the famous line about antebellum South Carolina being too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum might fit Texas as well.

After all these years, I had forgotten the humor of this book, or maybe I just didn't appreciate it at the time.  And I know I didn't appreciate Steinbeck's choice of reading materials: Joseph Addison's The Spectator, which Jane Austen would have read in her father's library.  Like Austen, Steinbeck wandered freely through his parents' books, and I would guess that like Austen his self-directed reading shaped his own writing and his unique voice.

Since I had no idea at the time I first read the book that poodles came in any size but small and smaller, I didn't fully appreciate the wonderful character of Charley, around whom much of the humor revolves.  The introduction to my Penguin Classics edition quotes Steinbeck's wife Elaine:
"I remember when he asked me to take Charley Dog. He said rather meekly, 'This is a big favor I'm going to ask, Elaine. Can I take Charley?' 'What a good idea,' I said, 'if you get into any kind of trouble, Charley can go for help.' John looked at me sternly and said, 'Elaine, Charley isn't Lassie.'"
My favorite Charley episode is the tour of Yellowstone Park that comes to such an abrupt end due to his sudden homicidal reaction to the famous bears (technically, it would be suicidal, though Charley would go down fighting).  His continuing medical problems also bring some anxiety and tension to the story.  I wonder if the hapless veterinarian in Spokane ever read the book. 

Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the book's publication, and also of Steinbeck's Nobel Prize for Literature.  I wonder if we have anyone today who could take this kind of trip and write this kind of book.  Bill Bryson, maybe, or Tony Horwitz.


  1. So happy to have inspired you to revisit this. I enjoyed so many parts of this book, and Charley's behavior at Yellowstone was a standout moment for sure. What a great book!

  2. I've enjoyed reading all the reviews of this for the Classics Circuit and really must find a copy! I agree with him about Texas - I lived in Austin for 2 years and still marvel at the extreme pride that Texans have. It amused me on one hand and scared me on the other!

  3. Teresa, I have you and Jenny to thank for a perfect Sunday of reading!

    Anbolyn, there's a reason for all those "Keep Austin Weird" bumpersticker! Not to mention being stuck in the middle of the Texas - Texas A&M rivalry.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!