First published in 1962, Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck captures a momentous period in the writer’s life. Ageing, ailing, and concerned that he has lost touch with the American spirit, Steinbeck invites us on a road trip. Complete with customised camper van and a poodle named Charley, we motor thousands of miles under wide skies, in search of the essence of modern America. From his love affair with Montana, to misgivings about Texas, Steinbeck considers the ways that his country has changed since his wandering youth. In this gem of a travelogue, we’re in the finest of company.
He begins brilliantly, with a rousing and persuasive argument for taking risks in later life. Suffering from an unspecified condition that has led to him being lectured about his weight, cholesterol levels and pace of life, Steinbeck ruminates on the perils of retiring into a kind of semi-invalidism. Refusing to surrender his passions for a couple of extra years of enfeebled life, he decides that if the road trip proves to be too much for him, then so be it.
‘I see too many men delay their exits with a sickly, slow reluctance to leave the stage. It’s bad theater as well as bad living.’
His sole concession to fears about travelling alone, is to decide on a companion, his beloved dog, Charley. With nerves of steel and ‘the appearance and attitude of a French rake of the nineteenth century,’ Charley offers courage and steadfast companionship, as well as providing the perfect icebreaker in social situations. The pair set off from New York in a camper van Steinbeck names Rocinante (after Don Quixote’s horse) and head north towards Maine.
The state seems to stretch into infinity, punctuated by an unexpected viewing of the Aurora Borealis, where Steinbeck’s skills as a wordsmith conjure magic. Much further down the track, magic is conjured too by the Mojave desert. ‘In this waterless air, the stars come down just out of reach of your fingers,’ prompting contemplation of oneness and majestic order.
Betwixt these two lie many places that Steinbeck reflects upon with characteristic insight, his wonderful descriptions of the natural world offset by distaste for the sprawling advance of cities ‘ringed with trash,’ and obsessed with plastic. He wonders whether society will come to rue these developments.
His keen portrayal of place is complemented by curiosity about his fellow citizens. Prior to his trip, a friend had bewailed the lack of conviction in general society.
‘This used to be a nation of giants. Where have they gone?’
Steinbeck watches, listens, and delivers a verdict, particularly in Texas, a place he considers to be practically a state of mind, and ‘The South’, where he witnesses gut wrenching racism.
Certain scenes are rumoured to have been, let’s say, embellished by Steinbeck’s novelist spirit, but he captures his time and place with passages so splendidly written they demand instant re-reading. As the journey progresses, Charley, well past puppyhood, becomes unwell, a nagging ongoing condition mirroring Steinbeck’s own decline in health. Their time is passing and this may be their last grand adventure.
A wonderful addition to any Steinbeck fan’s bookshelf.
Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck is published Penguin Classics, 240 pages.