Travels with Charley: In Search of America is a travelogue by American author John Steinbeck. It documents the road trip he took with his French standard poodle Charley around the United States, in 1960. He wrote that he was moved by a desire to see his country on a personal level, since he made his living writing about it. He had many questions going into his journey, the main one being, "What are Americans like today?" However, he found that the "new America" did not live up to his expectations.
Steinbeck traveled throughout the United States in a specially-made camper which he named "Rocinante" after the horse of Don Quixote. He started his travels in Long Island, New York roughly following the outer border of the United States, from Maine to the Pacific Northwest, down into his native Salinas Valley in California, across to Texas, up through the Deep South, and then back to New York, a trip encompassing nearly 10,000 miles.
According to Thom Steinbeck, the author's older son, the real reason for the trip was that Steinbeck knew he was dying and wanted to see his country one last time. Thom says he was surprised that his stepmother (Steinbeck's wife) allowed Steinbeck to make the trip; because of his heart condition he could have died at any time.
Steinbeck began the book by describing his life-long wanderlust and his preparations to travel the country again, after 25 years. He was 58 years old in 1960 and at the end of his career, but he felt that he "was writing of something [he] did not know about, and it seemed to [him] that in a so-called writer this is criminal" (6). He had a truck fitted with a custom camper-shell for his journey and planned on leaving after Labor Day from his home in Sag Harbor, Long Island, New York. Steinbeck delayed his trip slightly due to Hurricane Donna which made a direct hit on Long Island. Steinbeck's exploits in saving his boat during the middle of the hurricane foreshadow his fearless, or even reckless, state of mind to dive into the unknown.
He had a discussion with a farmer in the White Mountains about Khrushchev’s visit to the United Nations and the approaching presidential election. The two concluded that a combination of fear and uncertainty over the future limited their discussion over the election. Steinbeck enjoyed learning about people through local morning radio programs, although he noted that: "If Teen Angel is top of the list in Maine, it is the top of the list in Montana" (35), showing the ubiquity of culture brought on by mass media technologies.
Steinbeck next took US Highway 1 to Maine. On the way he noted a commonality between most of the “summer” stores. They were all closed for the winter. Antique shops, that bordered a lot of the roads up North, sold old “junk” that Steinbeck would have bought if he thought he had room for it, noting that he had more junk at home than most stores. He stopped at a little restaurant just outside the town of Bangor where he learned that other people’s attitudes can greatly affect your own attitude. Steinbeck then went to Deer Isle, Maine, deciding to go because a friend of his went there every time he had traveled to Maine. His friend always raved about it, but could never describe exactly what about it that was so captivating. While driving to Deer Isle, Steinbeck stopped and asked for directions. He later learned not to ask for directions in Maine because locals don’t like to talk to tourists and tend to give them incorrect information. When Steinbeck arrived at the house where he was supposed to stay, he met a very terse cat and ate the best lobster he had ever tasted, fresh from the local waters and un-traumatized by travel. He next went to northern Maine, where he spent the night in a field next to a group of French-speaking migrant potato pickers from Canada, with whom he shared some French vintage. Steinbeck's descriptions of the workers was sympathetic and even romanticized, a clear nod to his works such as The Grapes of Wrath which made him famous. For the final part of his visit to Maine, Steinbeck traveled around several towns throughout the state and visited popular outdoor clothing stores such as Abercrombie and Fitch.
Steinbeck next traveled to Niagara Falls and some Midwestern cities. Before reaching those destinations, he took a detour and discussed his dislike of the government. He said that the government makes a person feel small because it doesn't matter what you say, if it’s not on paper and certified by an official, the government doesn't care. As he traveled on, he described how wherever he went people’s attitudes and beliefs changed. All states differ by how people may talk to one another or treat other people. For example, as he drove through Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois, there was a great increase in the population from state to state. The small villages that he had once seen were now growing into big cities and the roads, such as the U.S. 90, were filled with traffic. Also, everywhere he went, people's views changed. For example, when he went to New England, he saw that people there spoke tersely and usually waited for the newcomer to come up to him and confront him. However, in Midwestern cities, people were more outgoing and were willing to come right up to him. He explained how strangers talked freely without caution as a sense of longing for something new and being somewhere other than the place they were. They were so used to their everyday life that when someone new came to town, they were eager to explore new information and imagine new places. It was as if a new change had entered their life every time someone from out of town came into their state.
Traveling further, Steinbeck discovered that technology was advancing so quickly as to give Americans more and more instant gratification. For example, Steinbeck was very intrigued by mobile homes. Mobile homes showed a new way of living for America. They also reflected the attitude that if you don't like a given place, you should be able to pick up and leave. Steinbeck also discussed this change in America when he traveled through cities of great production such as Youngstown, Cleveland, Akron, Toledo, Pontiac, Flint, South Bend, and Gary. He compared what he saw to the Ufizzi in Florence and the Louvre in Paris.
Upon visiting the center, he lamented at being forced to leave behind the wondrous W.P.A Guides To The States. Stopping at a diner for directions, Steinbeck realized that our American society is oblivious to its surroundings, life and culture. Steinbeck mentioned that Americans have put "cleanliness first at the expense of taste" (141) (as he travels through Fargo, North Dakota), and that the mentality of our nation has grown bland. Allowing his thoughts to slip back to his time in Minnesota, he lamented, "It looks as though the natural contentiousness of people has died" (142) referring to the political ignorance that society seemed to cling to, bringing before our eyes the lack of risk our once-rebellious nation now embraces. Throughout the section, Steinbeck uses simple, symbolic entities he encounters in his travels to express his views of the mindset of the country. For instance, at one point he speaks of a rafter of turkey, and after casting criticism and ridicule at the source of Thanksgiving dinner, ends the string of insults with an unexpected transition to American life. He states, "And suddenly I thought of that valley of the turkeys and wondered how I could have the gall to think turkeys stupid. Indeed, they have an advantage over us. They are good to eat."(129)
"I am in love with Montana," said Steinbeck. He explained it as a place unaffected by television; a place with kind, laid-back individuals. "It seemed to me that the frantic bustle of America was not in Montana (158)." He went to the battlefield of Little Big Horn. He traveled through the "Injun Country" and thought of an author who wrote a novel about war against the Nez Perce tribes. Steinbeck and Charley then traveled to Yellowstone National Park, a place that "is no more representative of America than Disneyland." Here, the gentle and non-confrontational Charley showed a side of himself Steinbeck had never seen: Charley's canine instincts caused him to go crazy barking at a grizzly bear in the road. They next visited the Great Divide in the Rocky Mountains. He imagined American explorers Lewis and Clark and early French explorers and wondered whether or not those men were impressed with what they found in America.
Steinbeck then visited Seattle, Washington and California. Steinbeck grew up in the Salinas Valley region of California, so much of the narrative is his revisit of the area, seeing its changes and progression, particularly the population growth. Steinbeck reflected on seeing the Columbia River how Lewis and Clark must have felt when coming west. After this, he noted the changes the west had undergone since then (p. 180): “It was only as I approached Seattle that the unbelievable change became apparent... I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction.”(181) Rocinante, Steinbeck’s truck, then had a flat tire on a remote back road and in his retelling of the unfortunate event, he wrote, “It was obvious that the other tire might go at any minute, and it was Sunday and it was raining and it was Oregon.”(185) Though the specialized tires were hard to come by, the problem was resolved in mere hours by the unexpected generosity of a gas station attendant. The episode, occurring to the wealthy Steinbeck in an enormously well-equipped and self-contained camper, is a send-up of similar desperate scenes in The Grapes of Wrath; but the episode seemed to mean something beyond comedy to the author anyway.
Steinbeck then visited the giant redwood trees and ancient Sequoia trees that he had come to appreciate and adore in his lifetime. He said, “The vainest, most slap-happy and irreverent of men, in the presence of redwoods, goes under a spell of wonder and respect.”(189) When Charley refuses to urinate on the trees (a "salute" for a dog, as Steinbeck remarks), Steinbeck opines: “‘If I thought he did it out of spite or to make a joke,’ I said to myself, ‘I’d kill him out of hand.’”(193) He then visited a bar from his youth where he met and caught up with many friends, learning that a lot of regulars and childhood chums had died (many names from previous novels are mentioned and seen, or suggested to be, real people). He then seemed to say goodbye to his hometown, on pages 205 to 208, for the last time, and making an allusion to a book by Thomas Wolfe You Can't Go Home Again. He then concluded with, “I printed once more on my eyes, south, west, and north, and then we hurried away from the permanent and changeless past where my mother is always shooting a wildcat and my father is always burning his name with his love.”(208).
He mentioned a book by Edna Ferber about a tiny group of rich Texans, and related it to his own experience with a family similar to the one in the book at his Texas Thanksgiving. He elaborated more on his Thanksgiving and then went on to talk about the black and white relations in the south compared to the relations in the north and in his hometown of Salinas, California, sharing the theory of "separate but equal’ (248). Steinbeck wrote about the desegregation of schools and how there was a change in the north. In the southern states, such as Texas, he discussed about how when people are not proud of something they have been involved in, that they don't like to welcome witnesses, because they believe the witnesses may be the ones causing all the trouble. During his journey through Texas, he stayed in Amarillo, where his faithful dog companion, Charley, became ill and stayed in a veterinary hospital for a couple of days. Steinbeck then realized what it would be like to travel without his companion. Steinbeck then discussed his ideas of a strong "difference between an American and the Americans" (243). He referred to previous experiences where people have described Americans badly and then turned to him in telling him that he/she was not speaking about him, but the others. If true, then he assumed it is true with every other country's people such as the British, or the Frenchman and the French. So even though he dreaded to see and hear the events of his travels through Texas, he took a lot from it.
Steinbeck was drawn to the “distortion of normal life” (249) and left Texas in search of the so-called "Cheerleaders"(256) who were protesting the integration of black children in a school in New Orleans.
Before he reached the city, Steinbeck welcomed in the “singing language of Acadia” (252) while recalling the memory of an old friend, Dr. St. Martin, who healed children and Cajuns. Upon entering New Orleans, Steinbeck encountered the racism of the South and soon found that racism was not only towards blacks, but also towards Jews, “ It’s the goddamn New York Jews cause all the trouble” (254). Steinbeck then experienced the “bestial and filthy” (256) show that the Cheerleaders put on while the black children entered school.
The applause and praise of the crowd brought Steinbeck to realize that there were no thoughtful people like his old friends Lyle Saxon and Roark Bradford, in the city and that they had “left New Orleans misrepresented to the world” (259). After the incident, Steinbeck no longer desired to visit some of his favorite places, like Gallatoire’s Restaurant, fearing more racially divided ideals. In search of a secluded place, he sat beside the "Father of Waters", or Mississippi River, and encountered a man who looked similar to Greco San Pablo. They ate together and talked of Lewis Carroll and the famous “queer”(261) 1845 tombstone inscription of Robert John Creswell (Alas that one whose darnthly joy had often to trust in heaven should canty thus sudden to from all its hopes benivens and though thy love for off remore that dealt the dog pest thou left to prove thy sufferings while below). After giving a ride to a wary black man, an angry black student, and a racist white man, Steinbeck concluded that Southern people were afraid to change their way of life, just as were the Cockney children of London, and that most people of the South will retain this fear of change, despite the Gandhi-inspired works of Martin Luther King.
To declare his own position, Steinbeck tells the story of a family of blacks known to him during his Salinas childhood, the Coopers. Mr Cooper was hard-working, honest, thrifty, respectable, the Cooper sons academically and artistically gifted. In other words, they represented an antithesis of the calumnies Steinbeck had heard during his Southern travels. Steinbeck's biographer, however, says this Salinas family was non-existent, invented by Steinbeck for the purposes of his recount. As the author freely admits, in Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, 'I lie easily', though perhaps he did so to good purpose. Steinbeck also once defined fiction as 'A true thing that didn't happen', meaning that an invented narrative can contain accurate observations of authentic human behaviour, though based on no actual occurrence.
Steinbeck's journey concludes with his jamming Rocinante across a busy New York street, during a failed attempt at making a U-turn. As he says to a traffic policeman, 'I've driven this thing all over the country, and now I'm lost in my own back yard!'