Review: Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck

“When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that great age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ship’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping. The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of stomach high up under the rib cage. In other words, I don’t improve; in further words, once a bum always a bum,”

Moving to a new country is replete with challenges. It means engaging with the question of how to fully be oneself whilst simultaneously removed from the context that is (for better or worse) inextricably tied to a sense of personal and shared identity. It means accepting that, as much as you may try to remain informed, there will always be a kind of forced separation between yourself and the pendulum-swings of change that characterise the heart of a country. Moving country also initiates a process of acclimatisation – an attempt to figure out what it means to be an effective outsider in a new place, whilst also wading through the murky waters of daily life in an unfamiliar country. Unsurprisingly, this can be a lengthy process. Having just hit on two years in the US (albeit following a series of shorter stints in the country), I am still working to find a firm footing. It is no mean feat to build a home from its foundations whilst grappling with a sense that you do not fully belong.

Part of my own efforts to acclimatise to life in a new culture has been a turn to literature as a means to access something at the heart of the US. This is a country of baffling contradictions, the site of battles dramatically removed from the issues that preoccupy my own country. Although there is undoubtedly overlap to be found, I have spent a good part of my two years here working to accept the fact that I will never fully have my feet in the American experience of America – as varied and wide-ranging as these encounters with the social and political dynamics of the country so clearly are. When I picked up John Steinbeck’s travelogue Travels with Charley in Search of America, I was expecting to be met with a personal perspective on the US from one of the nation’s most prolific and evocatively American authors. I was met, instead, with an account of what it means to be homesick for one’s own country, whilst still residing within its borders. Although not the Notes from a Small Island-esque love letter to a nation that I expected, Travels with Charley in Search of America is one of the most tragically honest and troublingly insightful accounts of what it means to confront the full picture of the place to which you belong.

“It is possible, even probable, to be told a truth about a place, to accept it, to know and at the same time not to know anything about it.”

In September 1960, John Steinbeck set out on a journey across America. Equipped with a modified pick-up truck, complete with “a little house built like the cabin of a small boat” and affectionately named Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse, Steinbeck embarked upon a trip of over 10,000 miles in an attempt to reacquaint himself with America. The motivation for the journey came as much from a sense of creative obligation as anything else. Well-established as one of America’s most authentic and prodigious writers, Steinbeck was increasingly aware of his own distance from his subject matter:

“Thus I discovered that I did not know my own country. I, an American writer, writing about America, was working from memory, and the memory is at best a faulty, warpy reservoir. I had not heard the speech of America, smelled the grass and trees and sewage, seen its hills and water, its color and quality of light. I knew the changes only from books and newspapers. But more than this, I had not felt the country for twenty-five years.

In this – and as a theme that runs throughout the book – Steinbeck captures a dynamic that has come increasingly to characterise modern relationships with our own countries. That even as the ability to travel and experience has grown, so too has the tendency to derive our understanding of a nation in its entirety from the media that we consume. Would Steinbeck be surprised to hear how erroneously we predicted the outcome of the 2016 US election or the UK’s EU referendum? Likely not. Rather than attempt to acquaint ourselves with the authentic voices at the heart of such surprising outcomes, however, the tendency is to place blame on those headlines to which we turn in earnest for an appraisal of dynamics so complex that they require (and will eventually receive) volumes of expert analysis. In this sense, Travels with Charley in Search of America has as much relevance today as it did in 1960. Read in the light of contemporary trends, it is a call to access something credible – even if uncomfortable – at the heart of a place.

This is not to say that accessing authenticity need come with agreement or acquiescence. If anything, Steinbeck makes clear that true understanding of place and people is fundamental to achieving understanding of one’s own position. The parts of the book in which Steinbeck confronts the racism thriving publicly in response to the civil rights movement are some of the most powerful of the entire memoir. From the outset, the author makes it clear that gaining an understanding of broader political opinion is one of his primary objectives. The conversations that he documents are populated with references to the Cold War, opinions on how the presidency should be dealing with the Russians (are we currently back in 1960?), and a particular interest in the racist ‘Cheerleaders’ that have swarmed a desegregated school in New Orleans. Although many of the encounters that Steinbeck documents are doubtful in their authenticity (more on this later), they certainly access some of the most fundamental differences at work in a country as openly divided as the US is today. It is when the author journeys to New Orleans in search of a first-hand encounter with the infamous ‘Cheerleaders’, who stand in opposition to desegregation, that the schisms are truly exposed. These ‘Cheerleaders’ – otherwise inconspicuous women screaming racial slurs at the black children attempting to enter the school, as well as the one white man who continues to accompany his child through the gates – are the most troubling of the many violences that Steinbeck encounters on his trip:

“My body churned with weary nausea, but I could not let an illness blind me after I had come so far to look and to hear. And suddenly I knew something was wrong and distorted and out of drawing. I knew New Orleans, I have over the years had many friends there, thoughtful, gentle people, with a tradition of kindness and courtesy…I looked in the crowd for such faces and such people and they were not there. I’ve seen this kind bellow for blood at a prize fight, have orgasms when a man is gored in the bull ring, stare with vicarious lust at a highway accident, stand patiently in line for the privilege of watching any pain or any agony. But where were the others…I don’t know where they were. Perhaps they felt as helpless as I did, but they left New Orleans misrepresented to the world.”

Travels with Charley in Search of America is populated with the harsh realities of an individual waking up to the competing and often frightening dimensions of a country in flux. Steinbeck decries the population’s turn to consumerism and the pollution that scars a land so resplendent with incomparable beauty. Where the book’s lightest touch comes from Steinbeck’s companion – the French poodle, Charley – the memoir is never far away from the author’s own awakening to uncomfortable truths, of which his life in New York has left him largely ignorant. That said, this travelogue is by no means all doom-and-gloom. Steinbeck’s trip affords him opportunities to encounter states that he has never before had the opportunity – or the will – to visit. His luminous descriptions of the redwoods and his unexpected love affair with Montana are characterised by the prose that continues to make Steinbeck one of our most profound literary voices. Charley – the real star of the book – is also so full of character as to provide a constant place of respite for both Steinbeck and his readers as they journey together into the most troubling components of 1960s America.

Although the authenticity of everything Steinbeck describes in Travels with Charley is doubtful (numerous writers and journalists have unpicked Steinbeck’s account, which dovetails in a number of places from what we know of the dates of his trip and the places that he stayed), the memoir is an obvious amalgamation of encounters and situations with which Steinbeck had found himself confronted. Where the memoir curves into the fictional (most notably in the author’s account of his conversation with a travelling thespian), one must certainly allow for the creative liberties of an author whose work represents some of the most vibrantly honest accounts of life on America’s impoverished fringes. Reading through the memoir, there are few moments that strike out as purely the product of imagination. Travels with Charley resounds with the authenticity that one would expect of Steinbeck, whether or not it represents a perfect mirror of the author’s experiences whilst on his lengthy excursion.

For the contemporary reader, this travelogue has much to offer. Demonstrating not only the very real pendulum swing of politics and social discourse (indeed, much of what Steinbeck describes could easily feature in an account of similar journeys in 2019), there is a raw honesty to the displacement that the author feels when directly confronted with the prejudices and ignorance that occupy so much of the space provided for public discourse. Certainly those on the political left will empathise with Steinbeck’s own sense of not belonging, given the shifts that we have seen over recent years. While the similarities that lie in Steinbeck’s account of 1960s America may not reassure those of us looking toward a permanent political change that trends toward inclusion, there is a certainty in the fact that change for the better is inevitable. Ultimately, what Travels for Charley in Search of America advocates beyond all else is a need to reacquaint ourselves with the voices of our country – however vitriolic and problematic they may be – if we are to become better informed on the nature of the fight in which we are engaged.

Travels with Charley

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