John Steinbeck is best known for his fiction. So I was surprised when I learned that he had written several nonfiction books, including Travels With Charley In Search of America – a bittersweett and philosophical travel memoir. In 1960 Steinbeck felt he had lost touch with his country, and this feeling (along with what might have been a late mid-life crisis) prompted him to make a journey from New York to California and back again. He chose to take no companion with him except for his aging standard poodle, Charley. They journeyed in a truck named Rocinante which Steinbeck outfitted with a camper shell and all the supplies he would need. Steinbeck’s plan was to avoid the major highways, instead following the wavy backroads of America where he could see the country and meet the people.
This book is a delight on many levels. Steinbeck’s wonderful descriptions of Charley made me laugh out loud at times.
Steinbeck is amazingly prophetic in this slim book. He expounds upon the environment (‘…I do wonder whether there will come a time when we can no longer afford our wastefulness.’ – page 22-), entertainment (‘…what of the emotional life of the nation? Do they find their emotional fare so bland that it must be spiced with sex and sadism through the medium of the paperback?’ -page 109-), migrant workers (‘I hope we may not be overwhelmed one day by peoples not too proud or too lazy or too soft to bend to the earth and pick up the things we eat.’ -page50-), and racism (‘And I know that the solution when it arrives will not be easy or simple.’ -page 207-).
In true Steinbeck style, he recreates the natural world using beautiful and simple language, and then weaves the heart of the people into the setting in which they live.
This book made me want to read more of Steinbeck’s nonfiction, including a book of nearly 1000 pages of his letters to family and friends over his lifetime (Steinbeck: A Life in Letter, edited by Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten and published in 1975).
Travels With Charley In Search Of America is a must read and highly recommended.