Reading Steinbeck’s ‘Travels with Charley’

On the road with a poodle and a writer

I’m in awe of John Steinbeck as a writer. East of Eden is one of my favourite novels and Journal of a Novel is such a generous gift, exposing his process and doubts. So, it was interesting to read him as himself in Travels with Charley, not as a narrator or a writer immersed in fiction project.

It’s 1960 and Steinbeck feels like it’s been too long since he’s travelled and been with ’the people’. He feels like the success of his career has created a distance between him and them, so he kits out a truck as a motorhome (which he calls Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse) and takes his poodle Charley with him on a road trip around the country. Travels with Charley are the recollections of that trip.

It’s Steinbeck, so his meditations are eloquent and intelligent but he’s also growing older and things have changed. It’s a different America to his youth. Like most generations, he wishes things were more the way he remembers them. He finds a sameness he wasn’t expecting in accents and interiors and food.

What I wasn’t expecting and didn’t like was his romanticism towards some aspects of masculinity and his bemoaning the disappearance of the hard drinking, brawling man. There’s an aggression and machismo to Steinbeck that I wouldn’t have guessed from reading his fiction. It’s always interesting (and sometimes disappointing) when the writer you read is revealed and you don’t love everything about them.

On his trip, he meets men. Apart from the odd roadside waitress, the strangers who cameo in these pages are men he’s met by the side of the road or in towns. Women just can’t do that. I remember, more than 15 years ago, backpacking around South East Asia and getting furious about the boys we’d meet. They’d be on their own or in pairs, riding motorbikes through the golden triangle, narrating their remote encounters and adventures. And they just didn’t get it when we said that it couldn’t be like that for us, that we couldn’t just jump on bikes and ride through the dusk or accept invitations back to strange men’s houses. 

But his language, as ever, takes you in and his meditations follow. He contemplates the racial tension he sees in the south, the politics of the Cold War and the rise of consumerism. The book is as much a narration of his journey through the nation as it is him philosophising on various topics, for example, ideas about the impossibility of objectivity and how the America he sees and interprets with the same cities and stops is completely different to someone else, or even to himself at a different time of day.

“Our morning eyes describe a different world than do our afternoon eyes, and surely our wearied evening eyes can report only a weary evening world.”

He mentioned that he doesn’t take notes as he goes. He lets it all sit for a year and then writes it down. I don’t know how he can write with such detail and richness about something which happened at least a year or more in the past. I would forget the details, the conversations, the finer parts of such a big journey.

Some of my favourite parts were the ‘uh-huh, that’s how it is for me as well’ moments.

How an intensely bad night can just disappear without a trace:

The sun was up when I awakened and the world was remade and shining. There are as many worlds as there are kinds of days and as an opal changes its colours and its fire to match the nature of a day, so do I.”

How he too has books that he’s never going to read:

“I laid in a hundred and fifty pounds of those books one hasn’t got around to reading – and of course those are the books one isn’t ever going to get around to reading.”

As a Steinbeck fan, I was happy just to hear his voice again, even though I didn’t like everything he had to say.

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