John Steinbeck

"Travels with Charley: In Search of America"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple FEB 17, 2009)

"I took one companion on my journey - an old French gentleman poodle known as Charley. Actually his name is Charles le Chien. He was born in Bercy on the outskirts of paris and trained in France, and while he knows a little poodle-English, he responds quickly only to commands in French. Othewiese he has to translate, and that slows him down. He is a very big poodle, of a color called bleu, and he is blue wehn he is clean."

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

When John Steinbeck obeys a life-long urge to drive from coast to coast in 1960, he little anticipates the variety of the "American experience." Beginning in Maine and traveling along the northern states through Wisconsin, the Badlands, Montana, and all places in between, to Washington and Oregon, Steinbeck then decides to visit his childhood community of Salinas, in northern California. After meeting with friends there, though many have died, he then drives southward through the length of California and then eastward through the southwest desert to Texas, Louisiana, and eventually up to Virginia before returning to New York.

Carrying the reader along with him as he reconstructs this journey for publication in 1962, Steinbeck observes people and human nature, being careful not to draw conclusions about an entire area based on the individuals he meets along the way. Often it is their reactions to Charley, his aging blue poodle, which stimulates their conversations and allows Steinbeck glimpses of their thinking and ways of life. From the terminally gloomy waitress in Maine to the evil-looking mechanic in Oregon (who turns out to be the kindest and most generous of men), Steinbeck explores attitudes toward life (and strangers). Steinbeck's high school buddy (who almost comes to blows with him) shows him that you really can't go home again, and "the cheerleaders" of New Orleans, a group of white-supremacist women who taunt and scream obscenities at a tiny black girl integrating one of their schools, shows him how much work the human race still has left to do.

As he travels in his truck with a house attached to its bed (a pre-Class C camper invention) that he calls "Rocinante" after the horse of Don Quixote, he notes the changing landscape, the disappearance of treasured aspects of the environment, and the growth of new trends--including the increasing popularity of the mobile home and the contemporary loss of "roots." He is genuinely frightened by the Badlands, until night falls, when it becomes beautiful. He adores Montana, and he hurries through the almost blank southwestern desert where he learns something new about shooting. Though Steinbeck gets tired of travel before the end of the trip, he still manages to record signal moments which resonate with the reader.

What elevates this book especially is the glimpses it gives of Steinbeck himself, a far more upbeat man than one would expect from the California novels like Cannery Row, Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath. His observations of life in the early 1960s capture the country at pivotal moments of history--the time of Sen. John Kennedy and freedom rides. In this respect, Steinbeck creates a time capsule for future generations and a picture of himself that lovers of his writing will treasure.

"And I must have seen pictures. Everyone must have. Why then was I unprepared for the beauty of this reigion, for its variety of field and hill, forest, lake? I think now that I must hae considered it one big level cow pasture because of the state's enormous yeild of mile products. I never saw a country that changed so rapidly, and because I had not expected it everything I saw brought a delight."

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About the Author:

John Steinbeck John Steinbeck was born in 1902 and grew up in Salinas Valley region of California and came from a family of moderate means. He worked his way through college at Stanford University but never graduated. In 1925 he went to New York, where he tried for a few years to establish himself as a free-lance writer, but he failed and returned to California. After publishing some novels and short stories, Steinbeck first became widely known with Tortilla Flat (1935), a series of humorous stories about Monterey paisanos.

He wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939 and the novella Of Mice and Men, published in 1937. In all, he wrote twenty-five books, including sixteen novels, six non-fiction books and several collections of short stories. In 1962 Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Seventeen of his works went on to become Hollywood films (some appeared multiple times, i.e., as remakes), and Steinbeck also achieved success as a Hollywood writer, receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Story in 1944 for Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat.

Steinbeck's twelve-year marriage to Carol Henning had ended in 1942. Next year he married the singer Gwyndolyn Conger; they had two sons, Thom and John. However, the marriage was unhappy and they were divorced in 1949. In 1950 Steinbeck married Elaine Scott, the ex-wife Randolph Scott, a Western star. Steinbeck's son John had problems in later years with drugs and alcohol; he died in 1991.

Throughout his life John Steinbeck remained a private person who shunned publicity. In 1943 Steinbeck moved to New York City, his home for the rest of his life. His summers were spent at Sag Harbor. He also travelled much in Europe. He died December 20, 1968, in New York City and was survived by his third wife, Elaine (Scott) Steinbeck and one son, Thomas. His ashes were placed in the Garden of Memories Cemetery in Salinas. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014