recent posts

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: John Steinbeck TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY. Pan Books, London, 1965 (first published 1962) 238 pages.

This travelogue is a lesser known work of Steinbeck’s and documents his three month trip across America in the autumn of 1960 when he was fifty-eight years old. His intention is ‘to find the truth about my country’ because ‘I had not felt it for twenty-five years.’ He decides to travel incognito with his poodle Charley as his sole companion to allow him an anonymous free-rein. He fits-out a sturdy three-quarter ton truck with a camper top which he calls Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse.

This is a free-wheeling ‘wandering narrative’ which is told with great warmth and humanity. In many ways it is an anti-travel story. Steinbeck expresses initial concerns that he doesn’t really want to go on this journey- for health and lifestyle reasons, while on the road he often gets lost, and in summing up, he questions what he has learnt, if anything. Despite Steinbeck's insistence that ‘there is no moral in his observations, nor any warning’, he does cast a caustic eye on the direction American has taken since his childhood.

In the opening pages of the book he comments on the improvisational nature of the journey, ‘Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over… The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.’ Although his plan of discovery is ‘clear, concise and reasonable’ what really enthralls Steinbeck is the unknown, how chance, luck or evolving circumstances, both good or bad, contribute to the overall experience of being on the road. He is certainly surprised, and sometimes, deeply startled by what he witnesses, but he never appears to have a master plan or ideological prism from which to judge what he sees.

Steinbeck’s ten year old dog Charley serves many important functions in advancing the reception of the travelogue. He is an ‘ambassador’ who enables the writer to easily establish contact with strangers, he often acts as a sounding board for Steinbeck’s ideas and Charley’s joyful, intuitive behavior is often contrasted with the nasty and brutal behavior of humanity. After he witnesses the racial taunts of a young black girl by white  segregationists Steinbeck concludes, ‘But Charley doesn’t have our problems. He doesn’t belong to a species clever enough to split the atom but not clever enough to live in peace with itself. He doesn’t even know about race…He loved deeply and tried dogfully. It would be difficult to explain to a dog the good and moral purpose of a thousand humans gathered to curse one tiny human. I’ve seen a look in dogs’ eyes, a quickly vanishing look of amazed contempt, and I am convinced that basically dogs think humans are nuts.’

Steinbeck has always admired writers who can descend on a town, ask key questions and then ‘write an orderly report very like a roadmap.’ However, he distrusts this vision as a mirror of reality: ‘I feel that there are too many realities. What I set down here is true until someone else passes that way and rearranges the world in his own style.’ In concluding his discussion of the Deep South, for example, Steinbeck admits that he has not presented a cross-section of the region: ‘I’ve only told what a few people said to me and what I saw. I don’t know whether any conclusion can be drawn. But I do know it is a troubled place and a people caught in a jam.’

Steinbeck prefers to take small back roads which ‘are not conducive to speed.’ He finds it wonderful to pull up next to a clear lake on a quiet country road ‘and see overhead the arrows of southing ducks and geese’.  He marvels at the vastness and beauty of Wyoming and feels silence and awe amongst the giant redwood trees in Oregon. In contrast, he describes how he gets stuck in a mesh of traffic and by-passes the ‘noble twin cities of St Paul and Minneapolis’: ‘The traffic struck me like a tidal wave and carried me along, a bit of shiny flotsam bounded in front by a gasoline truck half a block long. Behind me was an enormous cement mixer on wheels, its big howitzer revolving as it proceeded. On my right was what I judged to be an atomic cannon. As usual I panicked and got lost.’ The superhighways of the time are ‘wonderful for moving goods but not for inspection of a countryside.’ He predicts that in the future these throughways will dissect the nation and ‘it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing.’

Early in his journey he pokes fun at how the emphasis on cleanliness in roadside restaurants has resulted in bland, but safe experiences. He is astounded: ‘In the bathroom two water tumblers were sealed in cellophane sacks with the words: ‘These glasses are sterilized for your protection.’ Everyone was protecting me and it was horrible. I tore the glasses from their covers. I violated the toilet seat with my foot.’ The equally bland waitress gets to him: ‘I felt so blue and miserable I wanted to crawl into a plastic cover and die. What a date she must be, what a lover! I tried to imagine that last and couldn’t. For a moment I considered giving her a five-dollar tip, but I knew what would happen. She wouldn’t be glad. She’d just think I was crazy.’

Steinbeck’s  social observations on the American way of life during the Cold War are often highly amusing but are tinged with his scathing satirical eye. While camping in Maine he is horrified and frightened by the influx of amateur hunters into the area. He understands that the hunting frenzy is somehow connected to testosterone but he finds the activity ludicrous and difficult to rationalise: ‘It isn’t hunger that drives millions of armed American males to forests and hills every autumn, as the high incidence of heart failure among the hunters will prove. Somehow the hunting process has to do with masculinity, but I don’t quite know how. I know there are any number of good and efficient hunters who know what they are doing; but many more are overweight gentlemen, primed with whiskey and armed with high-powered rifles. They shoot at anything that moves or looks as though it might, and their success in killing one another may well prevent a population explosion.’

During his journey, Steinbeck attends church every Sunday as part of his investigations into America. One service which particularly stands out to him takes place in Vermont. The minister was ‘a man of iron with tool-steel eyes and a delivery like a pneumatic drill, opened with prayer and reassured us that we were a pretty sorry lot.’ The minister’s speech on hell evokes ‘a lovely sense of evil-doing in Steinbeck: ‘He spoke of hell as an expert, not the mush-mush hell of these soft days, but a well-stoked, white-hot hell served by technicians of the first order. This reverend brought it to a point where we could understand it, a good hard coal fire, plenty of draught, and a squad of open-hearth devils who put their hearts into their work, and their work was me. I began to feel good all over.’

Steinbeck  is astounded and dismayed with the speed with which America is changing. The corner store cannot compete with the supermarket chains and regretfully is ‘rapidly disappearing.’ ‘The new America’, he says, ‘finds his challenge and his love in traffic-choked streets, skies nested in smog, choking with the acids of industry, the screech of rubber and houses leashed in against one another, while the townlets wither a time and die.’ He fears local accents will also disappear ‘and in their place will be a national speech, wrapped and packaged, standard and tasteless’ much like the fast food and motel industry he sees emerging.

When he revisits Seattle it bears no resemblance to the town he remembered as a young man: ‘Everywhere frantic growth, a carcinomatous growth. Bulldozers rolled up the green forests and heaped the resulting trash for burning. The torn white lumber from concrete forms was piled beside grey walls. I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction.’ While visiting Salinas, the town of his birth in northern California, Steinbeck comments that he has never been opposed to change, nor does he bemoan the past, yet he feels ‘resentment towards the strangers swamping what I thought of as my country with noise and clutter and the inevitable rings of junk.' He feels like a ghost in his own town as he finds  nothing but strangers. He is deeply concerned ‘that there must be a saturation point and the progress may be a progression towards strangulation.’ The very survival of the planet is at stake: ‘We have in the past been forced into reluctant change by weather, calamity, and plague. Now the pressure comes from our biological success as a species. We have overcome all enemies but ourselves.’ And now he ‘can eliminate not only itself but all other life.’

Steinbeck likens the United States as one large garbage dump which functions on the principle of ‘planned obsolescence’ and questions whether this wastefulness is sustainable: ‘American cities are like badger holes, ringed with trash- all of them- surrounded by piles of wrecked and rusting automobiles, and almost smothered with rubbish… I do wonder whether there will come a time when we can no longer afford our wastefulness- chemical wastes in the rivers, metal wastes everywhere, and atomic wastes buried deep in the earth or sunk in the sea.’

After talking to a farm owner about Khrushchev’s UN shoe thumping incident and the great uncertainty of the times, Steinbeck expresses the fear that ‘parasitic man’ has had insufficient time to understand the terrible power of the atomic bomb: ‘Humans had perhaps a million years to get used to fire as a thing and as an idea…and now a force was in hand how much more strong, and we hadn’t had time to develop the means to think’ in these ‘exploding times.’

In North Dakota he realizes that the Russians have become a punching bag for American’s daily grips. A storekeeper says to him, ‘Those Russians got quite a load to carry. Man has a fight with his wife, he belts the Russians.’ Steinbeck asks him the pertinent question, ‘Anybody know any Russians around here?’
‘Course not. That’s why they’re valuable. Nobody can find fault with you if you take out after the Russians.’

The most harrowing accounts in the travelogue takes place in New Orleans in late 1960. A young Afro-American girl emerges from a recently desegregated elementary school and is meet by the vicious jeers of the Cheerleaders, a group of racist middle-aged white women. Steinbeck is shocked and sickened by the abuse: ‘On television the sound track was made to blur or had crowd noises cut in to cover. But now I heard the words, bestial and filthy and degenerate…Theirs was the demented cruelty of egocentric children, and somehow this made their insensate beastliness much more heartbreaking. These were not mothers, not even women. They were crazy actors playing to a crazy audience.’

Steinbeck remarks near the end of his book that ‘it would be pleasant to be able to say of his travels with Charley, ‘I went out to find the truth about my country and I found it.’ Instead he has found a ‘barrel of worms.’ He comments that he is fooling himself if he thinks he has anything ‘important or even instructive’ to say about America. As the more he inspects the American image ‘the less sure he became of what it is.’ He has seen so little of the whole that his answer to the question ‘What are Americans like today? is problematic and can only be answered in fragments. These are shrewd, qualifying metaphysical statements directly addressed at the reader to discover their own reality.  

Steinbeck’s observational skills are exceptional. Even the  mundane  shaped by the mind of Steinbeck is sculpted into delicate shades of feeling . His meditations on America as an armpit of rot and ugliness are particularly inspiring fifty years on. I wonder what the great man would make of America today- childhood obesity, Hummers, the Tea Party, climate change denial, WallMart, Birthers. Yeah, I concur with Charley- Americans, humans are nuts!

No comments: