on 19 July 2001
Predating Bill Bryson by a couple of decades (and saying in a single chapter more than Bryson could in a whole book), John Steinbeck looks for America. The book details the time he spent travelling through his country, alone (save for Charley, his dog) and anonymous, no mean feat for a writer of Steinbeck's stature. This anonymity allows him to settle in more easily with other men and find out what is felt at the heart of Americans of the day. He seeks to identify and analyse traits in the national soul, and succeeds to a large extent, finding basic friendship and goodwill in many cases. He is unafraid to criticise other humans when he wishes to, especially when faced with racial prejudice, and this gives the book a convincing structure. He is also unafraid to criticise his country as a whole, therefore making the book more credible to non-USA readers. The book contains some wonderful descriptive passages of his interactions with Charley, lending a humour not visible in his other writings. It is very easy to read, and contains a number of very evocative descriptions of scenery and people. The reader feels he is meeting the people Steinbeck meets, or seeing his sights through his own eyes. A wonderful piece of travel literature, showing the author's usual talent for identifying with his readership.
on 10 December 1999
As a Steinbeck fan I had no hesitation in joining the author as, at the age of 60, he picks up a few belongings and sets off, with his faithful dog Charley, on a journey across America. After having written numerous novels, Steinbeck is concerned that he should once again get to know the people that make up the United States.
This book enables you to sit at the table of his converted truck, while Steinbeck filters insights of the ordinary lives he has obsevered. The author delights in the individuallity of each person he meets, whatever their circumstances. He takes the words of farm workers, truckers, and filling station men and displays them against the backdrop of his country as profound representations and insights of the state of the nation. Some restore your faith, some make you despair, some are impatient and others just resigned to the way things are.
Steinbecks style is easy and relaxed. A writer with nothing to prove he tells it as it is. No pretences, no cover ups, just honest dialogue.
There's no great "adventure" here, so if plot lines are your thing then you'll be disappointed. But if your interest is in geting an insight into peoples lives, this is the book for you.
I would suggest that you read some other Steinbeck first - The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden and, if you can get hold of it, To a God Unknown
on 16 May 2001
I have read most of the works of this great writer and this book game me a greater understanding of the man himself. He sets out, with only Charley his dog for company, to travel parts of America and meet Americans. Not the great and wealthy but the ordinary people the rest of us can identify with. As usual his gift for words makes, what in other writers hands would seem dull and uninteresting, come to life. There is no great adventure here, just details of the revealing conversations he has with people he meets along his travels. Descriptions of the places he passes through. These reveal more of the man himself and I can more understand now how he came to write his great novels Grapes of Wrath etc. In short he had a great love of the greatness to be found in the ordinary masses and an understanding of the failings too. If you read this book, which is not a novel but still one you will regret finishing, you can understand how the man could write, with love and understanding. about pimps, prostitutes,tramps and down and out's as he did in cannery row etc. In short he had a great feel for all humanity and the reader is better for knowing him
This is my favourite Steinbeck book. I originally read it 22 years ago whilst living in the USA. Its themes and insights are as pertinent today as they were then,and as Steinbeck saw them in '62, when this book was written.
It's easy to read, beautifully written and full of keen observations. And the relationship between the writer and his dog is an engaging one throughout.This book is often marginalised by his great fiction, but it really is a gem of a book.
My original US edition features uninspired cover art, but this Penguin classic issue is also worth buying soley for the superb cover shot of 'one man and his dog'.
“Travels with Charlie” is the delightful narrative by a master story teller of his 1962 journey across America with his pet poodle, Charlie. Feeling a need to become reacquainted with America, Steinbeck purchased a custom made mobile home which he outfitted, by his own admission, to excess, before setting out on his travels. Although warned that his fame and familiarity would prevent him from maintaining his anonymity, Steinbeck was able to meet America at its own level. From sea to sea he was recognized only by friends and relatives. This anonymity permitted him to drift in and out of American society, tasting and testing, interacting and remembering. From New England to California and back to New York, we are admitted to his conversations with taciturn Yankees and French-Canadian migrant agricultural workers. Traveling west, we read of border guards, the representatives of the government bureaucracy, state specific highway designations and Steinbeck’s observations of topography. His roadside visit with an actor and his entertainment by rich friends in Texas provide a sharp contrast in outlooks and behavior of different Americans. During his return to his hometown of Salinas, California, Steinbeck learns the truth that “you can’t go back home again.” Home has changed, his friends have changed, and Steinbeck had changed. It is sad, but true.
Steinbeck dreaded the South but knew that he could not be avoided. Traveling in 1962, Steinbeck saw some of the dramatic events of the Civil Rights movement while he sampled the prevailing racial attitudes of Southerners of the day.
At the start, Steinbeck was looking to become reacquainted with America. I was hoping that the would finish with some wise conclusions gleaned from his experience. He did conclude that Americans were more united as Americans than they were divided as residents of different regions. He is amazed to find the degree to which diverse immigrant groups have amalgamated into a new nationality in less than two centuries. I passed this on to a distant cousin in France with whom I have been discussing themes in American and French history. Beyond this, we are left to draw our own conclusions from the facts reported.
I wonder how many of the people to whom Steinbeck referred have read and recognized themselves in this book. How many of us, who did not meet Steinbeck, see ourselves or our acquaintances reflected in its pages?
This a a hard book to put down, so don’t try. Pick it up, free your mind and enjoy “Travels with Charlie.”
on 16 May 2001
I have read most of the works of this great writer and this book gave me a greater understanding of the man himself. He sets out, with only Charley his dog for company,in a camper van to travel parts of America and meet Americans. Not the great and wealthy but the ordinary people the rest of us can identify with. As usual his gift for words makes, what in other writers hands would seem dull and uninteresting, come to life. There is no great adventure here, just details of the revealing conversations he has with people he meets along his travels. Descriptions of the places he passes through. These reveal more of the man himself and I can more understand now how he came to write his great novels Grapes of Wrath etc. In short he had a great love of the greatness to be found in the ordinary masses and an understanding of the failings too. If you read this book, which is not a novel but still one you will regret finishing, you can understand how the man could write, with love and understanding. about pimps, prostitutes,tramps and down and out's as he did in Cannery Row etc. In short he had a great feel for all humanity and the reader is better for knowing him
on 27 October 2002
Steinbeck clearly thought at the time he was writing The Winter of Our Discontent (1961) that America was in the middle of a serious moral and ethical crises, that the traditions and values this country was founded upon were no longer looked upon as serious guidelines for American behavior. The trip across America detailed in this book was undertaken at least in part as an attempt by Steinbeck to determine if this evaluation of the state of America was valid, if when Americans were approached as individuals, face-to-face, some other picture might emerge.
To facilitate his investigation, Steinbeck brought along his poodle Charley, as companion and ice-breaker, and packed up a camper truck with everything he thought he might need in his travels (probably too much, as he ruefully admits at one point), and proceed to travel across the states in a large circle, from New York to Maine to Illinois to Washington, California, Texas, and the Deep South.
As we travel along with him, we are treated to a rather incredible display of the sheer writing talent that Steinbeck possessed, as the people he meets along the way are described accurately and so very concisely, sometimes in just a couple of paragraphs, to where these people come alive to the reader, to where the reader can say "I know someone just like that".
But perhaps more importantly, the book is spattered throughout with Steinbeck's acute observations and opinions on everything from antiques, the virtues of small towns, the value of manual labor, the homogenizing of American language and cuisine due to the influence of radio and television, the beginnings of the interstate system and its influence on everything along its routes, hunters, trash, and many other items, all carefully supported by his actual observations along the road. There are a few comments expressed by Charley here, too (typically a "Fttt" and a sniff). And although this book was written forty years ago, much of what Steinbeck wrote then is still very valid today. Whether this represents a good thing or not, that there has been so little change in some very basic elements of American society in the intervening years, must be decided and thought upon by the reader.
It seems that many writers of stature eventually write some form of 'travel' book. This is one of the best of this genre, due to both Steinbeck's great powers of observation and his ability to distill what he sees to something that is recognizable, distinctive, that resonates with the reader's own experiences. This is not his greatest book - that distinction belongs to his great fiction works of The Grapes of Wrath, The Pearl, East of Eden, The Winter of Our Discontent. But it is a very satisfying look at a great writer and his outlook on the America of his day.
---Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)
on 3 May 2012
When I was a teenager, I read a lot of John Steinbeck - Of Mice and Men (1937), The Grapes of Wrath (1939), The Moon is Down (1942), Cannery Row (1945), and East of Eden (1952). The last Steinbeck book I bought was Travels with Charley - In Search of America (1962). I remember taking it to my first real job when I was 18 and being laughed at by the workmen for reading it at lunchtime. The cover looked "fruity" - a jaunty drawing of a man in a green truck riding with a French poodle. Reading matter at work consisted of girly magazines and Louis L'Amour novels. I must have been one o' them there tinker bells or somethin' reading a book like that.
The title was a bit silly, though, wasn't it? I lost momentum and didn't finish. Twenty years later, I got another copy, having read that Travels with Charley represented a classic piece of travel literature, that most satisfying yet most unrecognized of genres. And who knew Steinbeck wrote other travelogues? Who has heard of his Sea of Cortez (1941), a report about a voyage from California to Mexico, or A Russian Journal (1948), where he heads off for a snoop around the Soviet Union?
Born and raised in California, where many of his novels are set, John Steinbeck spent the second half of his life in New York City, with frequent trips to England and France. At the age of 58, after a couple of strokes, he lit out from his home in Sag Harbor, Long Island with his (also) ailing poodle, Charley, to refamiliarize himself with America, its land and people. In a letter to a friend, he outlined his method of travel and his route.
"In the fall - right after Labor Day - I'm going to learn about my own country. I've lost the flavor and taste and sound of it. It's been years since I have seen it. Sooo! I'm buying a pick-up truck with a small apartment on it... bed, stove, desk, ice-box, toilet - not a trailer - what's called a coach. I'm going alone, out toward the West by the Northern way...."
And that's what he did. In the truck he named Rocinante, which he painted on its side, he and Charley drove to Massachusetts and then to Maine before hitting Wisconsin, Minnesota, Montana.... With a stockpile of booze, he rode around the United States in a giant circle recording conversations, observations, reflections, and offering up delectable vignettes of natural beauty. He writes, "I was told that a stranger's purpose in moving about the country might cause inquiry or even suspicion. For this reason I racked a shotgun, two rifles, and a couple of fishing rods in my truck, for it is my experience that if a man is going hunting or fishing his purpose is understood and even applauded."
Much of what was man-made in America disturbed Steinbeck. He was horrified and angered by the pollution, industrial ugliness, uniformity of communities, soulless trailer parks, and much else. He was also annoyed by people's attitudes towards race and difference.
Where Steinbeck really shines is in his description of the landscape. Setting was crucial in Steinbeck's novels and he's almost showing off, proving to skeptics he still has it. He characterizes Montana as "a great splash of grandeur," and talks about its terrain as "shouting color." Mere samples; he can go on for whole pages, molding topography until the ear hears poetry and the mind sees a portrait. Consider this impression of California's redwoods.
"There's a cathedral hush here. Perhaps the thick soft bark absorbs sound and creates silence. The trees rise straight up to zenith; there is no horizon. The dawn comes early and remains dawn until the sun is high. Then the green fernlike foliage so far up strains the sunlight to a green gold and distributes it in shafts or rather in stripes of light and shade. After the sun passes zenith it is afternoon and quickly evening with a whispering dusk as long as was the morning."
Travels with Charley is nice read - witty, poignant, lyrical - but did its author pull a Bruce Chatwin? Chatwin, a British writer of considerable talent, best known for his In Patagonia, was a first-class fraud. His writing is largely fiction passed off as travel literature. The New York Times thinks Steinbeck embroidered. So does Steinbeck's son, also named John, who said that the conversations in Travels are bogus and that his father hardly talked to anyone. "He just sat in his camper and wrote all that (expletive)."
There's a discussion between Steinbeck and a New England farmer about Nikita Khrushchev's famous shoe-brandishing incident.
Steinbeck says, "What happened at the U.N.? I forgot to listen."
"You wouldn't believe it," he said. "Mr. K. took off his shoe and pounded the table."
"Didn't like what was being said."
"Seems a strange way to protest."
"Well, it got attention."
The chat continues for a page and a half. The only problem, according to Charles McGrath in his 2011 article "Reality Check for Steinbeck and Charley," is that this conversation occurs several weeks before Mr. Khrushchev spoke at the United Nations. McGrath notes several other discrepancies and claims Steinbeck did a lot of the trip with his wife, Elaine, who, in the story, Steinbeck meets briefly in Chicago. Moreover, Steinbeck (and, perhaps, his wife) didn't rough it all that much. He (or they) not only stayed in motels (which he acknowledges), but luxury hotels.
With this in mind, the conversations in Travels seem stilted. I noticed this, but chalked it up to being the vernacular of the times. I now see that it's a bit like dialogue one would find in, well, a John Steinbeck novel.
Vrai ou faux, Travels with Charley quickly became a bestseller (and is still popular, with over 200 peer reviews on Amazon.com), allowing readers to get a glimpse into the literary icon's curmudgeonly yet sensitive personality.
The year this book was published happened to be the same year Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for literature. During his acceptance speech in Sweden, Steinbeck said, "the ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement."
A tiny bit of embellishment is sometimes required in travel writing. But outright invention certainly constitutes grievous fault and failure. John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley is an American beauty, though perhaps not a natural beauty.
Troy Parfitt is the author of Why China Will Never Rule the World
I love `Travels with Charley: In Search of America', maybe that's because I like travelogues or maybe it's because I love Steinbeck's sublime eloquence, but whatever the reason, this made for one beautiful and captivating read. Travelling with Steinbeck and his poodle Charley you get to experience a slice of American life that is sadly no more. You get his usual rich imagery and ability to conjure up a scene in blazing brilliance as he travels across America from New York to California and back again. I find his style to be immediately comfortable and evocative to read and his descriptions are simple, yet wonderful. For example, when describing autumn leaves he writes `The climate changed quickly to cold and the trees burst into colour, the reds and yellows you can't believe. It isn't only colour but a glowing, as though the leaves gobbled the light of the autumn sun and then released it slowly', simply breath taking writing. This story is all the more endearing as it is mixed in with tales of his relationship with Charley and how they interact together out on the road. I am a huge fan of Steinbeck and I have to say this sits highly in his body of work. It is concise, eloquent, descriptive, engaging and a whole host of other words that escape my vocabulary to describe his incredible writing style! This is a departure from his earlier works, which are based around depression era America and the Salinas valley, but that takes nothing away from the style, skill and story on offer and this comes highly recommended indeed.
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on 25 November 2002
Don't you just hate it when you get to the end of a truely engrossing book? I certainly do, and feel even more frustrated when you reach the end of a journey with a writer who has somehow transcended the writer/reader relationship and become part of your close circle of, if not friends, then at least acquaintances.
This book does this for me. John Steinbeck admits that his reason for undertaking this journey, some 4 decades ago, were a mixed curiosity for his own land, his desire to fight back against the aging process and to shrink into anonimity.
At every stage of his journey you get a fine grasp of the many varied and valid viewpoints he takes. Yet seldom do you get a feeling of opinionation, as you do with some modern travel writers. Even at his most troubled (when he encounters racism at its most vile) Steinbeck does not preach, just records his deep unease, and counters his experience with a series of encounters that show that he realises that the problem is more complicated than black and white and that any answer will be a long time coming.
That the book is forty years old is troubling and comforting. It is troubling that some of the thiings encountered are still very much an issue - racism, pollution etc. The comfort comes from the knowledge that great writing endures. I heartil;y recommend this for the style of the prose alone. I think you, too, will enjoy your time travelling with Mr Steinbeck.
And Charley? As a self proclaimed hater of all domestic animals - Charley is oddly engaging.