Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

1962. 214 pages.

Recommendation from: Jenny and Teresa of Shelf Love

In January, I read John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America. In 1960, the author went on a road trip around the U.S. with his dog Charley. (I loved that one of his first visits was to Maine, my home state.) As with his novels, Steinbeck displays good humor and is incredibly insightful about people, to include himself. Reading this book so soon after the Presidential inauguration, this passage about Steinbeck and his sisters seemed appropriate:

Each evening we promised, “Let’s just be friendly and loving. No politics tonight.” And ten minutes later we would be screaming at each other…

“Father would turn in his grave if he heard you.”

“No, don’t bring him in, because he would be a Democrat today.”

“Listen to you. Bobby Kennedy is out buying sacks full of votes.”

“You mean no Republican ever bought a vote? Don’t make me laugh.”

It was bitter and it was endless. We dug up obsolete convention weapons and insults to hurl back and forth . . . A stranger hearing us would have called the police to prevent bloodshed. And I don’t think we were the only ones. I believe this was going on all over the country in private. It must have been only publicly that the nation was tongue-tied.

Steinbeck’s descriptions of nature, too, are evocative – there’s a passage about redwoods that I particularly liked.

As far as the subtitle goes, Steinbeck makes no conclusions or pronouncements about America, but he does capture some of the country’s appeal and also its sins. Toward the end of the book, he stops in New Orleans to witness “The Cheerleaders” – a group of women who had been gathering at a school every morning to scream obscenely at young black schoolchildren who were being integrated into the school. The sight and the conversations he has later with other people in Louisiana on the way out make him feel very weary.

I love travel memoirs and I loved Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden, so this book was definitely right up my alley.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Book Chase – “I admit to being a little disappointed that Steinbeck misrepresented the origin of some of what he claims happened in Travels with Charley mainly because it makes me wonder if he simply set out with a specific agenda in mind and made sure that he got the answers that supported his own views about the social condition of the country.”

Pining for the West – “As I said, I really loved this book but for me it was too short. I would have liked more details. Things like how far he was actually travelling between various states and maybe a bit more in the way of descriptions of the scenery. It probably didn’t occur to him that such details would be of interest to someone sitting reading it in Scotland, or for that matter someone reading it 50 years after it was written.”

Teresa of Shelf Love: “Travel stories bring out the humor, especially when the travel is unconventional and involves a dog! But for me, it was his treatment of the people he met that really stood out. He does seem to want to find the dignity within each one”

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

  1. piningforthewest

    Thanks for the mention. Since reading this one I’ve gone on to read quite a lot of his books including A Russian Journal and I’ve loved them all, but I think that reading ‘Charley’ made Steinbeck seem more like a friend – a good guy.

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