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Travels with Charley in Search of America (original 1962; edition 1980)

by John Steinbeck

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5,142110870 (4.02)1 / 331
Title:Travels with Charley in Search of America
Authors:John Steinbeck
Info:Penguin Books (1980), Paperback, 288 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:read in high school

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Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck (1962)


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Showing 1-5 of 107 (next | show all)
Not my style of book, but definitely a must read for Steinbeck fans. ( )
  rockinghorsedreams | Nov 13, 2014 |
this was our county wide read for 2014, so even though I have read it before, I decided to read it again, and enjoyed it again ( )
  rolyat | Nov 9, 2014 |
John Steinbeck

Travels with Charley:
In Search of America

Book-of-the-Month Club, Hardback, 1995.

8vo. 246 pp. "Map of John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley" on the endpapers.

First published, 1962.


I am amused that this book provoked an apparently serious discussion of its veracity. Is it so important that Steinbeck travelled with his wife and slept in hotels more often than he pretends in his narrative? Is it really so important whether he met that Shakespearean actor in North Dakota, or that taciturn waitress in Maine, or all those people with whom he reports conversations verbatim? Who but the goofball is interested in such details? Even writers who specialise in non-fiction, especially travel writing, find it hard, I’m sure, to keep away from fictionalising the facts. I’m pretty sure Neither Here Nor There is anything but an accurate account of Bill Bryson’s European travels. And the situation is completely different with writers who write almost exclusively fiction. (I’m deliberately not using the word “creative” because a writer of non-fiction can be just as creative as a writer of fiction.) Maupassant and Maugham compulsively mixed fiction and non-fiction in their travelogues[1], sometimes obviously to anybody who can read, but sometimes so seamlessly that if you don’t know their other works intimately you might well be taken in. I am prepared to believe that many of the incidents and the conversations described by Steinbeck are just as real as his constant anthropomorphising of Charley. This is not a bad thing. Indeed, a good case can be that the more fictional these episodes are, the better they represent the writer’s personality.

The plot is excellent – if anticlimactic. In the end of 1960, aged 58 and not in the best health, John Steinbeck was dismayed to realise that he didn’t know his own country and decided to circumnavigate it on wheels. So he took his two faithful companions, Rocinante and Charley, and drove off in northern direction. Eleven weeks, thirty-four states and some ten thousand miles later, he was bowled over by the beauty of nature in Wisconsin, fell in love with Montana, admired greatly “the state of mind” (Texas) and was appalled by the rabid racism of the Deep South, but he was hardly the wiser what constituted “our Americanness”. His conclusion is disappointingly trite. Every state is unique but Americans, for all their differences in background, outlook and even language, share a common core that binds them together more strongly than is generally recognised. What this core might consist of remains elusive.

The characters benefit from Steinbeck’s formidable powers of characterisation. They are more alive and compelling than those in many a novel, including some with classical pretensions. Examples are numerous, but I will limit myself to one. If the author is to be believed, the main dream in Maine was a trip to Florida. It’s warm down there, it’s cold up here, it’s that simple. Or is it? That Maine waitress is still one of my favourite characters:

She wasn’t happy, but then she wasn’t unhappy. She wasn’t anything. But I don’t believe anyone is a nothing. There has to be something inside, if only to keep the skin from collapsing. This vacant eye, listless hand, this damask cheek dusted like a doughnut with plastic powder, had to have a memory or a dream.
On a chance I asked, “How soon you going to Florida?”
“Nex’ week,” she said listlessly. Then something stirred in that aching void. “Say, how do you know I’m going?”
“Read your mind, I guess.”
She looked at my beard. “You with a show?”
“Then how do you mean read my mind?”
“Maybe I guessed. Like it down there?”
“Oh, sure! I go every year. Lots of waitress jobs in the winter.”
“What do you do down there, I mean for fun?”
“Oh, nothing. Just fool around.”
“Do you fish or swim?”
“Not much. I just fool around. I don’t like that sand, makes me itch.”
“Make good money?”
“It’s a cheap crowd.”
“They rather spen’ it on booze.”
“Than what?”
“Than tips. Just the same here with the summer people. Cheap.”
Strange how one person can saturate a room with vitality, with excitement. Then there are others, and this dame was one of them, who can drain off energy and joy, can suck pleasure dry and get no sustenance from it. Such people spread a grayness in the air about them. I’d been driving a long time, and perhaps my energy was low and my resistance down. She got me. 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.

Sometimes characters and events are grouped in something much like short stories. A special personal favourite is the proprietor of “a little put-together, do-it-yourself group of cabins” and his ambitious son. I’m not quite sure where that happened, but probably somewhere in Washington. Heavily abridged and omitting the twist in the tail, the story looks like this:

The door was open, and I saw his eyes go over Rocinante and linger on the license plate.
“You really from New York?”
“I want to go there sometime.”
“Everybody there wants to come out here.”
“What for? There’s nothing here. You can just rot here.”
“If it’s rotting you want, you can do it any place.”

The burly proprietor’s face was red as a ripe raspberry when I went into the lunch counter. He thrust his jaw at me. “As if I ain’t carrying enough trouble, you got to be from New York.”
“Is that bad?”
“For me it is. I just got that kid quieted down and you put burrs under his blanket.”
“I didn’t give New York a good name.”
“No, but you come from there and now he’s all riled up again. Oh, hell, what’s the use? He’s no damn good around here. Come on, you might as well eat with us out back.”

What happened “out back” you’ll know when you read the story.

But the most important characters are, of course, John and Charley. They make the book what it is, a genuine masterpiece.

Charley is completely charming, much more so than many a fictional character. He is “an elderly gentleman of the French persuasion” with impeccable manners and rather fastidious taste. He can’t speak English, nor French for that matter, but he can read thoughts. With elaborate body language and a large arsenal of sounds, including the trademark “Ftt”, he can make himself perfectly clear. He is a coward, of course, but a very smart and dignified coward. He usually takes the front seat besides the driver.

Steinbeck’s boundless affection for Charley is one of the most endearing qualities of the book. He regards his foibles and tantrums with gentle humour. He is often amused but never angry with him. When Charley gets seriously ill with prostatitis, all humour is substituted with grave concern and intense anger at that alcoholic, incompetent vet from Spokane, Washington. When Charley suddenly and inexplicably, beside himself with rage, challenges to a fight the bears at Yellowstone and later has nightmares, the author muses about “the Hyde in my Jekyll-headed dog” and concludes: “I wonder why we think the thoughts and emotions of animals are simple.” John invariably treats Charley as an intelligent adult. He has no patience with those who don’t:

On the other hand, I yield to no one in my distaste for the self-styled dog-lover, the kind who heaps up his frustrations and makes a dog carry them around. Such a dog-lover talks baby talk to mature and thoughtful animals, and attributes his own sloppy characteristics to them until the dog becomes in his mind an alter ego. Such people, it seems to me, in what they imagine to be kindness, are capable of inflicting long and lasting tortures on an animal, denying it any of its natural desires and fulfillments until a dog of weak character breaks down and becomes the fat, asthmatic, befurred bundle of neuroses. When a stranger addresses Charley in baby talk, Charley avoids him. For Charley is not a human; he’s a dog, and he likes it that way. He feels that he is a first-rate dog and has no wish to be a second-rate human.

As for John himself, he comes off as very human and very humane, tireless student of human nature and passionate admirer of natural nature, a man of insatiable curiosity that would be obnoxious were it not put to such fine literary use. He is restless, moody and prone to bouts of “desolate loneliness”, but he is not morbidly depressed. “A sad soul can kill you quicker, far quicker, than a germ.” Words of wisdom, John. Words of wisdom!

The book is peppered with personal revelations, sometimes tantalisingly ambiguous, sometimes deeply moving. Steinbeck laments the unified tastelessness of the food, the disappearance of local speech and the profound change in Northern California, the place where he grew up but can now hardly recognise (“You can’t go home again”, he wisely quotes Tom Wolfe). He insists that he is not against change, nor is he sure that what he wants to be preserved is worth preserving, but his final verdict rather unambiguous: “I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction.” Possibly the most poignant passage in the whole book is Steinbeck’s discussion of old age, frail health and impending death. This is strikingly similar to Jack London’s famous affirmation of life as opposed to mere existence “I would rather be ashes than dust!”[2] Only an extended quote can do it justice:

During the previous winter I had become rather seriously ill with one of those carefully named difficulties which are the whispers of approaching age. When I came out of it I received the usual lecture about slowing up, losing weight, limiting the cholesterol intake. It happens to many men, and I think doctors have memorized the litany. It had happened to so many of my friends. The lecture ends, “Slow down. You’re not as young as you once were.” And I had seen so many begin to pack their lives in cotton wool, smother their impulses, hood their passions, and gradually retire from their manhood into a kind of spiritual and physical semi-invalidism. In this they are encouraged by wives and relatives, and it’s such a sweet trap.
A kind of second childhood falls on so many men. They trade their violence for the promise of a small increase of life span. In effect, the head of the house becomes the youngest child. And I have searched myself for this possibility with a kind of horror. For I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory, or slobbed for a time in utter laziness. I’ve lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as a punishment. I did not want to surrender fierceness for a small gain in yardage. My wife married a man; I saw no reason why she should inherit a baby. I knew that ten or twelve thousand miles driving a truck, alone and unattended, over every kind of road, would be hard work, but to me it represented the antidote for the poison of the professional sick man. And in my own life I am not willing to trade quality for quantity. If this projected journey should prove too much then it was time to go anyway. I see too many men delay their exits with a sickly, slow reluctance to leave the stage. It’s bad theater as well as bad living. I am very fortunate in having a wife who likes being a woman, which means that she likes men, not elderly babies. Although this last foundation for the journey was never discussed, I am sure she understood it.

On a lower level, there are several charming bits of autobiographical background that found its way into some of Steinbeck’s most famous works. Readers familiar with East of Eden would certainly recognise these characters:

I seem to have had a fortunate childhood for a writer. My grandfather, Sam’l Hamilton, loved good writing, and he knew it too, and he had some bluestocking daughters, among them my mother. Thus it was that in Salinas, in the great dark walnut bookcase with the glass doors, there were strange and wonderful things to be found. My parents never offered them, and the glass door obviously guarded them, and so I pilfered from that case. It was neither forbidden nor discouraged. I think today if we forbade our illiterate children to touch the wonderful things of our literature, perhaps they might steal them and find secret joy.

[During the “rolling barrage” of the hunting season in Maine, the most hilarious and at the same one of the most chilling passages in the whole book, Steinbeck remembers:]

When I was a child on the ranch near Salinas, California, we had a Chinese cook who regularly made a modest good thing of it. On a ridge not far away, a sycamore log lay on its side supported by two of its broken branches. Lee’s attention was drawn to this speckled fawn-colored chunk of wood by the bullet holes in it. He nailed a pair of horns to one end and then retired to his cabin until deer season was over. Then he harvested the lead from the old tree trunk. Some seasons he got fifty or sixty pounds of it. It wasn’t a fortune but it was wages. After a couple of years, when the tree was completely shot away, Lee replaced it with four gunny sacks of sand and the same antlers. Then it was even easier to harvest his crop. If he had put out fifty of them it would have been a fortune, but Lee was a humble man who didn’t care for mass production.

Steinbeck is not the self-indulgent and narcissistic type of writer who sees nothing beyond his precious self. Far from it! He constantly tries to relate his observations to America as well as the human species on the whole. I do think it’s a mistake to read this book as a travel guide or a history textbook, but that doesn’t change the fact that some of Steinbeck’s observations are extraordinarily prescient. I don’t know about America today, but I’m pretty sure there are plenty of cities all around the world that can fit this dystopian description:

American cities are like badger holes, ringed with trash – all of them – surrounded by piles of wrecked and rusting automobiles, and almost smothered in rubbish. Everything we use comes in boxes, cartons, bins, the so-called packaging we love so much. The mountain of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use. In this, if in no other way, we can see the wild and reckless exuberance of our production, and waste seems to be the index.

At another place Steinbeck comes close to describing in other words what, to borrow a phrase from another great American writer, has been called “the slow and implacable fires of human desperation”[3]. Again, he speaks of this as a typically American phenomenon, but I would be greatly surprised if it doesn’t transcend the US borders. I am ready to believe that today, in a paradoxical world of faster transport and more sedentary lifestyle than ever before, these words are relevant to vast portions of the globe:

I saw in their eyes [his neighbours at Sag Harbor, NY] something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation – a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any Here. They spoke quietly of how they wanted to go someday, to move about, free and unanchored, not toward something but away from something. I saw this look and heard this yearning everywhere in every state I visited. Nearly every American hungers to move.

The incredible spectacle that Steinbeck witnessed in New Orleans forms the ghastly coda of the book. He went to see the “Cheerleaders”, a group of middle-aged white women who shouted abuse at a little black girl who was going to school together with white girls. Then the Cheerleaders shouted even more abuse at the white man who was taking his white daughter to the same school. “Man, oh man, you going to see something. Ain’t those Cheerleaders something?” raved an attendant at a parking lot. Steinbeck’s analysis is considerably more advanced, bold and brilliant:

Perhaps that is what made me sick with weary nausea. Here was no principle good or bad, no direction. These blowzy women, with their little hats and their clippings, hungered for attention. They wanted to be admired. They simpered in happy, almost innocent triumph when they were applauded. Theirs was the demented cruelty of egocentric children, and somehow this made their insensate beastliness much more heart-breaking. These were not mothers, not even women. They were crazy actors playing to a crazy audience.

The standard joke in the Deep South was to mistake Charley for a “niggah”. “Man, oh man, I thought you had a nigger in there. Man, oh man, it’s a dog.” in the limited vocabulary of the aforementioned attendant. Steinbeck was finally denounced as a “nigger-lover” by a man to whom he had kindly offered a ride, but whom he finally kicked out of Rocinante. He bore his “failings as a racist” with fortitude. When he offered a ride to “an old Negro”, he was confronted with a silent and scared man who “squirmed with restlessness” and “squeezed himself against the far side of the cab”. This heartbreaking episode is one of those moments that are just as good – probably better than most – short stories. Steinbeck tried to put the man at ease with a few casual questions, but he failed. At this point he recalls a scene he witnessed in New York that is worth quoting:

I lived then in a small brick house in Manhattan, and, being for the moment solvent, employed a Negro. Across the street and on the corner there was a bar and restaurant. One winter dusk when the sidewalks were iced I stood in my window looking out and saw a tipsy woman come out of the bar, slip on the ice, and fall flat. She tried to struggle up but slipped and fell again and lay there screaming maudlinly. At that moment the Negro who worked for me came around the corner, saw the woman, and instantly crossed the street, keeping as far from her as possible.
When he came in I said, “I saw you duck. Why didn’t you give that woman a hand?”
“Well, sir, she’s drunk and I’m Negro. If I touched her she could easily scream rape, and then it’s a crowd, and who believes me?”
“It took quick thinking to duck that fast.”
“Oh, no sir!” he said. “I’ve been practicing to be a Negro a long time.”
And now in Rocinante I was foolishly trying to destroy a lifetime of practice.

If you wish to tell me that the term “Negro” is not “politically correct”, I would urge you to pay more attention to the context. One of Steinbeck’s most unbelievable claims is that “in over ten thousand miles, in thirty-four states, I was not recognized even once.” I find this extremely hard to believe, but his argumentation is compelling. “I believe that people identify things only in context”, he says, and whatever contexts he may have been seen against, these certainly didn’t include pickup trucks, French poodles and driving around the States for pleasure. Searing observation like this makes you reconsider the importance of context. Now, if you put the word “Negro” in the context of Travels with Charley, you will hardly fail to notice that no writer can be more politically correct than Steinbeck. There can be no doubt about his “failings as a racist”. Great and grave they are.

Of course Steinbeck knew all too well that the Cheerleaders and their rather numerous supporters were not the whole of New Orleans, much less the whole of the Deep South. He relates a fascinating conversation with an enlightened Southerner who, whether he existed or not, must have been one among many. All the same, this nauseating experience of racial hatred prematurely terminated his journey. He drove diligently through West Virginia and Pennsylvania, but he remembered nothing of them. In the end he got lost in New York and burst out laughing.

No book is perfect and this one is certainly no exception. Some of Steinbeck’s reflections are surprisingly superficial and some of his repetitions almost insult his readers. I don’t need to be reminded in the last chapter what he said in the first. It was only 240 pages and a few days ago; I remember. Sometimes his thoughts jump from one topic to another with confusing speed and sometimes he includes episodes that are irrelevant and boring (the hurricane in the beginning is a prime example). No matter. Travels with Charley remains a masterpiece, not because it’s perfect, but despite its imperfections.

Travelogues are difficult to write. It’s easy to lose balance. Steinbeck virtually never does. He finds the perfect blend of amusing trivia, thought-provoking meetings with strange people, ravishing descriptions of nature and personal reflections on topics as different as road signs and racial abuse. If you have read and loved other books by John Steinbeck, this one must be on your to-be-read-as-soon-as-possible shelf. If you haven’t read anything by John Steinbeck, I should think this is an excellent place to start.


[1] Afloat (1888) and The Gentleman in the Parlour (1930), respectively.

[2] I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.

Unfortunately, nobody seems to be able to locate these stirring words anywhere in London’s own works. The omniscient Wikipedia gives two sources, but neither of them is even remotely satisfactory. The first is “The Bulletin, San Francisco, California, December 2, 1916, part 2, p. 1”, which is not a piece by London but a journalistic account of a visit to his ranch a few weeks before his death on 22 November 1916. The second source is the Introduction (p. vii) to Jack London’s Tales of Adventure, ed. Irving Shepard, 1956, which is even less reliable and was probably copied from the first source. For a further discussion, see the Commentary by Clarice Stasz.

[3] Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie (1945), Scene 1. Incidentally, movement is very important in this play, too. See Scene 6 where Tom Wingfield exclaims: “People go to the movies instead of moving!” ( )
3 vote Waldstein | Oct 29, 2014 |
While Steinbeck's goal was to learn about America, how much he did so could be debated. He did learn about himself. ( )
  dpevers | Oct 23, 2014 |
The book left me wanting more Steinbeck. A lot of wonderful insight into humanity. He couldn't have written it now, though, because it's most decidedly NOT politically correct. ( )
  AliceAnna | Oct 23, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 107 (next | show all)
Steinbeck’s book-length account of his journey, “Travels With Charley: In Search of America,” published in 1962, was generally well reviewed and became a best-seller. It remains in print, regarded by some as a classic of American travel writing. Almost from the beginning, though, a few readers pointed out that many of the conversations in the book had a stagey, wooden quality, not unlike the dialogue in Steinbeck’s fiction.

Early on in the book, for example, Steinbeck has a New England farmer talking in folksy terms about Nikita S. Khrushchev’s shoe-pounding (or -brandishing, depending on whom you ask) speech at the United Nations weeks before Khrushchev actually visited the United Nations. A particularly unlikely encounter occurs at a campsite near Alice, N.D., where a Shakespearean actor, mistaking Steinbeck for a fellow thespian, greets him with a sweeping bow, saying, “I see you are of the profession,” and then proceeds to talk about John Gielgud.

Even Steinbeck’s son John said he was convinced that his father never talked to many of the people he wrote about, and added, “He just sat in his camper and wrote all that [expletive].”

» Add other authors (26 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Steinbeck, Johnprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Parini, JayIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sinise, GaryNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Important places
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This book is dedicated to
with respect born of an association and
affection that just growed.
First words
When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch.
No newspaper had printed the words these women shouted. It was indicated that they were indelicate, some even said obscene...But now I heard the words, bestial and filthy and degenerate. In a long and unprotected life I have seen and heard the vomitings of demoniac humans before. Why then did these screams fill me with a shocked and sickened sorrow?
For how can one know color in perpetual green, and what good is warmth without cold to give it sweetness?
When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked.
Who has not known a journey to be over and dead before the traveler returns? The reverse is also true: many a trip continues long after movement in time and space have ceased.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0142000701, Paperback)

In September 1960, John Steinbeck and his poodle, Charley, embarked on a journey across America. A picaresque tale, this chronicle of their trip meanders through scenic backroads and speeds along anonymous superhighways, moving from small towns to growing cities to glorious wilderness oases. Travels with Charley in Search of America is animated by Steinbeck’s attention to the specific details of the natural world and his sense of how the lives of people are intimately connected to the rhythms of nature—to weather, geography, the cycle of the seasons. His keen ear for the transactions among people is evident, too, as he records the interests and obsessions that preoccupy the Americans he encounters along the way.

Travels with Charley in Search of America, originally published in 1962, provides an intimate and personal look at one of America’s most beloved writers in the later years of his life—a self-portrait of a man who never wrote an explicit autobiography. It was written during a time of upheaval and racial tension in the South—which Steinbeck witnessed firsthand—and is a stunning evocation of America on the eve of a tumultuous decade.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:28:28 -0400)

(see all 7 descriptions)

Steinbeck records his emotions and experiences during a journey of rediscovery in his native land.

(summary from another edition)

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