Travels with Charley

Over the Thanksgiving break I read Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck’s book about his trip across America in 1961 with his French poodle Charley. I had been interested in reading the book since I saw it quoted in Dave Gibson’s blog this summer.

Steinbeck explains in the preface why he chose to go on his trip.

During the previous winter I had become rather seriously ill with one of those carefully named difficulties which are the whispers of approaching age. … And I had seen so many [older men] 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. Who doesn’t want to be the center for concern? … I knew that in 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. … If this projected journey should prove too much then it was time to go anyway.

Travels with Charley is filled with insightful observations of ordinary people Steinbeck met along the way.There was even one brief mention of a mathematician.

The dairy man had a Ph. D. in mathematics, and he must have had some training in philosophy. He liked what he was doing and he didn’t want to be somewhere else — one of the very few contented people I met in my whole journey.

Maybe I should buy a dairy.

One of my favorite descriptions is of a man that Steinbeck didn’t meet in person: Steinbeck gives an account of the life of a man by the evidence left behind in a hotel room.

I enjoyed Travels with Charley until Steinbeck and Charley made it to the West Coast. Steinbeck’s description of his return trip is not nearly as enjoyable to read. The end of the book has fewer descriptions of people and more commentary. Steinbeck becomes tedious. He is looking forward to end his trip, and so are his readers. I recommend Travels with Charley, but I also recommend stopping after they see the giant redwoods.

4 thoughts on “Travels with Charley

  1. Hi John, Nice note.

    Did you catch this article in the NYT about Travels With Charlie last spring? Apparently Steinbeck took some license with the details.

    I like the quote from this scholar “I have always assumed that to some degree it’s a work of fiction. Steinbeck was a fiction writer, and here he’s shaping events, massaging them. He probably wasn’t using a tape recorder. But I still feel there’s an authenticity there.”

    By the way, if you make it to California, be sure to visit the Steinbeck museum in Salinas (near Monterrey). It’s very modern– lots of multimedia with a room for each book. I went and re-read a bunch of Steinbeck after I visited. (I too recommend East of Eden).

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