‘Travels with Charley’ by John Steinbeck

December 9, 2014 at 6:12 am 8 comments

For reasons I shall blame on my secondary school education, John Steinbeck has always belonged in my readerly mind to a category otherwise populated by Melville, Hemingway, and Faulkner. I would dub this category something along the lines of “White Male Authors Who Write About White Male Problems (Sometimes Historically).”

I think I classed these guys this way because that’s the way they were taught in school—all at once and of a kind. I can’t imagine a cohort more profoundly blah to a 14-year-old young woman, even one of a bookish bent, than this one.

So for many years I ignored the fact that, hey, I had actually enjoyed Of Mice and Men (certainly more than Billy Budd, The Old Man and the Sea, or The Bear, anyway) and went along my merry reader’s way regarding Steinbeck with as much distaste as I did Melville, Hemingway, and Faulkner.

It’s funny what an impression authors make on a young reading mind. Everything is so set and firm and there’s simply no room for reconsidering.

This attitude, as I came to realize some years later in the natural course of “growing up,” is no way to go through life. Readers change, even if the books and authors themselves don’t, and it is almost ridiculous how worthwhile revisiting books are at different moments in your life.


So when I read Benoit Denizet-Lewis’ Travels with Casey over the summer and learned that John Steinbeck wrote a travel narrative about his cross-country journey in the company of his poodle, I knew it was time to revisit Steinbeck and what category I had shoved him into.

And what a good thing I did! I plain old loved Travels with Charley in Search of America. I loved everything about it, from Steinbeck’s writing, thoughtfulness, and sense of humor to the people he described along the way to the little doggish asides to his beautiful musings on everything from landscape to politics to memory.

Driving the big highway near Toledo I had a conversation with Charley on the subject of roots. He listened but he didn’t reply.

I loved it so much, in fact, that it took me almost a month to read this exceedingly slim book. Travels with Charley is a book that demands to be savored and enjoyed in sips rather than gulps. It roams, both geographically and mentally, and invites you to join in the musing, meandering nature of the journey.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough, particularly to those who, like me, had written off Steinbeck based on early associations. I look forward to exploring his other nonfiction offerings, and perhaps even his retelling of La Morte d’Arthur if I’m feeling particularly ambitious!


Entry filed under: Classics, Non-fiction. Tags: , , , .

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Kate  |  December 9, 2014 at 7:54 pm

    I actually read his retelling! It was incredibly endearing…but frustratingly unfinished. You will probably see why when you read it.

    It took me a while to get into Steinbeck, too, but once I did, I was so glad. He is a writer of intense thoughtfulness. Unlike Faulkner and Hemingway, I always feel Steinbeck reaching through the pages of his works, trying to connect with the reader, as though he really and truly wants them to understand what he is conveying.

    In Travels with Charley, that’s even more the case — he also seems to want to connect with the reader not only on the level of telling a good story and documenting America, he wants you to understand and perhaps identify with the bond between a man and his dog. What better subject? :)

    • 2. Corey  |  December 10, 2014 at 11:53 am

      YES! The evident thought he put into everything (and the care with which he communicates it to his readers) is the best part. You get the impression that absolutely nothing, not a single word, was put down without intention and care. I love it.

  • […] Peripatetic Award for Best Travel Memoir Corey: Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck definitely. It showed me what really good writing feels like after a slew of […]

  • 4. Kate  |  May 24, 2015 at 7:44 pm

    A much later note — it’s funny that most of the White Male Writers you’re having trouble with are American. There’s something about American writers for me, too, that I can’t quite get on board with. I think maybe because the really good/famous ones were writing around the World Wars, which is a period of literature I have trouble with in general.

    • 5. Corey  |  May 27, 2015 at 9:52 am

      I think I also have serious trouble with American authors in general. I keep trying to expand my reading horizons, but I just can’t seem to help liking 19th-century English writers the best! (Although, the magical realism movement in the latter 20th century has, at least, been a new discovery that I’ve enjoyed in these attempts.)

  • 6. “Show Dog” by Josh Dean | Literary Transgressions  |  August 11, 2015 at 10:09 am

    […] It, a delightful detective story written from the point of view of Chet, the detective’s canine. Travels with Charley, The Art of Racing in the Rain, even Clarence the TV Dog — I will devour anything about […]

  • 7. Library Loot: Week of August 17 | Literary Transgressions  |  August 20, 2015 at 3:33 am

    […] of Eden by John Steinbeck I rediscovered Steinbeck earlier this year and East of Eden has been on my list ever since. It’s supposed to be his […]

  • […] didn’t choose it for that reason. Prior to this summer, Hemingway had long been on my “No Thank You, Male White Author” list. But The Paris Wife changed all […]


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