‘Travels with Charley’ by John Steinbeck
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!