When my wife and I visited the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, I was surprised by what turned out to be my favorite item. I’ve been a Steinbeck fan since I was introduced to him by way of The Pearl in seventh grade English. No other writer commands his sense of place and his eye for landscape in context of character is matchless. I read his masterpiece East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath a few summers ago. The museum memorabilia of these works and other favorites like The Red Pony certainly delighted me, but my heart was captured by an old GMC pickup with a large white camper on back.
Travels with Charley is one of those books I’ve always sort of known about but never truly considered. I knew he wrote it at the end of his career, and that was about it. Seeing the truck, which he named Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse, made me dig in and boy am I glad I did. The book is about a 3 month, 10,000 mile road trip of America Steinbeck made with his French Poodle Charley.
In 1960 the world was exploding and Steinbeck was feeling lost. He was 58 years old and his health was failing. His masterworks were behind him and (what turned out to be) his final novel, The Winter of Our Discontent was finished. In letters to friends Steinbeck stated that he wrote Winter to address the moral degeneration of American culture. This of course was not a new theme for him and his social activism often had him on defense during the red paranoia of the McCarthy era.
John Steinbeck’s son Thom later said the real reason for the trip was that his dad thought he was dying and wanted to see the country one last time. I think that’s a disservice to the author. The fact is, Steinbeck lived almost another decade and remained active in using his celebrity to influence social cause. The book itself is clearly a blend of nonfiction travelogue and contrived conversations with people encountered along the way. It gives me no pause that some of them may be composites to give the author a vehicle to air out his story.
Standing back over fifty years later, it’s easy for me to see his agenda. Travels with Charley is a wake-up call to America. Steinbeck mined the heart of our country in search of its character and ultimately discovered more about himself than us. He realized near the end of the trip that his experience was entirely subjective and that he only really found what he brought to it. To his credit, the last years of his life found him actively engaged with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson as well as Martin Luther King Junior, among others.
He was out there still.
A few months after Steinbeck’s trip, Ernest Hemingway committed suicide. When Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize several months later, he called his friend William Faulkner (a previous winner) for a little advice about what to say. Faulkner said he couldn’t offer much help because “I was drunk at the time”. In just a matter of weeks Faulkner was dead too – largely from drinking himself to death as F. Scott Fitzgerald did a decade earlier.
In a private journal entry Steinbeck complained about the tendency – specifically here, Faulkner – for famous writers to lose touch with people.
“A letter today enclosed an interview with Bill Faulkner which turns my stomach. When those old writing boys get to talking about The Artist, meaning themselves, I want to leave the profession. I don’t know whether the Nobel Prize does it or not, but if it does, thank God I have not been so honored. They really get to living up to themselves, wrapped and shellacked. Apparently they can’t have any human intercourse again.”
The self destructiveness of his contemporaries isn’t easily summarized, but a large measure must be placed on their brooding, angst-riddled and egotistical introspection. Steinbeck stands apart because he found the balance. He understood that yes, wisdom is gained only by the clear eyed examination of one’s heart, but he also knew that none of it mattered if it didn’t benefit other people – specifically, the common man.
To know Steinbeck is to know a man driving Rocinante down the highway with his shirt sleeves rolled up, one arm out the window, engaging the world.