Sunday, April 8, 2012

Travels With Charley: In Search of America – by John Steinbeck, A Book Review

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Rocinante was the name of Don Quixote’s horse from the classic novel by Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote. It’s also the name of the turtle shell of a cabin on wheels that belonged to the late, great, best-selling author, John Steinbeck. Steinbeck was a man of modest background, who, without completing a college degree, became an iconic writer and Nobel Prize recipient. He was also a “traveler.” To many, especially the living free, nomadic types, who will read this review, John Steinbeck and his classic book, Travels with Charley: In Search of America, are already part of their lexicon. It’s become almost required reading for anyone who has the nomadic itch and wants to explore the world, but more specifically America. Travels with Charley has been the inspiration, encouraged the dreams and drives and provided a loose template for untold thousands, perhaps millions, of people who have an irrepressible need to move, are restless and, like me, are searching to see if there is much left of the America in which we grew up.

I have to admit, that my style of reading is like that of many non-fiction readers. I don’t usually read books from cover to cover. I simply scan them. The table of contents, the introduction and the index are, to me, perhaps the three most valuable parts of a book. As a former non-fiction book publisher myself, it was very important for me to make sure the books we produced had a table of contents that provided descriptive chapter titles, an introduction that provided the reader with a real sense of why a book was important to them and set a meaningful foundation and a comprehensive index that helped the reader find precisely the information they were seeking when they acquired the book.

Travels with Charley doesn’t have a very useful table of contents. The book is simply segmented into four parts numbered Parts 1 through 4. There is no introduction by the author, only some background about the author and the reason for his travel odyssey included by the editor/publisher. There is no index so I wasn’t able to scan and find the things of most interest to me. Typically, with a book like this, I would scan, find some interesting passages and glean enough about the work to say I am familiar with the book. And, that has been my past involvement with Travels with Charley. But, this time, since I’m setting out on my own travel and exploration odyssey, I decided it was time to actually read the book and gain as much insight from Steinbeck’s experience as I could.

There are several distinctions I made immediately. Steinbeck set out on his search for America in the fall of the year. He planned his trip to take about three months to drive from the east coast to the west coast along a northern route, hoping to beat out the onset of winter and return by a southern route where he hoped the approaching winter would be more hospitable. I had made a somewhat similar trip in 2010 only I made the journey in about three weeks with about six days at a stationary location in Oregon to record two audio books for a client. I took a similar northerly route and returned by a similar southerly route, but I didn’t allow much time to stop, explore, discover and meet a lot of the people. When I reached the west coast, I actually went through central California and stayed about four days in Fresno. Then on the return trip, again, I traveled rapidly and allowed little time to stop, explore, discover and meet people.

Now, that’s not to say that I didn’t do numerous things on my trip and meet some great people, but my trip wasn’t the same as John’s as far as intent or time. Also, I traveled in my now departed Cadillac Seville and stayed in budget motels. So, I didn’t camp along the way as John did. Camping is where he met some of the most interesting people on his journey. John also had a traveling companion, his French born and trained standard poodle, Charley. I traveled alone with my cell phone as my companion allowing me to keep in contact with familiar voices.

John did whatever was necessary to conceal or at least not make his identity known. He wanted to just blend in and be part of the American scene and be treated like “one of the guys” rather then the best-selling, celebrity author he was. He was truly looking for the real America and he wanted to be part of it and experience it on the most basic and common level. I won’t have any problem with concealing who I am since I am virtually unknown, other then, perhaps, those who follow the Living Free blog (and I look forward to meeting as I travel).

Here’s the thing that moved me most about Travels with Charley. John Steinbeck was disappointed when he returned from the trip. Actually, he couldn’t wait to end the trip and return home. America had changed. Apparently, while he still found some familiar parts of the world he grew up in and knew, most had changed enough that he didn’t return feeling that he had really found America, at least not on his terms. He made his trip in the beginning of the 60’s a year or two before I graduated from high school. That is a half century ago. John was about 60 when he made his trip and I am in my 60’s today. Like John, I have crisscrossed the country many, many times. But, until my 2010 trip, my transcontinental crossings had always been somewhere between 500 and 600 miles per hour and about 35,000 feet in the sky. John needed to see his country from ground level as do I.

So, here’s the bottom line. After reading John’s account of his Search for America, I was both a bit disillusioned, yet . . . much inspired. It wasn’t his writing or his reporting of the events of his odyssey that disillusioned me, it was that the America he was searching for didn’t seem to be there. Change is inevitable. John knew that, which was one of his motivations for making the journey. America had grown remarkably from his birth in 1902 and his trip 60 years later. But, I was inspired by his account. The book helped me to realize a clearer vision of why I want to travel this country on the ground. It became much clearer to me that my 2010 cross-continent adventure wasn’t even a good teaser. I also recognized that three months, as John did, won’t come close to satisfying my curiosity.

I’m very glad I finally made the commitment to actually read and absorb Travels with Charley and get beyond just saying I’m familiar with the book. I truly wish I had made the commitment to read this book long ago. I’m sure it would have inspired me to begin my odyssey many years sooner then I am. I bought the Kindle version from Amazon and now have Travels with Charley: In Search of America as part of my permanent (new ebook) library so I can refer back to it and reread all or parts of it whenever I need the inspiration. I also know that my odyssey that I’m planning to be years long, is going to be full of disappointment and disillusionment. Just as Steinbeck found with the passing of 60 years since his birth when he traveled, the 60+ years since my birth have seen even more rapid changes. He still found much to enjoy, marvel and wonder about during his trip, I fully expect that on my travels. I guess what I’m going to be most interested in is how much our freedom and rights have changed since the beginning of the 20th Century when he arrived in this world, the mid 20th Century when I arrived and now, the early part of the 21st Century.

Dear Reader (whether a U.S. resident or a citizen of some other country), if you are at all inspired to take some time to feed your nomadic curiosity about this vast country we call America, I strongly recommend that John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America be on your must read list. You will get both the best of Steinbeck and a unique, interesting, poignant and inspiring account of just how great seeing this country is and why you shouldn’t put off your own Search for America. Maybe John Steinbeck will become your muse and inspire your American Odyssey.  


bill s said...

Hi Ed -- Good luck on your trip around the USA, wherever it takes you. I retraced Steinbeck's "Travels With Charley" trip in 2010, as carefully as possible, as a journalist; I hope what I learned about the book and Steinbeck's real trip (not the mythic/fictional one he presented as honest and true) won't spoil your fun; all that I found is at and

good luck on your trip

bill steigerwald

bill s said...

sorry -- that one link is old -- it should be

bill s

Ed Helvey - Professional Nomad said...

Thanks, Bill --

Personally, I didn't feel that the book was an actual log of the trip. And, of course, knowing that Steinbeck was a celebrated, best-selling fiction writer, I felt his descriptive language a bit more embellished then a more journalistic approach by someone like yourself.

I read the full book not so much because I felt a need to use it to establish a plan or course for my own nomadic wandering, but more because I had glanced through it before and felt that if I'm going to be a nomad, I needed to actually know the book. I did find it inspiring, but I honestly didn't discern its accuracy or honesty.

In the late spring of 2011, as I noted, I made a coast to coast trip, with a different purpose and without the time I wish I could have enjoyed at that time. I traveled in some of the places he said he went through, but to be honest, because of my time constraints I missed most of the America I wanted to see because I was using the Interstate system.

You have intrigued me and I have already looked at some of our posted content and I plan to go through all your posted materials. As a former (small, independent) non-fiction (though we did do a few works of fiction) book publisher and having spent a dozen years in that industry, I have a reasonable handle on how it works. And, as you and I both know, it's not necessarily about accuracy, truth or fact - it's about selling books and that's where the editor fits into the picture.

I'll do another post in the future about all I've learned from your writings. Thanks for stopping by and for commenting.