Saturday, April 7, 2012

Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck

Travels with Charley: In Search of AmericaTravels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wasn't sure if I should comment on Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck because I read less than half of it. I opted to write about it anyway, but with full disclosure.

I'm not a fan of travelogues. I started reading this book because my book club chose it, but when I learned I wasn't going to be able to attend that month's meeting I switched to another book. My impression of the book is that it is well written, but not very profound. One of the reviews I read said that Steinbeck stayed in hotels while traveling and not in his camper/van as he claimed. I don't know if this is true, but speaking as a fan of fiction I don't suppose it matters. He wrote of his impressions of America in 1962. The book is dated, of course, but that makes it interesting. There are differences between people who lived fifty years ago and people who live today, but those seem to be specific differences rather than core differences. We still generalize and jump to conclusions. Today we're more accepting of African-Americans, but less of Mexicans. The type of bureaucracy that kept Steinbeck from crossing the Canadian border without the proper paperwork for his dog was similar to the story of a friend of mine who was recently forced to toss a tube of sunblock before entering a federal building in Washington DC.

The discussions Steinbeck had with people along the way were the part of this book that I liked the most. The people he encountered were jealous of his decision to travel. They were caught up in their day to day lives and wanted something different. I went to high school in New Jersey, in a school that was next to the Garden State Parkway. I used to look out the classroom windows and be jealous of the people driving by. I imagine some of those people in the cars looked up at our school and were jealous of us students. People always want to break out of routine. It doesn't matter if the routine is staying in one place or if it is traveling.

I was surprised by how much Steinbeck drank. I suppose the prevalence of alcohol may be a difference in the current culture from the culture of the sixties. People still drink today, of course, but back then everyone seemed to have a wet bar in their house and a cocktail hour before dinner. Steinbeck would offer the people he met a drink in his trailer, so I suppose the alcohol was a way to experience more rather than a blurring of what he saw. Also, it seemed that “hard-drinking” was a description he would have used with pride when describing about himself.

This is a good read for anyone interested in twentieth century America or in travelogues in general.

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