Now in my mid-sixties, I often find I'm surprised by what a different take I have, when I go back and re-read books I first read when I was much younger. That happened to me a few months back when—having long since lost my original print copy in some move or other—I decided to re-read Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley in its Kindle ebook version.
I had first read this non-fiction account by the twentieth-century Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist when I was in my late twenties. At the time, I saw it as an enjoyable, well-crafted "travel book" about an aging writer setting out to discover America and, as a kind of afterthought, taking his dog Charley (a giant poodle) along for the ride. But when I read it again a few months ago, already just a few pages in, I found myself slapping my forehead and asking aloud, "What was I, drunk the first time I read this?"
|Steinbeck in his latter years|
From my own "third age" perspective, I now saw it as an introspective journey on which a renowned writer embarks—at fifty-eight and suddenly staring the prospect of old age in the face—to try and rediscover, not America, but himself. Clearly, it wasn’t that I was drunk while reading this contemporary classic for the first time at twenty-something—although, if I’m honest, I have to confess that back then that would have been a distinct possibility—but rather, that already six years older than Steinbeck was then, I could now, on a second reading, identify completely with him and know precisely what he was feeling.
Back in the nineteen-seventies, with the probability of my whole life stretching before me, I really hadn’t a clue where the author was coming from. So true is this that when I picked the book up again after more than thirty-five years, I realized that the only thing I recalled vividly about it was an important section toward the end when Steinbeck decides to be a witness to a major event in American history: the enforcement of racial integration at a grade school in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. Obviously, back when I had read it the first time—when I was very clearly still in my “salad days”—that had seemed like a pivotal part of the book (which in many ways it is, but not like I thought), because having been a school boy in the days of John F. Kennedy, his brother Bobby, and Dr. Martin Luther King, among other civil rights heroes of the era, that chapter underscored itself in my mind.
But a much better reason why that chapter in New Orleans is important is that it constitutes one of the only passages in the narrative in which Steinbeck disengages from his own apparent self-identity crisis and gets intimately involved in perhaps the biggest thing that was going on in the United States at that time: namely, not only the legislating of equal rights, but also, and more importantly, the material enforcement of those new and ground-breaking federal laws against discrimination. Quoth Steinbeck: “The show began on time. Sound of sirens. Motorcycle cops. Then two big black cars filled with big men in blonde felt hats pulled up in front of the school. The crowd seemed to hold its breath. Four big marshals got out of each car and from somewhere in the automobiles they extracted the littlest Negro girl you ever saw, dressed in starchy shining white, with new white shoes on feet so little they were almost round. Her face and little legs were very black against the white.
“The big marshals stood her on the curb and a jangle of jeering shrieks went up from behind the barricades. The little girl did not look at the howling crowd but from the side the whites of her eyes showed like those of a frightened fawn. The men turned her around like a doll, and then the strange procession moved up the broad walk toward the school...”
|Steinbeck with Charley|
But throughout most of the rest of the book, I now was reading—between the lines—a John Steinbeck who was trying to recapture something he felt slipping inexorably away from him and his country. This trip, this book, is all about the writer’s trying almost desperately to fend off the impending finality of a life that he seems to know intuitively is ending. (In fact, Steinbeck died at the age of sixty-six, just six years after Travels with Charley was published). And he was hardly “taking Charley along for the ride,” as I had at first assumed. Charley was a fundamental part of the journey, a sidekick, but one that wouldn’t cloud still further with doubts, “certainties” and opinions of his own the fog that the writer was seeking to clear away from a new (the last) phase in his life, yet friendly and familiar company enough to act as an emotional anchor, so as to keep Steinbeck’s being “alone with himself” from spinning out of control.
Clearly, the jadedness that he was feeling in himself Steinbeck saw even more graphically reflected in the rest of the population—a sort of endemic illness that he, for one, wanted to shake off: “Having too many things,” he says of Americans as a nation, “[they] spend their hours and money on the couch, searching for a soul. We can stand anything God and Nature throw at us save only plenty. If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much and I would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy and sick.” Of the trip itself, the author says: “[A] journey is like a marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.”
The journey began rather ominously: He had chosen US Labor Day (the first Monday in September) as the deadline for his preparations, since right after that weekend, vacationers would be back in their jobs, and kids and college students would be back in their schools. The “open road” would thus be more truly open. But now, with his camper truck “Rocinante” loaded and ready to go, he would have to weather a storm, Hurricane Donna, before he even hit the road. Donna started brewing on August 29, 1960, and even though prediction wasn’t nearly as accurate then as now, the prospect of its at some point reaching Long Island, where Steinbeck lived, may well have had something to do with his putting off starting the journey in the first part of September. At any rate, Hurricane Donna did indeed, in her rampaging finale, pass right over the Steinbeck home on September 12, and called on the author to prove himself, ironically enough, on the eve of a journey that he had planned for just that purpose. Says Steinbeck: “...But there was one added worry—Rocinante sitting among the trees. In a waking nightmare I saw a tree crash down on the truck and crush her like a bug...” In the end, however, it wasn’t Steinbeck’s truck but his boat that would test him against the elements: Before the storm hit, Steinbeck had seen how two boats were left poorly moored in the bay near his own, the Fayre Eleyne. All is well during the first blast of the hurricane, but after the eye passes over and the other wall of the hurricane tears through changing the direction of the wind, the two tethered boats he saw earlier now drag the Fayre Eleyne up against the piles of a neighboring pier where “we could hear her hull crying against the oaken piles.”
With his wife running behind him in ninety-five mile an hour winds warning him to stop and come back, Steinbeck fights his way out into the water, holding onto the piles of the pier that is now four feet under. “My boat cried and whined against the piles, and plunged like a frightened calf. Then I jumped and fumbled my way aboard her. For the first time in my life I had a knife when I needed it. The bracketing wayward boats were pushing Eleyne against the pier. I cut anchor line and tow line and kicked them free, and they blew ashore on the mud bank...Under ordinary conditions I can barely pull [the] anchor up with both hands in a calm. But everything went right this time. I edged over the hook and it tipped up and freed its spades. Then I lifted it clear of the bottom and nosed into the wind and gave it throttle and we headed into that goddamn wind and gained on it...A hundred yards offshore, I let the hook go and it plunged down and grabbed bottom, and the Fayre Eleyne straightened and raised her bow and seemed to sigh with relief.”
His boat safe, the aging writer is now a hundred yards offshore with no way to get back but to swim with the wind, fortunately, at his back. “I saw a piece of branch go skidding by and simply jumped in after it. There was no danger. If I could keep my head up I had to blow ashore, but I admit the half-Wellington rubber boots I wore got pretty heavy. It couldn’t have been more than three minutes before I grounded and that other Fayre Eleyne [his wife] and a neighbor pulled me out. It was only then that I began to shake all over...”
And this dangerous prologue seems to set the ominous mood in which he undertook much of the rest of the trip. To my mind, throughout the book, even this fine writer’s great craft couldn’t keep me from feeling an underlying desperation. What pushed him to organize the trip in the first place, and what impelled him to more or less follow some sort of itinerary to some sort of end was the same emotion that caused him to skim over places that ordinary travel writers—those cheeky travel guide reporters who, when you tell them that you’ve spent the day hiking to the top of Mount X are wont to ask if you actually reached “the cross at the top and did you sign the book in the box in the niche underneath it?”—would have chided him for “missing”. It was the same thing too that permitted him to re-chart his course as he went (giving himself a break and steering clear of chaos whenever the all-too-familiar feeling of panic tightened in his throat and chest). After all, it was his journey, his and Charley’s, and no one else’s, and Charley was game to go wherever, as long as it meant being with his master.
Steinbeck’s wife, Elaine, said it best when asked about Travels with Charley. “This trip across America was just something John had to do,” she is quoted as saying. “And he had to go alone. He wanted to prove to himself that he was not an old man, that he could take control of his life, could drive himself, and could learn things again.”
|Steinbeck's camper, Rocinante|
No passage hints at a Steinbeck grown claustrophobic at the prospect of old age as much as when he finally finds solace in the vast open expanses of Montana: “I am in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection, but with Montana it is love, and it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it...It seemed to me that the frantic bustle of America was not in Montana. Its people did not seem afraid of shadows in a John Birch Society sense. The calm of the mountains and the rolling grasslands had got into the inhabitants. It was hunting season when I drove through the state. The men I talked to seemed to me not moved to a riot of seasonal slaughter but simply to be going out to kill edible meat....[I]t seemed to me that the towns were places to live in rather than nervous hives. People had time to pause in their occupations to undertake the passing art of neighborliness.”
And then Steinbeck adds, tellingly: “I found I did not rush through the towns to get them over with. I even found things I had to buy to make myself linger. In Billings I bought a hat, in Livingston a jacket, in Butte a rifle I didn’t particularly need, a Remington bolt-action .22, secondhand but in beautiful condition. Then I found a telescope sight I had to have, and waited while it was mounted on the rifle, and in the process got to know everyone in the shop and any customers who entered. With the gun in a vise and the bolt out, we zeroed the new sight on a chimney three blocks away, and later when I got to shooting the little gun I found no reason to change it. I spent a good part of a morning at this, mostly because I wanted to stay...Of all the states it is my favorite and my love.”
There is a feeling, then, at least to my mind, of the author’s—above all—refusing to let anything interrupt his need to deal with his crisis, to flee from stress and impending illness—he’d been suffering occasional dizzy spells and numbness in his fingertips later attributed to a series of minor strokes—to eschew anyone else’s agenda, to answer the call to keep moving, to simply be on the road, to run away, perhaps from himself and his own desperate thoughts.
But in the end, what readers of all ages are left with is an unusual and extraordinary portrait of the United States from the point of view of a major talent and authentic man who has known much better days—his own and those of his country—and who, while unwilling to overly criticize the changing reality, provides a clear vision of trends the results of which we are witnessing today. In short, a writer who set out to rediscover himself ended up, against all odds, actually discovering the changing face of America and remembering what once was all-important but was now being left behind.