September is coming to an end and it’s time to discuss the book that was spun for me through The Classic Club Spin #24
I was very fortunate to get to read one of the books that had been on my TBR for a very long time by an author whom I admired and whose books had defined my formative years. I speak of none other than John Steinbeck and one of his last books, Travels with Charley.
In 1960, after recuperating from a heart attack, against the explicit instructions of his Doctors, John Steinbeck set off to explore America again. As a writer of people, he felt that he had lately lost touch with his own country and its people, about whom he had written prolifically at one time and he set out to correct this miss! He started with meticulously organizing for the road trip, which included a customized Camper which he named Rocinante , furnishing it with all the books and maps he could not possibly need, stocking up food and other essential supplies and then choosing a traveling partner, his 10 year old, extremely pragmatic French Poodle – Charley. The trip started from a ferry at Long Island which was to take Charley, Rocinante and him to Connecticut from where he would start his actual “road” trip. He drove through Maine, New York, Buffalo, Chicago, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota, then onto Montana, through Seattle and Oregon and California, Salinas where he grew up. He then headed back home via Texas and Virginia and then New Orleans where heart sickened, he proclaimed that his journey was technically over and he was just now heading home. He saw Niagara Falls and drove through Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Coast and the Yellowstone Park. He met small store clerks and motel owners who yearned to take off like he did and he spoke to migrant farmers who came over from Canada to help out during the autumn pickings and the supervisor of a ranch who would be seduced away from the wild beauties of the land to a secure albeit boring job in the city, at the behest of his young wife who wanted luxuries. He wrote of the “plastic” culture that decorated each motel and of the upwardly mobile aspirations of the people he met. He drank coffee and whiskey with strangers in a trailer park and spoke to them about the country, the upcoming elections and their aspirations. He was saddened by the people at Sauk Centre, the home town of Sinclair Lewis who failed to appreciate his genius and at one time had treated him as pariah until his death, made the town a lucrative tourist destination. And finally, he was completely heartbroken by the hatred and venom he witnessed from people opposing a newly integrated school. He felt that his journey ended with this episode and he drove home to New York summarizing that the country and it’s people had changed dramatically, moving directionless, away from all that which was real and good into an industrialized and material living frenzy, that did not brood well for the future.
John Steinbeck as always is deeply observant of human nature and the book is replete with many insightful and in some ways prophetic remarks. On watching migrant farmers from Mexico, India , Philippines work on the crops, he is reminded of the lessons in history where Carthaginians hired mercenaries to fight their wars; Americans bring in migrant laborers to do the hard work and he hopes that one day, they are not overwhelmed by the hardier race, in mighty foretelling of the future. He captures narratives from people who are comfortable living in mobile homes and not worried about not having roots, for they are convinced that obsession with building roots stops progress and moving forward. He muses “Perhaps we have overrated roots as a psychic need. Maybe the greater the urge, the deeper and more ancient the is the need, the will, the hunger to be somewhere else” The wonderful thing about the author is his ability to see two sides of the story; while he misses the more personalized way of doing things prior to the industrial boom, he also acknowledges that “I know that it was a rare home that baked good bread in the old days.” and therefore nostalgia is presented with a pinch of salt. The rediscovery of America is always sombre, but there is much humour that only a master craftsman like Steinbeck can bring to a book, that is a difficult narrative – his conversations with Charley are downright hilarious, filled with laugh out loud moments. Charley is an intelligent dog and Steinbeck never forgets this fact in his 4-month long journey and the intellectual parley’s he engages in with him. His sense of irony is equally powerful when describing a quiet and enjoyable Thanksgiving, at a Texas millionaire’s place, talking a dig that the incorrect representation of Texas as loud and ostentatious. The language is flowing and despite being a travelogue, not once is the reader exhausted wondering when this journey will end. In fact, his description of the landscapes he covers is vivid and lyrical that brings alive the places and the reader is swept away with them! There is so much I can say about this book, that to end, I would only say that I read some essays which state that Steinbeck took several artistic liberties in writing this book, and this work is more fictional in nature. Be that as it may, his insights about life and humanity holds good now as it did 60 years ago and his deep heartbreak at people not being able to internalize respect for fellow creatures and the mad race of consumerism holds true today more than ever!