In the fall and early winter of 1960, John Steinbeck packed up a camper-converted pickup truck and along with his dog went in search of America. Travels with Charley finds Steinbeck making a round trip around the United States with his dog, the titular Charley, looking to rediscover the voice, attitude, and personality of the characters he peoples his fictional work with. Yet like all journeys this one takes unexpected turns that the author doesn’t see coming.
Save prearranged meetings with his wife in Chicago and then in Texas for Thanksgiving, Steinbeck and his loyal canine Charley traverse various sections looking to get back in-touch with other Americans that he’s missed by flying over or traveling abroad. Quickly though Steinbeck learns that the uniqueness of speech and language was beginning to disappear into a standardize English in many sections of the country. He finds the Interstate and Superhighway system a gray ribbon with no color in comparison to state roads that show color and local character of the area. And his amazement about how towns and cities have begun to sprawl losing local character as they became mini-versions of New York or Los Angeles which includes his own home town in the Salinas valley, highlighting the changes the country had occurred to the nation during his life time alone by 1960.
Yet Travels with Charley isn’t gloom or despair, Steinbeck writes about the national treasure that is the various landscapes around the country that help give locals their own personality even in the face of “standardizing”. His interactions with people throughout his trip, whether friendly or hostile, give the reader a sense of how things remain the same yet are changing in the United States at the time of Steinbeck’s trip. But Steinbeck’s interactions and observations of this travel companion Charley are what make this book something that is hard to put down. Whether it’s Charley’s excitement to explore that night’s rest stop or Steinbeck’s amazement at Charley’s nonchalance at seeing a towering redwood or Steinbeck’s concern over Charley’s health or Charley’s own assessment of people, Steinbeck’s prose gives Charley character and lets the reader imagine the old dog by their side wherever they’re reading this book.
Written later in the author’s career, the reader is given throughout the entire book the elegance of Steinbeck’s prose that embeds what he his writing about deep into one’s subconscious. Though there is debate about how much of Travels with Charley is fiction or if an individual is a composite of several others or even if events are ordered correctly, what the reader learns is that Steinbeck’s journey is unique to himself as theirs would be unique for them as well.
Written almost 60 years ago Travels with Charley details a changing America through the eyes of one of its greatest authors, even today some of Steinbeck’s passages resonate with us in today’s cultural and political climate. But if like me you wanted a book by Steinbeck to get to know his style and prose than this is the book to do so.