12.04.2012

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

Here's my work-related to-do list for the week:

Grade 70 Western Humanities Final Exams
Grade 32 Rhetoric and Composition Portfolios and Final Exam Essays
Finalize all points in Grade Center
Enter and submit all grades
Complete this week's work a new online course development project

I'll get it done; I always do, but it is definitely that time of year.  That said, I've so horribly neglected the blog lately and am so terribly behind on reviews that I had to do a little something this morning before getting to work.  I hope to get caught up this week and next.

Before Thanksgiving, I finally finished re-reading John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley: In Search of America.  I count Steinbeck among my very favorite writers, and it is mostly because of East of Eden, but this one runs a close second.  While I was reading my old paperback copy, I came across this beauty:

That's right.  That's jacket design and illustrations by the great Don Freeman.  So cool.

In this non-fiction book, Steinbook decides to travel across and around America (see map above) with his aging dog, Charley.  He explains his recurring wanderlust in the introduction ("A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike.  And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless.  We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us."), but more than simply wanting to travel, Steinbeck wanted to rekindle a connection to the places he came from, the places he wrote about, the places that were America.

So he concocts this gigantic camper/pickup (called Rocinante) and loads up Charley, "an old French gentleman poodle" for the journey.  Along the way, he meets strangers, has odd encounters, visits friends, gets frustrated by traffic, takes the backroads and byways, and eats at many roadside diners and restaurants.  Anyone who knows and loves Steinbeck will know the descriptions are rich, the storytelling engaging.  One of my favorite phrases comes from a diner stop:
The customers were folded over their coffee cups like ferns. (34)
And, of course, the politics and social observations come quick and quiet with Steinbeck:
It occurs to me that, just as the Carthaginians hired mercenaries to do their fighting for them, we Americans bring in mercenaries to do our hard and humble work.  I hope we may not be overwhelmed one day by peoples not too proud or too lazy or too soft to bend to the earth and pick up the things we eat. (64)
It's impossible to convey the thoughtful nature of his reflections on New England or Montana or Texas in this post.  Suffice it to say that if you've only ever read East of Eden or Grapes of Wrath, I urge you to pick up Travels with Charley.  There is so much to do with this book, so much to see and think and feel and wonder about.  I will leave you simply with this amazing question:
Can it be that we do not love to be reminded that we are very young and callow in a world that was old when we came into it? (193) 

6 comments:

  1. So...I actually haven't read any Steinbeck (but I want to). I'm tempted to start with this one since it's on the shorter side, but would you recommend starting with one of his more well-known works?

    Good luck with the end of the semester!

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    1. It is shorter, and I definitely recommend it, but I'm not sure I would recommend it before other Steinbeck. Though East of Eden and Grapes of Wrath are both long, they are definitely worth it, my preference being EoE. Many schools teach The Pearl or Of Mice and Men, both of which are shorter, but neither displays Steinbeck's brilliance, in my opinion.

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  2. I picked this book up at a library sale and it is sitting on my shelves waiting for me. Perhaps over the holiday...a nice travel story.

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    1. Though it is definitely a great book, I'm not sure I can agree with calling it a nice travel story. It has more meat than its slim pages indicate, and it is convicting and disturbing at times. Maybe not for the holidays?

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    2. Ah, I'm not one to shy away from meat during the holidays. LOL I still think this would be a good read. But I'm not really planning out my reading for the rest of the year. Just sort of picking up books that interest me as I go.

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    3. That's how I always seem to do it, Serena. No planning, just whatever feels right. I think it sometimes get me in "trouble" in the blog world, but it keeps me motivated, and the whole point is to grow and be changed by these books, right? Do let me know what you think if/when you get to it.

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I love a good conversation, even (or especially) one that gets heated, so fire away! I try to respond to all in a timely manner.