Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

I first read Travels with Charley just over 30 years ago. My mother and grandmother both said I would like it, so I looked at the back cover. I remember it said something about how John Steinbeck travelled in search of America from the coast of Maine to an orgy in Texas. “An orgy in Texas!!!” I thought. “I should read this book!!” 30 years ago I was disappointed to find out that the orgy in Texas was just a really big barbecue. This time I was disappointed for other reasons.Travels with Charley was my book club’s latest book. I was nearly alone in not liking it, so keep that in mind as you read this review.

John Steinbeck is no stranger to writing about road trips in America. Both The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men are essentially on-the-road books. Both contain richly detailed characters, the kind that stick in your memory for years afterwards. Both contain deep insight into what it is to be human and into what it is to live in America, at least what it is to live in a certain social strata of America.

In Travels with Charley you will find no detailed characters at all. Steinbeck meets lots of people, but the conversations he records having with one person sound just like the conversation he had with the next. In fact,  they sounded much too much like conversations with himself to me. He skips huge sections of his trip altogether, a week in Chicago for instance. Personally, I’m tired of this notion that the real America lies in between the cities. The real America lies IN THE CITIES. It has for well over a century, maybe even from the beginning. Walt Whitman knew this, why didn’t John Steinbeck?  How can you claim to know anything about America without taking a long look at America’s cities.

In Travels with Charley you will find no insight into what it is to live in America. Unless you think it’s really clever to believe you can find out all you need to know about a town by having breakfast in the local diner. I find it hard to believe that that was an insightful comment even in 1962 when the book first appeared. I think you’ll find that one diner is much like another. They’re really a sort of national oasis; no matter what part of America you are in, you can find a ‘local diner’ with ham and eggs and an overworked waitress who’ll call you ‘hon’. I’ve even been in one in mid-town Manhattan.  I love them in part because of how similar they all are.

The only really interesting part of the book is the section dealing with the integration of New Orleans schools. Steinbeck went to watch a young black girl walk past a line of cat-calling white women known as ‘the cheerleaders’. He then picks up a few hitch-hikers both white and black. But the conversations he has with them read like something a novice writer would come up in the first draft of a first novel instead of the work of a master. Steinbeck presents each side fairly and largely without comment, which just reads as racist now-a-days. Even in 1962 he ought to have been able to take more of a stand on the issue.

So in the end, I’m recommending you re-read Of Mice and Men or The Grapes of Wrath instead of Travels with Charley which I’m giving two out of five stars.

I first ran this review in November of 2007 on my previous blog Ready When You Are, C.B.  Reading it now I find it’s kind of harsh.  But I’m sticking by it.  If anyone but John Steinbeck had written it, it would be long out of print by now. 

6 thoughts on “Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

  1. I had the same kind of reaction to it when I read this book. Recently, though, I listened to On the Road again while on the road and I’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps I’m not a big fan of books about traveling America by car. The insights are fairly superficial and seem dated. I’d argue that a writer could get more insight into the country between cities because people out in the rural don’t have the same kind of entrenched identities available (“I’m a Cubs fan”) but now that stores are the same all over and people latch onto sports teams from a hundred miles away (almost everyone in my corner of nowhere is a “Buckeye”), it seems like a writer might need to stay put for a while to learn anything worth relating.

    1. Jonathan Raban did just what you suggest in his book Hunting Mr. Heartbreak. He moved to several locations in America and stayed in each for several months. Seattle was one, small town Alabama (I think) another. I thought the resulting book was fascinating and that it illustrated the variety in America quite well.

  2. You are the first person that I’ve heard NOT recommend this book whole-heartedly. I’ve read it twice and could never get into it and I’ve greatly enjoyed many of Steinbeck’s novels. I was starting to think something was wrong with me!

  3. Aw, I rather liked this when I read it a few years ago, but I’m a sucker for a travelogue, and I liked getting a glimpse of history as it was happening. For me, that was what made the book worth reading. In retrospect, I think there were some notes of inauthenticity that I didn’t notice when I was wrapped up in the story–the timeline is murky, from what I remember–but that didn’t take away from my pleasure as I was reading.

  4. There are aspects of this one that I liked. Scenes with his dog and details about the trailer. You know you can still see the camper on display at the Steinbeck Center in Watsonville, I think.

    He was also good at depicting the scene with The Cheerleaders, but he really should have been able to take something of a stand. It’s not like he was a stranger to controversy or that he had anything to lose. I was disappointed in him as much as I was in the book itself.

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