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.