Back in 1960, John Steinbeck took off on a trip around the country. He had not traversed America since the days of The Grapes of Wrath, and he wished to reacquaint himself with it, to find out what the people were like and how life was led. He got himself a truck (this is before the days of the RV) specially built with a camper top and every accoutrement then imaginable. He dubbed it Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse. He also took with him one lone companion, an aging blue standard poodle who could say “Ftt” named Charley.
His plan was to see the country at its circumference, starting off from his home on Long Island, proceeding northward to Maine and then westward across the northernmost tier of states to California. He would then return to New York via the desert Southwest and Texas and the Deep South. He tried as best he could to avoid the then-still-sprouting superhighways and kept to what we now call surface streets, even though the only streets you find that aren’t on the surface are called tunnels.
What’s important about this book, however, is not the trip itself or his itinerary. It is in the people he finds and his impressions of life in the modern America of 1960. He encounters, again and again, mobile homes and packaged foods and a style of living that he takes to be closer to existing than being. He constantly compares what was with what is and finds the new cleaner, more sterile, and lacking in flavor. When talking about the expedition of Lewis and Clark or that of a 16th Century Spanish explorer called Narvaez, he’s moved to exclaim, “There were men in those days.” He meets many people, few of whom are satisfied with their lives, most of whom have plans for a better time, an easier life, a smarter way.
All of these ruminations stop, however, once he leaves Texas and goes to New Orleans. Suddenly, in part four, it seems as though we are reading an entirely different book about a different place. Nothing is settled and bland.
He reaches New Orleans, a city he knows and loves, during a time when its schools are being forcibly desegregated. There are protests on the steps of the first elementary school to mix whites with blacks, and Steinbeck goes to see it and the performance of a group of ladies who have attained a measure of celebrity for themselves courtesy of their own gifts for hatred. They are known as the Cheerleaders. He gives a blow-by-blow description of the protest, including a description that moves me to tears to think of it:
Four big marshals got out of each car and from somewhere in the automobiles they extracted the littlest Negro girl you ever saw, dressed in shining starchy white, with new white shoes on feet so little they were almost round. Her face and little legs were very black against the white.
The big marshals stood her on the curb and a jangle of jeering shrieks went up from behind the barricades. the little girl did not look at the howling crowd but from the side the whites of her eyes showed like those of a frightened fawn. The men turned her around like a doll, and then the strange procession moved up the broad walk toward the school, and the child was even more a mite because the men were so big. Then the girl made a curious hop, and I think I know what it was. I think in her whole life she had not gone ten steps without skipping, but now in the middle of her first skip the weight bore her down and her little round feet took measured, reluctant steps between the tall guards. Slowly they climbed the steps and entered the school.
The Cheerleaders spew profanities at the girl and at the white father and son who follow her delegation, and the crowd yelps its approval.
Despite the temptation, Steinbeck does not descend into lecture. He reports what he sees and reports the conversations he has with Southerners both white and black concerning the progress of civil rights. He understand the fear that rises from change and understands that correcting such a long-held wrong will have consequences for all involved.
Now that I write that, I see that the book as a whole is about fear and change, among other things. It is about a people who are adjusting to a society that is no longer simple and direct, but complicated and ever-changing. The solid ground beneath them turned to shifting sands, and they struggled to find their balance through improvisation and luck.
This is a brilliant book and a simple one. I have read it before and I shall read it again. Like another book of that era, To Kill a Mockingbird, I carrying it around inside me in little shards and pieces.
The America that John Steinbeck sought is not the America of today, but it is its forebear. To read Travels with Charley is to become acquainted with that world and, by doing so, to become acquainted with our own.