Monday, October 19, 2015

Travels with Charley

I first read Travels with Charley in the mid-seventies, long before I heard any rumblings about how John Steinbeck fabricated many of the incidents and conversations included in this memoir about his solitary travels across the country.  I found that first reading to be so fascinating that I remember praising the book and recommending it to friends for weeks after I had finished it.  So I was both curious and a little afraid to see how I would feel about the book after reading it again some four decades later.  Well, I am happy to report that I still love the book, even knowing what I know now about some of it being fiction rather than Steinbeck’s actual travel experiences.

Steinbeck began his journey in September 1960 from his Sag Harbor, New York, home and stayed on the road for the next eleven weeks (with the exception of one brief interlude to meet his wife in Chicago, during which, from the sound of it, he stayed in a rather posh hotel).  During those weeks he made his way through some 33 states (although a few seem to have been really rushed) where he spoke with as many people as possible about the social upheavals and politics of the day.  Steinbeck left Sag Harbor and drove to Maine before turning west toward Seattle.  From Seattle, the author turned southward to visit his old haunts in California, traveled across the American Southwest, and sped through much of Texas before driving through most of the Deep South, turning northward again in South Carolina for his return trip to New York.

America was experiencing turbulent and dangerous times in late 1960, an ugly period vividly portrayed in that portion of Travels with Charley in which Steinbeck recounts what he observed in New Orleans when that city was trying to integrate its public schools.  This is likely to be the most memorable and disturbing part of the entire book for most readers because of how clearly it reminds us that our not too distant past can never truthfully be dubbed “the good old days.”  It was not even close.  The incident was so ugly, in fact, that it effectively ended Steinbeck’s journey even though he was still a long way from home.


I admit to being a little disappointed that Steinbeck misrepresented the origin of some of what he claims happened in Travels with Charley mainly because it makes me wonder if he simply set out with a specific agenda in mind and made sure that he got the answers that supported his own views about the social condition of the country.  Even in my first reading of the book, I found some of the conversations between the author and those he happened upon to be a little stilted and unrealistic.  At the time, I wrote that off as simply Steinbeck’s failure to remember the exact words used (he did not use a recorder) in those conversations.  But even now that much has been exposed about the author’s methods, I can say that I both enjoyed the memoir and recommend it to others.  I do, however, rate it a full star lower now than I did the first time around.

Post #2,592


10 comments:

  1. Whee was Charley in all this? I hope he didn't fabricate too much about him.

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  2. Charley was around but didn't do much to impress me, really. Lots of alerting Steinbeck when strangers approached his vehicle, and the like, plus a few "conversations" with the boss, but 'ol Charley doesn't much stick out in my memory actually.

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  4. Thanks, Bill. I'll take a look. Much appreciated.

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  5. This is disappointing to me. Just as much the fact that he made much of it up, as that the dog doesn't feature much in the book at all! Well, at least I know ahead of time, and now it's knocked down lower on my list- I do still want to read it, but I'll probably bide my time.

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    1. Jeane, it's still worth reading, believe me. I did most notice the "fibbing" in the dialogue, though, because some of it is just so stilted or "perfect." People just don't talk that way, and Steinbeck was so good at dialogue that he should have known better. It's still a good road trip book.

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  6. Sorry. Previous comment was a highly faulty iPhone dictation attempt. Here is what I wanted to say:

    For a full and tough but fair detailing of what Steinbeck fictionalized and fibbed about in his book and where he really went on his 1960 road trip -- and where Charley was -- go to truthaboutCharley.com or see my book "Dogging Steinbeck' on Amazon.

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  7. My husband has read this one a couple of times. The time he was totally enchanted. And like you, on rereading he still liked it very much but it lost some of its shine. One of these days I'll get around to reading it!

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    1. It definitely stands up better to a "first reading," especially when most of us knew nothing at all about the bending of the truth that Steinbeck used in Charley.

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