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.