Waxing [Literarily]: Travels with Charley {John Steinbeck}

There’s been much debate on the reality of what happened with John Steinbeck in 1960. His book, Travels with Charley in Search of America, details some (of his/not his) journeys through that year and came out shortly before the revered author won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

The journeys published involves a trip around the country in a large van, with a dog that takes on a character of his own. The subsequent investigations have painted this as untrue. Journalists stake claim of its impossibility. The Steinbeck camp supposedly hasn’t exactly back it up as true, but won’t do anything to wound the reputation of one of American’s native scribes.

The question is: does it matter? For journalists and literary historians, it does. For readers, it does not. Unless you decide to take Steinbeck’s words as gospel for the land — a point he himself refutes, resists, and rustles with during the entirety of the book. For the reader that pays attention, this becomes evident and the “truth” no longer matters. It, like all of its ilk before it, is a story.

Of course, it’s a certain type of story — it’s a travel story. And with many of the travel stories of our days, it reads as more of a collection of essays comprising a story, than a story from someone like Steinbeck’s production. By the end, it’s not the story (man rides around the nation) that matters, than the conclusions it reaches or questions it proposes.

The story’s plot is simple. Steinbeck puts himself in a van and journeys America — a country he so often is billed as representing. But for all of his truth in fiction, so he claims, what is the real truth that lay undiscovered? Trips through the Northeast, the Great Plains, Montana (he loves Montana), and down the West Coast are meant to bring that. Each larger area gets a chapter — each chapter filled with a character or three meant to represent that area in some, sometimes totally stereotypical sometimes atypical, way.

The story is nice, if not overdone. The real strengths of Travels is in its witticisms — which is to be expected from Steinbeck. At varying times, Steinbeck, elder in age and wise in experience, leaves bits of wonder along his journey, found or already known. These are the jewels of the book, and perhaps the jewels of journeying at large. It’s a short collection of gains that make up a wholly intangible growth.

Some examples he leaves you with:

We value virtue but we do not discuss is.

It’s bad to have one’s myth shaken up like that

It seemed to give the journey a design, and everything in the world must have a design or the human mind rejects it. But in addition it must have purpose or the human conscience shies away from it.

You get the picture. Steinbeck drops these in his book like you’d find truck stops punctuating the highway on the long stretches in the middle of the country. They’re his resting thoughts, the truths that stay in the wind somewhere even as your van passes by.

For a travel book, particularly one of such a long drive, Travels is short. It reads quickly and can feel like a shifting dream (assuming that others dream of spending time with Mr. Steinbeck like this author). It’s not the kind of deep, penetrating book that he has elsewhere in his oeuvre, but it’s a fun romp that filled the author with substance in his elder years. And it wasn’t the substance of fictional characters in fictional places. Or perhaps it was. And perhaps it never mattered. Substance is not reserved for the living and it’s not reserved for one fixed place. If you go searching for it, you’re bound to find it, like America, it just comes in bits and pieces, littered in  small towns and big cities.

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