Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Travels with Charley. John Steinbeck. (1)

New York: The Viking Press

Why read it? I found out when I read the novel East of Eden, that John Steinbeck likes to philosophize and he does it well. He does it by the sentence. Brief. Concise. To the point. That makes Travels with Charley, a travelogue, I guess, the perfect vehicle for Steinbeck who can cross America and comment on what he finds, the people, the speech, the unforgettable characters and scenes. I thought of some other “travelogues” as I was reading it: Lolita (a novel by Nabokov) and On the Road (Kerouac). Both of those books conveyed impressions of Americans and American culture at a particular time.

For three-fourths of the book, I enjoyed the narrative of Steinbeck’s experience, his impressions and reflections. But it ends with the South—and then the book turns nasty. It’s the South I discovered when I made a trip across the country at the same time as Steinbeck, in 1960, the South that hates blacks with a vehemence and rage that stunned me and stunned Steinbeck, too. His reports of the use of the N-word, like Mark Twain’s in Huckleberry Finn, mean that I could not read the book as a teacher with middle-schoolers who would be the natural readers for it. It would be censored because that word encapsulates the feelings by some (?) people of the South.

Steinbeck’s narrative is as much about the nature of travel as it is about what he has rediscovered from his journey across America. His impressions of driving the super highways. Maine. Montana. The Mohave Desert. The people he met. But he knew when his trip was over. He knew the trip was finished at the very place and time it was finished before it was officially finished. I think his experience with travel is symbolic of careers and even living. We know when we are finished.

Steinbeck offers a few ideas that are thought-provoking. Otherwise, the narrative isn’t deep. But it is entertaining—until he reaches the South. He says he is not drawing conclusions about the nature of the people in the South. But it is hard not to. A very disturbing finish to an otherwise idyllic trip across America.

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