BOOKS

Travels With Charley

Author: John Steinbeck

Rating: 3.5 / 5.0

Audio Program Rating: 4.0 / 5.0

When we were looking to figure out what breed of dog to buy, poodles were a possibility, and I saw several references to Charley, the traveling dog from the John Steinbeck book. While I’d been compelled to read Cannery Row and Of Mice and Men by the educational system of Texas many years before, I had never heard of this book. Years on from reading the title, and years on into poodle ownership, I thought I’d take a listen.

Audiobook

I picked it up because it was available at the NYPL and the audiobook version was read by Gary Sinise. Sinise brings a loveable curmudgeon’s voice to the Steinbeck of the story and voices the variety of characters along the way wonderfully. Sinise captures the voice of the New York cop, the upstate traveller, and the Central Valley Mexican-Californian. More sinister, he captures the voice of the virulent Southern racist (surely a caricature in the telling) as well as the saintly aged Southerner who sees a different future for his region. For Sinise’s telling of it, the story is immeasurably enriched.

Content

Veracity

While I had been lead to believe that the story was mostly true, with slight embellishments along the way à la Kerouac’s On the Road, this work becomes highly suspicious in terms of veracity. As a certain set of fans have demonstrated, the timelines don’t work and the travelogue doesn’t match the comfortable hotel registers that Steinbeck et ux. signed during this time interval. So let us agree here that the book is not “true” in an objective sense. I doubt we could find witnesses who would corroborate the testimony attributed to them.

But the book is true in another sense in that it does capture the heart of America and Americanness in a way that I still feel in my bones. While some of the unique contours of the time are lost to me (I never experienced 1961), it feels sufficiently true to that era’s consequences which I have lived through.

Content

Some of Steinbeck’s reflections are outstanding and, I think are best presented as divided by theme. Here are some highlights from my notes.

On Middle-Age

The road trip at the heart of Charley is occasioned by Steinbeck’s desire to see the breadth of his country one last time before his death. He’d had a stroke the previous year and had flirted with death. He knew this might be his last time to talk about the roving, rambunctious, peripatetic character of his countrymen.

So as he sets out he’s somewhat chastened by death’s shadow and middle age, but he balances it with a desire for one last masculine adventure. He opens up with reflections on living a robust and Hemingwayesque, masculine life. He proffers no apology for an intense life nor would he suffer apologies for such.

And I had seen so many begin to pack their lives in cotton wool, smother their impulses, hood their passions, and gradually retire from their manhood into a kind of spiritual and physical semi-invalidism. In this they are encouraged by wives, and relatives, and it’s such a sweet trap. Who doesn’t want to be the center for concern?

A kind of second childhood falls on so many men. They trade their violence for the promise of a small increase of lifespan, in effect, the head of the house becomes the youngest child. And I have searched myself for this possibility with a kind of horror.

Nevertheless time has had its way and the future belongs to the young. Steinbeck reflects on his previous year of convalescence and on the inaccessibility of the future in “His Home Town” with the barkeeper Johnny.

“Yes, here it is better [from the recent arrivals in Salinas, CA]. But can I live on a bar stool? Let us not fool ourselves. What we knew is dead, and maybe the greatest part of what we were is dead. What’s out there is new and perhaps good, but it’s nothing we know.

On Poodle Ownership

Charley likes to get up early, and he likes me to get up early, too. And why shouldn’t he? Right after his breakfast he goes back to sleep. Over the years he has developed a number of innocent-appearing ways to get me up. He can shake himself and his collar loud enough to wake the dead. If that doesn’t work he gets a sneezing fit. But perhaps his most irritating method is to sit quietly beside the bed and stare into my face with a sweet and forgiving look on his face; I come out of deep sleep with the feeling of being looked at. But I have learned to keep my eyes tight shut. If I even blink he sneezes and stretches, and that night’s sleep is over for me. Often the war of wills goes on for quite a time, I squinching my eyes shut and he forgiving me, but he nearly always wins.

I have definitely stared those gentle eyes down with my eyes shut.

But from the start I had withheld from him any information about the giant redwoods. It seemed to me that a Long Island poodle who had made his devoirs to Sequoia sempervirens or Sequoia gigantea might be set apart from other dogs–might even be like that Galahad who saw the Grail. The concept is staggering.

Environmentalism

For a man who chronicled how selfishness had depleted the Earth and lead to the migration of the Joads from Oklahoma to California, Steinbeck appreciated the insolent laziness of American attitudes toward resource management.

American cities are like badger holes, ringed with trash–all of them–surrounded by piles of wrecked and rusting automobiles, and almost smothered in rubbish. Everything we use comes in boxes, cartons, bins, the so-called packaging we love so much. The mountain of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use.

I think Steinbeck would be impressed, littering the roads is much less flagrantly done these days.

There will come a time when we can no longer afford our wastefulness – chemical wastes in the rivers, metal wastes everywhere, and atomic wastes buried deep in the earth or sunk in the sea. When an Indian village became too deep in its own filth, the inhabitants moved. And we have no place to which to move.

This one hit home amid China refusing to take American refuse. The time’s come.

I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction

Preach.

Atomic Power with Insufficient Morality

Having just finished American Prometheus, Steinbeck’s questions mirror Oppenheimer’s: what are we to do with a power so great and with ethical restraint so paltry.

And now a force was in hand how much more strong, and we hadn’t had time to develop the means to think, for man has to have feelings and then words before he can come close to thought and, in the past at least, that has taken a long time.

Humans had perhaps a million years to get used to fire as a thing and as an idea. Between the time a man got his fingers burned on a lightning-struck tree until another man carried some inside a cave and found it kept him warm, maybe a hundred thousand years, and from there to the blast furnaces of Detroit—how long?

Early-Rising Men

These last few months I’ve been getting up early. My subway ride is no longer full of the white-collar class headed to Wall Street and the Battery. It’s much more full of the Bronx-leaving working class: men of fluorescent Carhartt hoodies and hard hats. It’s a largely silent ride. Steinbeck does, I feel, a good job of honoring working folks without fetishizing them.

Early-rising men not only do not talk much to strangers, they barely talk to one another. Breakfast conversation is limited to a series of laconic grunts. The natural New England taciturnity reaches its glorious perfection at breakfast.

What a line!

Texas

The state of my birth will always have an inexplicable magnetism: no rarer in 1961 than today.

Texas has a tight cohesiveness perhaps stronger than any other section of America. Rich, poor, Panhandle, Gulf, city, country, Texas is the obsession, the proper study, and the passionate possession of all Texans

It’s true.

And that was my Thanksgiving orgy in Texas. Of course I don’t think they do it every day. They couldn’t. And somewhat the same thing happens when they visit us in New York. Of course they want to see shows and go to night clubs. And at the end of a few days of this they say, “We just don’t see how you can live like this.” To which we reply, “We don’t. And when you go home, we won’t.”

See above.

When it Was Our Town

And Carmel, begun by starveling writers and unwanted painters, is now a community of the well-to-do and the retired. If Carmel’s founders should return, they could not afford to live there, but it wouldn’t go that far.

Austin, The Mission, the Upper West Side. Everywhere they say this. Everywhere it’s true.

Class-Tribe Economics

It occurs to me that just as the Carthaginians hired mercenaries to do their fighting for them, we Americans bring in mercenaries to do our hard and humble work. I hope we may not be overwhelmed one day by peoples not too proud or too lazy or too soft to bend to the earth and pick up the things we eat

Oh my friend we’re so there. And we’re so there that those who are unemployed for their vanity are committed to inuring their egos with things like torch-lit parades in the name of blood and soil. For shame.

My hired helper worked beside me, and neither of us being expert we were well splattered. Suddenly we found ourselves out of paint. I said, “Neal, run up to Holman’s and get a half-gallon of paint and a quart of thinner.” “I’ll have to clean up and change my clothes,” he said. “Nuts! Go as you are.” “I can’t do it.” “Why not? I would.” Then he said a wise and memorable thing. “You got to be awful rich to dress as bad as you do,”

Racism

Surely the most fictitious section of the book is Steinbeck’s travels through the South (Texas on into New Orleans) at the height of forced school integration and Jim Crow. Steinbeck makes a specific voyage to see “the Cheerleaders,” a group of women who shout at the forces of integration. Steinbeck also recognizes that the North had a hand in the sale of humans to the South and that the guilt is the nation’s and no locality’s. Across the book he shares anecdotes from blacks and whites throughout the country. He closes the section with what could have been an introduction:

But I do know it [the South] is a troubled place…and I know the solution, when it arrives, will not be easy or simple.

Of the New Orleans crisis…

When people are engaged in something they are not proud of, they do not welcome witnesses. In fact, they come to believe the witness causes the trouble.

I looked in the crowd for such faces of such people and they were not there. I’ve seen this kind bellow for blood at a prize fight, have orgasms when a man is gored in the bull ring, stare with vicarious lust at a highway accident, stand patiently in line for the privilege of watching any pain or any agony. But where were the others—the ones who would be proud they were of a species with the gray man—the ones whose arms would ache to gather up the small, scared black mite? I don’t know where they were. Perhaps they felt as helpless as I did, but they left New Orleans misrepresented to the world.

Speaking to an “enlightened” Southerner, surely an invention:

The ancients placed love and war in the hands of closely related gods. That was no accident. That, sir, was a profound knowledge of man

Speaking of a (conveniently anonymous) hired helper he new in NYC:

Why didn’t you give that woman a hand?” “Well, sir, she’s drunk and I’m Negro. If I touched her she could easily scream rape, and then it’s a crowd, and who believes me?” ;“It took quick thinking to duck that fast.” “Oh, no sir!” he said. “I’ve been practicing to be a Negro a long time.”

Steinbeck unflinchingly reports that Existing While Black is a dangerous proposition even in the greatest cosmopolis ever to straddle the Earth.

California

The second state I loved:

The Mojave is a big desert and a frightening one. It’s as though nature tested a man for endurance and constancy to prove whether he was good enough to get to California.

New York City

Of my roaring, raging city:

…far downtown with the daily panic rush of commuters leaping and running and dodging in front, obeying no signals. Every evening is Pamplona in lower New York. I made a turn and then another, entered a one-way street the wrong way and had to back out, got boxed in the middle of a crossing by a swirling rapids of turning people.

Conclusion

I really enjoyed the audiobook and the narration. The only reason I’d promote the book over the audio format is because some of the insights were so apt that I’d wished to have my highlighting tools at hand.

{
  "title": "Travels with Charley in Search of America",
    "author": "John Steinbeck",
    "highlightCount": 53,
    "noteCount": 1,
    "annotations": [
    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we not take a trip; a trip takes us."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "New York is no more America than Paris is France or London, England."
    },
    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "And I had seen so many begin to pack their lives in cotton wool, smother their impulses, hood their passions, and gradually retire from their manhood into a kind of spiritual and physical semi-invalidism. In this they are encouraged by wives, and relatives, and it's such a sweet trap. Who doesn't want to be the center for concern?"
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "A kind of second childhood falls on so many men. They trade their violence for the promise of a small increase of lifespan, in effect, the head of the house becomes the youngest child. And I have searched myself for this possibility with a kind of horror."
    },
    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "Charley likes to get up early, and he likes me to get up early, too.  And why shouldn't he? Right after his breakfast he goes back to sleep.  Over the years he has developed a number of innocent-appearing ways to get me up.  He can shake himself and his collar loud enough to wake the dead. If that doesn't work he gets a sneezing fit. But perhaps his most irritating method is to sit quietly beside the bed and stare into my face with a sweet and forgiving look on his face; I come out of deep sleep with the feeling of being looked at.  But I have learned to keep my eyes tight shut. If I even blink he sneezes and stretches, and that night's sleep is over for me. Often the war of wills goes on for quite a time,  I squinching my eyes shut and he forgiving me, but he nearly always wins."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "Early-rising men not only do not talk much to strangers, they barely talk to one another. Breakfast conversation is limited to a series of laconic grunts.  The natural New England taciturnity reaches its glorious perfection at breakfast."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "A sad soul can kill you quicker, far quicker, than a germ.  " },
    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "Humans had perhaps a million years to get used to fire as a thing and as an idea. Between the time a man got his fingers burned on a lightning-struck tree until another man carried some inside a cave and found it kept him warm, maybe a hundred thousand years, and from there to the blast furnaces of Detroit—how long?"
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "And now a force was in hand how much more strong, and we hadn't had time to develop the means to think, for man has to have feelings and then words before he can come close to thought and, in the past at least, that has taken a long time."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction "
    },
    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness"
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "Texas has a tight cohesiveness perhaps stronger than any other section of America. Rich, poor, Panhandle, Gulf, city, country, Texas is the obsession, the proper study, and the passionate possession of all Texans"
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "When I face the desolate impossibility of writing five hundred pages, a sick sense of failure falls on me, and I know I can never do it. Then gradually, I write one page and then another. One day's work is all I can permit myself to contemplate."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "American cities are like badger holes, ringed with trash--all of them--surrounded by piles of wrecked and rusting automobiles, and almost smothered in rubbish. Everything we use comes in boxes, cartons, bins, the so-called packaging we love so much. The mountain of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "I wondered whether constant association could cause inattention, and asked a native New Hampshire woman about it. She said that autumn never failed to amaze her; to elate. 'It is a glory,' she said, 'and can't be remembered, so that it always comes as a surprise.'"
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "And Carmel, begun by starveling writers and unwanted painters, is now a community of the well-to-do and the retired. If Carmel's founders should return, they could not afford to live there, but it wouldn't go that far."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "It occurs to me that just as the Carthaginians hired mercenaries to do their fighting for them, we Americans bring in mercenaries to do our hard and humble work. I hope we may not be overwhelmed one day by peoples not too proud or too lazy or too soft to bend to the earth and pick up the things we eat"
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "At the roadsides I never had a really good dinner or a really bad breakfast.  "
    },
    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "When people are engaged in something they are not proud of, they do not welcome witnesses. In fact, they come to believe the witness causes the trouble."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "The blue-fingered man who filled my gas tank looked in at Charley and said, \"Hey, it's a dog! I thought you had a n*gger in there.\" And he laughed delightedly. It was the first of many repetitions. At least twenty times I heard it—\"Thought you had a n*gger in there.\" It was an unusual joke—always fresh—and never Negro or even Nigra, always N*gger or rather N*ggah. That word seemed terribly important, a kind of safety word to cling to lest some structure collapse."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "I have been speaking only about the violence set loose by the desegregation movements—the children going to school, the young Negroes demanding the questionable privilege of lunch counters, buses, and toilets."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "..the blight [of racism] can disappear only when there are millions of Coopers [black family Steinbeck knew in Salinas]."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "Behind these small dark mites were the law's majesty and the law's power to enforce—both the scales and the sword were allied with the infants—while against them were three hundred years of fear and anger and terror of change in a changing world."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "The crowd was waiting for the white man who dared to bring his white child to school. And here he came along the guarded walk, a tall man dressed in light gray, leading his frightened child by the hand."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "What made the newsmen love the story was a group of stout middle-aged women who, by some curious definition of the word \"mother,\" gathered every day to scream invectives at children"
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "It had the same draw as a five-legged calf or a two-headed fetus at a sideshow, a distortion of normal life we have always found so interesting that we will pay to see it, perhaps to prove to ourselves that we have the proper number of legs or heads."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "The mountains of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use.  In this, if no other way, we can see the wild an reckless exuberance of our production, and waste seems to be the index."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "There will come a time when we can no longer afford our wastefulness -- chemical wastes in the rivers, metal wastes everywhere, and atomic wastes buried deep in the earth or sunk in the sea. When an Indian village became too deep in its own filth, the inhabitants moved. And we have no place to which to move."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "The ancients placed love and war in the hands of closely related gods. That was no accident. That, sir, was a profound knowledge of man"
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "But from the start I had withheld from him any information about the giant redwoods. It seemed to me that a Long Island poodle who had made his devoirs to Sequoia sempervirens or Sequoia gigantea might be set apart from other dogs--might even be like that Galahad who saw the Grail. The concept is staggering."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "The first life might easily have been snuffed out and the accident may never have happened again—but, once it existed, its first quality, its duty, preoccupation, direction, and end, shared by every living thing, is to go on living. And so it does and so it will until some other accident cancels it."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "\"yes, here it is better. But can I live on a bar stool? Let us not fool ourselves. What we knew is dead, and maybe the greatest part of what we were is dead. What's out there is new and perhaps good, but it's nothing we know.\""
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "\"It's like we was in a bucket of ghosts,\" said Johnny.  \"No.  They're not true ghosts. We're the ghosts.\""
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "I printed it once more on my eyes, south, west, and north, and then we hurried away from the permanent and changeless past where my mother is always shooting a wildcat and my father is always burning his name with his love"
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "There's absolutely nothing to take the place of a good man.  " },
    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "My hired helper worked beside me, and neither of us being expert we were well splattered. Suddenly we found ourselves out of paint. I said, \"Neal, run up to Holman's and get a half-gallon of paint and a quart of thinner.\" \"I'll have to clean up and change my clothes,\" he said. \"Nuts! Go as you are.\" \"I can't do it.\" \"Why not? I would.\" Then he said a wise and memorable thing. \"You got to be awful rich to dress as bad as you do,\""
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "And that was my Thanksgiving orgy in Texas. Of course I don't think they do it every day. They couldn't. And somewhat the same thing happens when they visit us in New York. Of course they want to see shows and go to night clubs. And at the end of a few days of this they say, \"We just don't see how you can live like this.\" To which we reply, \"We don't. And when you go home, we won't.\""
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "I must admit that cruelty and force exerted against weakness turn me sick with rage, but this would be equally true in the treatment of any weak by any strong. Beyond my failings as a racist, I knew I was not wanted in the South."
    },
    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "But there was something far worse here than dirt, a kind of frightening witches' Sabbath. Here was no spontaneous cry of anger, of insane rage. Perhaps that is what made me sick with weary nausea. Here was no principle good or bad, no direction."
    },
    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "These blowzy women, with their little hats and their clippings, hungered for attention. They wanted to be admired. They simpered in happy, almost innocent triumph when they were applauded. Theirs was the demented cruelty of egocentric children, and somehow this made their insensate beastliness much more heart-breaking. These were not mothers, not even women.  They were crazy actors playing to a crazy audience"
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "I looked in the crowd for such faces of such people and they were not there.  I've seen this kind bellow for blood at a prize fight, have orgasms when a man is gored in the bull ring, stare with vicarious lust at a highway accident, stand patiently in line for the privilege of watching any pain or any agony.  But where were the others—the ones who would be proud they were of a species with the gray man—the ones whose arms would ache to gather up the small, scared black mite? I don't know where they were. Perhaps they felt as helpless as I did, but they left New Orleans misrepresented to the world. "
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "The Mojave is a big desert and a frightening one. It's as though nature tested a man for endurance and constancy to prove whether he was good enough to get to California. "
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "\"Can you see an end?\" \"Oh, certainly an end. It's the means—it's the means. But you're from the North. This isn't your problem.\" \"I guess it's everybody's problem. It isn't local.\""
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "\"As such a new-born hybrid, I know what will happen over the ages. It's starting now in Africa and in Asia.\" \"You mean absorption—the Negroes will disappear?\" \"If they outnumber us, we will disappear, or more likely both will disappear into something new.\" \"And meanwhile?\" \"It's the meanwhile frightens me, sir.\""
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "\"If by force you make a creature live and work like a beast, you must think of him as a beast, else empathy would drive you mad. Once you have classified him in your mind, your feelings are safe.\" He stared at the river, and the breeze stirred his hair like white smoke. \"And if your heart has human vestiges of courage and anger, which in a man are virtues, then you have fear of a dangerous beast, and since your heart has intelligence and inventiveness and the ability to conceal them, you live with terror. Then you must crush his manlike tendencies and make of him the docile beast you want\""
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "\"Why didn't you give that woman a hand?\" \"Well, sir, she's drunk and I'm Negro.  If I touched her she could easily scream rape, and then it's a crowd, and who believes me?\" ;"It took quick thinking to duck that fast.\" \"Oh, no sir!\" he said. \"I've been practicing to be a Negro a long time.\""
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "But Charley doesn't have our problems. He doesn't belong to a species clever enough to split the atom but not clever enough to live in peace with itself."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "With all the polls and opinion posts, with newspapers more opinion than news so that we no longer know one from the other..."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "But I do know it [the South] is a troubled place...and I know the solution, when it arrives, will not be easy or simple."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": "",
      "highlight": "...far downtown with the daily panic rush of commuters leaping and running and dodging in front, obeying no signals. Every evening is Pamplona in lower New York. I made a turn and then another, entered a one-way street the wrong way and had to back out, got boxed in the middle of a crossing by a swirling rapids of turning people."
    }
  ]
}