John Steinbeck

Travels with Charley in Search of America

“I'm going to learn about my own country. I've lost the flavor and taste and sound of it. It's been years since I have seen it.”

In 1962, towards the end of his life and the year he won the Nobel Prize, John Steinbeck (1902 – 1968) drove around the United States with his French poodle, Charley. He found his beloved pet the most suitable companion.

He can’t read, can’t drive a car, and has no grasp of mathematics. But in his own field of endeavor, which he was now practicing, the slow, imperial smelling over and anointing of an area, he has no peer. Of course his horizons are limited, but how wide are mine?

A man who once let the rhythms of America run through his fingers like a handful of water, admitted he was removed, even homesick. He also felt restlessness. An urgency saddled Steinbeck his entire life, tension to move yet sit still.

Like George Orwell who lived among the poor anonymously in Paris and London Steinbeck knew “I must travel alone” and “incognito.”

In this anonymity, Steinbeck enjoyed unbounded natural beauty. Among the California redwoods he writes:

I stayed two days close to the bodies of giants, and there were no trippers, no chattering troupes with cameras. There is a cathedral hush here. Perhaps the thick soft bark absorbs sound and creates the silence.

The drive spiraled around small towns, mountains and forests. The writing circles themes of companionship with pets, journeying, majesty of nature and, unexpectedly, a measure of alienating peace once they arrive to California, Steinbeck’s home state.

And yet, the trip was fruitless. At the end of the journal he wrote, “My own journey started long before I left, and was over before I returned.” He saw America, yes, but Steinbeck longed for something he couldn’t achieve: his own re-integration into America. Of all modern writers, the price and alienation of fame came dearest to Steinbeck, I’m reminded how often he wrote of wanting to be left alone.

Accompany Travels with Charley with Steinbeck’s Working Days, a much earlier but equally gritty and relentless journey of self. Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak Memory, similarly explores how time unravels our self-knowing by scooping up our anchors and flinging them skyward.

John Steinbeck © The Examined Life