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 (February 27, 1902 – December 20, 1968) drove around the United States with his French poodle, Charley, and wrote of the experience in Travels with Charley.1

Steinbeck 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 restless. An urgency saddled Steinbeck his entire life, a tension to move yet a need—as a writer—to remain still.2

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

Sequoia tree "General Grant" estimated age, 1,650 years.
“General Grant” sequoia named after former U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant, estimated to be 1,600 years old. Sequoia National Park, California. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

In this anonymity, Steinbeck enjoyed the unbounded natural beauty of America. 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 spiralled around small towns, mountains, and forests. The writing circles themes of companionship with pets, journeying, the majesty of nature, and, unexpectedly, a measure of alienating peace once they arrive in California, Steinbeck’s home state.

Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park. Featured in John Steinbeck's "Travels with Charley" in The Examined Life Library.
Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park. “One goes, not so much to see but to tell afterward,” Steinbeck wrote of Yellowstone. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

And yet, Steinbeck reckoned in Travels with Charley that 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. It is as if he thought America owed him something.

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.

Watertower in Marfa, West Texas. Featured in John Steinbeck's "Travels with Charley" in The Examined Life Library.
Watertower in Marfa, West Texas. “Texas is a state of mind. Texas is an obsession,” wrote Steinbeck. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Accompany Travels with Charley with Steinbeck’s Working Days, a much earlier but equally gritty and relentless journey of self.

The place of my origin had changed, and having gone away I had not changed with it. In my memory it stood as it once did and its outward appearance confused and angered me. […] When I went away I had died, and so became fixed and unchangeable. My return caused only confusion and uneasiness. Although they could not say it, my old friends wanted me gone so that I could take my proper place in the pattern of remembrance—and I wanted to go for the same reason.

Travel as a means of self-discovery is time-worn.3 Like Joseph Brodsky’s magnificent essay on Venice, or the essays of Laurie Lee, a man who left his small Cotswolds village at age nineteen and never stopped travelling. Or Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways, a study of the human compulsion to forge paths.

Illustration of John Steinbeck © The Examined Life