Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

I hadn’t read anything by Steinbeck since I was a teenager so when I saw that the Classics Circuit was doing a Steinbeck tour I thought it was about time that I rectified the matter. But what should I read? I didn’t have any unread Steinbecks in the house but on a visit to an Edinburgh charity bookshop the only book of his they had which I hadn’t read already was Travels with Charley so I took that as a sign. I hadn’t heard of the book but fellow bloggers all seemed to have loved it, and sure enough, I wasn’t disappointed.

Steinbeck mentioned that like many men of his age he had had a bit of a health scare and had been in hospital the year before. Many men in his position opted to live a quiet cossetted life after that but he didn’t want to be a half-man who changed from being the head of the household to being the baby. He took it as a warning that it was later than he had thought and he should do what he had planned to do one day and take a road trip of America visiting places that he hadn’t seen before and revisiting old haunts. So instead of shifting down a gear he decided to step on the gas literally and the result is that he had a three-quarter-ton pick-up truck specially designed to his specifications with all the necessities of life, double bed, stove, fridge, lights worked from butane gas and a chemical toilet. In 1960 it was a thing of great interest to people wherever he travelled. He gave the truck the name of Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse. He over-loaded poor Rocinante with tons of books, paper, water and all sorts of things which I’m sure he didn’t need. He obviously couldn’t travel light! For companionship he took Charley his large blue poodle, a very intelligent dog which was seen as an exotic in America and was a good social ice-breaker. Charley could also converse, well nearly. Ftt meant that he ‘wanted to salute a tree’ and Ftt Ftt Ftt meant that he was hungry!

As I said, I really loved this book but for me it was too short. I would have liked more details. Things like how far he was actually travelling between various states and maybe a bit more in the way of descriptions of the scenery. It probably didn’t occur to him that such details would be of interest to someone sitting reading it in Scotland, or for that matter someone reading it 50 years after it was written.

In Vermont he felt the need to look for a ‘John Knox’ church to worship in and he wasn’t disappointed. The congregation was subjected to a ‘glorious sermon, a fire-and-brimstone sermon’ I would say a proper Presbyterian you are all miserable sinners sermon. ‘Vermont God cared enough about me to go to a lot of trouble kicking the hell out of me’….. ‘I wasn’t a naughty child but a first-rate sinner, and I was going to catch it’ The sermon revived him in spirit and gave him a ‘lovely sense of evil-doing that lasted clear through till Tuesday.’ A couple of generations earlier J.M. Barrie wrote something very similar in his book The Little Minister which was set in the Highlands in the 1800s – it’s nice to see that Presbyterianism hadn’t suffered any dilution over the years.

He does mention the mobile homes which were popping up everywhere and seemed to intrigue him and in Maine he was invited into one which he was very impressed with. They seemed to be inhabited by people who wanted to dodge paying taxes though and I think that their reputation is not what it once was.

The people that he met along the way seemed to me to be very friendly, even the police/national guards were pleasant and helpful. The people in each state had different characteristics but it was the state and the people of Montana which gave him the most pleasure and in fact he said that if Montana had had a sea coast then he would have settled there but he had to live near the sea. He hadn’t visited Montana before.

Visiting his old home of Salinas in California he realised that people from your past are best left in the past as everyone concerned prefers their own version of their memories and they tend to be different from what was the reality.

Steinbeck says that in his journey each state had its own character, he was dreading going to the South because of the race problems there but he felt that he had to go. So he travelled to Louisiana to witness the ‘cheerleaders’ in action. They were a group of white women who chanted racist abuse at a young girl as she went to school. This was something which I didn’t know about and he doesn’t mention the name of the small black schoolgirl that they were abusing but it must have been Ruby Bridges I think and you can read about it here. I’m not sure if things are very much better down there now, but I hope so.

Although John Steinbeck was a well known face in America he said that he was never once recognised. Some people have suggested that a lot of the book is in fact fiction, we’ll never know but, whatever it’s a very entertaining read. I haven’t read many travel books just R.L Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, Boswell and Johnson’s Tour of Scotland and a book called Breaking Away which is about Coleridge’s tour of Scotland accompanied by William Wordsworth and Dorothy. It strikes me that although those journeys all took place in the 1800s, you can still visit the places that they went to and in fact people still do recreate the R.L. Stevenson journey, complete with donkey! I don’t know if it would be possible for anyone to do the same with this book as often the details of where he stopped for the night are quite sketchy and probably the places have been built over now, so probably there are no blue plaques in lay-bys saying: John Steinbeck and Charley slept here. At the end of the book I was so in tune with him that he seemed like a friend rather than a famous author.

Anyway, I hope I’ve given you a wee flavour of what the book is like. I haven’t said much about Charley the blue standard poodle. What degree of dog is that? was the question that Steinbeck was always being asked. Charlie was a great companion dog and like most poodles was very smart. It’s just a shame that people often make them so daft looking with strange hair cuts. We used to have an apricot poodle – yes apricot!

A big thank-you to Rebecca and Karen for putting in all the hard work to bring about the John Steinbeck Tour.

PS My husband says I should have known the Beach Boys song that mentions Steinbeck and Travellin’ with Charley (the California bit of California Saga.)

As on You Tube. Have a listen!:-

Silly me! Of course I know it.

18 thoughts on “Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

  1. This sounds really great! I love road trips and think it would be amazing to do a cross-country trip one day.
    I lived in the South for a while (Arkansas) and I think things are much changed there. I talked to one of my African-American co-workers, who was about 40, and she said she’d never felt the harsh prejudice that her mom and dad experienced, although it did seem like the different races don’t socialize together as much as they do here in the west.

    • Anbolyn,
      I think you would really enjoy reading this book. I’m all for people travelling around in their own country because there are things and people of interest everywhere and we all tend to neglect our own countries and dash off to more ‘exotic’ places.
      It’s difficult to believe how bad it was for African-American people back then. Hopefully things will continue to improve even more in the South. Where I grew up everybody was white but the big problem was religion, Catholic/Protestant but even that isn’t as bad as it was.

  2. I enjoyed this a lot too, and like you, I would have enjoyed even more of it!

    Regarding mobile homes, I was really interested in that part because I grew up in one (my parents would have bought our home about 10 years after Steinbeck’s trip). In the rural area where I grew up, they were mostly homes for working-class people. As far as I know, people do have to pay taxes on them now. When I was growing up, people would sometimes buy land and put a mobile home on it until they could afford to build, or they’d congregate in trailer parks, which I think is mostly what Steinbeck saw. Ours was on the family farm, next to my grandparents’ place, which Steinbeck also talks about. They do sometimes have a bad reputation (as in trailer trash), but I think that’s par for the course with any kind of dwelling commonly used by the working-class or the poor.

    And there is still racism in the south, but it’s not nearly as widespread and overt as what Steinbeck witnessed. I grew up in the south, and I found some of the casual racism he talked about pretty shocking.

    • Teresa,
      I must admit that the mobile homes sounded a great idea to me and I can see why people would want to live in them even if they paid taxes as normal but ‘trailer trash’ does spring to mind. I suppose some people always feel a need to look down on someone for some reason, there’s snobbery everywhere! It sounds like you had a sort of Waltons upbringing, living so near your grandparents – I would have loved that for me and my kids.
      An English member of my very extended family bought a house in Tenessee a few years ago, hoping to be able to move there and the fridge delivery man went through a whole list of people that ‘they’ didn’t like, the only one I can remember is ‘raghead’ but you’re always going to get the odd idiot anywhere I suppose!

  3. So great to read your review! I also reviewed Travels with Charley, so I was very interested in your opinions about this book.

    And for the record, I had no idea about the Charley shout-out in the Beach Boys song, either!

    • Pamela,
      Thanks for visiting. I noticed that a few people were reviewing Travels with Charley before me so I deliberately didn’t look at them in case they influenced me in some way. I’m going to pop over to you soon!
      The Beach Boys are favourites with us especially when we’re driving around in the summer. I know I’ve sung the song often enough but for some reason I just didn’t ‘twig’ what it was about!

  4. Katrina,
    What a fascinating discussion of Travels with Charley! As I believe I’ve already told you, and as of now (after reading your post) I am completely certain, I read this book when I was much, much too young (16-17).

    I will pick it up again, for sure.

    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

    • Judith,
      I think it’s the sort of book which you will discover different things in every time you read it. I wish I had read it at 16-17 too. I’m going to be looking for more of his books to read now.

  5. Excellent review–I just read another on this book as part of the tour, and I think it’s the Steinbeck that I read next!

    > At the end of the book I was so in tune with him that he seemed like a friend rather than a famous author.

    It doesn’t get any better than that! Also thanks for the recommendations of other travel books that you’ve read and that sound equally interesting to me.

    Loved the BB song at the end. I didn’t know that song, but promptly downloaded it for my iphone! I absolutely love the Monterey part of CA and need to get there again soon.

    • Jane,

      I’m sure you’ll really enjoy the book. Apparently he wrote a book about a trip to Russia, I’m hoping to read that one next. The book which I read recently about Coleridge’s trip is called Breaking Away and is by Carol Kyros Walker. It has some lovely photos of Scotland in it. Steinbeck loved the R.L. Stevenson book Travels with a Donkey and he took the title of his book from it.
      If you get the chance – put some photos of Monterey on ‘Reading, Writing’ sometime. You can imagine how exotic it sounds to me!

  6. This was my first Steinbeck — I’d been so intimidated to read his works but I sat down in the bookstore (a now defunct Borders, sadly) and couldn’t put it down. For my Classics Circuit read I chose another of his travelogues, A Russian Journal, and it was also wonderful. I’m hoping to read all his works eventually.

    • Karen,
      I had to read Steinbeck as set books in school but they were very dfferent from this one, still great reads though. I’m going to read more too, particularly A Russian Journal, I’m looking forward to your review of it!

    • Hi Melissa,
      I’m so glad that I read the book, I hadn’t even heard of it until a few weeks ago! I think that a lot of people only know the earlier Beach Boys songs but they did some lovely songs in the 1970s.


    • Rebecca,
      I’m sure you’ll love Travels with Charley and John Steinbeck too! I think it’s a book which I’ll re-read at some point in the future.

  7. Great review! I’ve only heard good things about this book, so I’m going to have to bump it up to a higher priority. I have never heard that Beach Boys song before! My dad was a big fan, but I guess there are some songs I haven’t heard. Thank you for sharing it.

    • Shelley,
      Apart from being a great book it’s also a quick read which is always welcome when you have so many in your TBR pile! It’s very strange but for some reason people in the US don’t seem to know of the Holland album, even when they are the right age for it. Thanks for dropping by!

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