By 1960 John Steinbeck (1902-1968) had achieved both fame and fortune. He and his third wife, Elaine, split their time primarily in New York City and Sag Harbor, and most of their trips were to Europe.
Because Steinbeck had been ill the previous year, he began to re-consider how he wanted to spend the next few years. He decided he wanted to re-acquaint himself with his own country, and he planned to take several months to go on his own, criss-crossing the country “in search of America.” He took with him his ten-year-old standard poodle, Charley. The book that resulted was Travels with Charley: In Search of America.
Charley was an eager traveler and loved road trips. At a time when camper trucks were a bit unusual, Steinbeck decided this was the ideal way for him to travel so he commissioned a specially-built truck that he then proceeded to outfit with necessary equipment and supplies. During the planning and packing, Steinbeck writes that Charley was in a state of mild hysteria, worrying that perhaps he wasn’t on the passenger manifest.
“During the weeks of preparation he was underfoot the whole time and made a damned nuisance of himself. He took to hiding in the truck, creeping in and trying to make himself look small.”
Of course, Charley was part of the plan all along. Steinbeck wanted him along, and Elaine felt that it was better that her husband have some type of companion along rather than traveling solo. Elaine planned to meet up with them at a couple of stops along the way.
Travels with Charley: In Search of America
Before they departed, Steinbeck christened the truck “Rocinante,” after Don Quixote’s trusty horse. Charley rode shotgun in the truck, and his method for alerting Steinbeck that it was time for a rest stop was a “Ftt” sound that was generally effective. The two would stop and Charley would find an unsuspecting bush or tree to anoint, and Steinbeck would poke around a bit to see if anyone or anything interested him.
While Charley is an ever-present companion, he does not participate in many activities that are described in the book. One passage in the book, however, is priceless for dog owners: Steinbeck’s description of how Charley wakes him in the morning.
“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. He likes traveling so much he wanted to get started early, and early for Charley is the first tempering of darkness with the dawn.”
Though Charley suffered two bouts of prostatitis that required vet care and a pause in the journey, Steinbeck makes it clear that Charley is an asset. When Steinbeck does get a conversation going it often begins with the dog.
Most Memorable Trip Scene
The most memorable and historic moments described in Travel with Charley occur near the end of the trip when Steinbeck visited New Orleans. He is there when protesters (white parents who became known as the Cheerleaders) showed up daily to shout their disapproval of school integration. Four African-American girls, including Ruby Bridges, were escorted to school by federal marshals, amidst taunting of racial epithets and physical effort to interfere. The crowd stayed around to shout just as many invectives at the white children who arrived intending to attend an integrated school. The scene is a reminder of our country’s continued struggle with race issues.
From New Orleans, Steinbeck and Charley turn north and are glad to return to New York and home. There is no afterward that explains Charley in retirement, but we can rest assured that he was an able companion on the trip and lived out the rest of his years with the Steinbecks.
The Book Today
Reading the book today is a disappointment. While there is some interesting commentary on our country and a few apt descriptions, of places he visited or things he saw, much of it is Steinbeck’s ruminations during his travel. The time spent with the book often feels like listening to the complaints of a crotchety old uncle. Much of the time Steinbeck has difficulty getting people to talk to him… something I absolutely don’t understand. If you look pleasant and interested, most Americans will be happy to tell you some of their story.
While Steinbeck’s early work was a gift to America for enlightening us to the plight of those caught up in the Depression, and his novels contained characters readers will never forget, he had clearly gone through some sort of a change—perhaps health-related or perhaps great affected by the blacklisting era that affected many of his friends; he was not blacklisted but was a constant target of the IRS.
At any rate, something put him in a different state of mind during these later years. That said, the parts involving Charley are still everything a dog owner would want.