Sunday, February 22, 2015

Book Review: Travels with Charley, by John Steinbeck

I like to blame John Steinbeck -- at least, in part -- for my interest in the RV lifestyle. When I read Travels with Charley years and years ago, I really knew little if anything about RVing. That book helped plant a seed for travel and wanderlust in me that still haunts me today.

Steinbeck begins his book trying to explain his own wanderlust disease:

"When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ship's whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping. The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of stomach high up under the rib cage. In other words, I don't improve; in further words, once a bum always a bum. I fear the disease is incurable."

I know exactly what he means; Donna and I both suffer the same disease.

Steinbeck is considered by many to be one of the giants of American literature. Arguably his greatest novel is The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939 and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. I would argue that East of Eden is his most perfect novel as regards structure and theme. In 1962, Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in Literature, though not everyone believed him to be worthy of the honor. Regardless, it is difficult to deny that he produced an impressive body of work.

Travels with Charley, published in 1961, is a travelogue of a trip that Steinbeck and his large standard poodle (Charley) took the previous year. Steinbeck felt the need to travel the country discreetly, without checking into hotels or other places where he might be recognized. He opted for what we today call a pickup camper. Working with a manufacturer, Steinbeck had a camper built on a ¾ ton truck. He dubbed his rig Rocinante after Don Quixote's horse. It contained a double bed, 4-burner stove, heater, refrigerator, chemical toilet, and storage space.


He began his journey after Labor Day, once the children had returned to their studies and people had returned to work following summer vacation. From his home on Sag Harbor outside of New York City, he headed as far north in Maine as possible, then continued traveling about the country in a counter-clockwise direction. In all, Steinbeck would travel over 10,000 miles and through 34 states. 

Steinbeck hoped to meet people, to get re-acquainted with the country he felt he had become somewhat isolated from. Much of the book details conversations he had with people on various topics of the day, including desegregation and politics. He also made numerous observations on how the country had changed in his lifetime; those of us with more years behind than ahead of us can easily relate to these observations.

I've read this book three times now, and each time I've gotten more out of it. It causes me to think a great deal on the topics he discusses. And each time, it makes me want to hit the road. I wish I didn't have this travel disease so much, but gosh, it surely is fun.

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