Before Captain America and Billy did it in the movie EASY RIDER, before Green Lantern and Green Arrow did it in the comic books, author John Steinbeck and a ten-year-old poodle named Charley set off in the fall of 1960 in search of America. Appropriately enough, that’s the subtitle of the resulting book, TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY: IN SEARCH OF AMERICA.
When I was a junior in high school, a friend and I went through a pseudo-intellectual phase, as sixteen-year-old boys will sometimes do. We read and discussed Hemingway and Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and God knows what else. If our parents would have let us get away with it, we probably would have smoked pipes and worn jackets with leather patches on the elbows. It’s a wonder we didn’t choke on our own pretentiousness. But we actually did read some good books and discover some good authors along the way, among them John Steinbeck. Two of Steinbeck’s books stand out in my memory: the novel THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONTENT and the memoir TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY. I liked a lot of his other novels, too, most notably CUP OF GOLD, TORTILLA FLAT, and OF MICE AND MEN. I was less fond of THE GRAPES OF WRATH and EAST OF EDEN, even though those two are probably his most popular novels. It’s been more than forty years since I read TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY, so I decided to reread it for this Forgotten Nonfiction Books Friday and see how well it holds up.
I’m happy to report that it holds up very well indeed. Steinbeck writes beautifully about nature and the places he visits and the people he meets. His social and political observations are always interesting, although this time around I did notice an occasional touch of smug superiority about his comments that I didn’t recall from my first reading of the book. It’s not enough to really cause a problem, though.
The best part of TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY is the relationship between Steinbeck and Charley, who becomes as vivid a character as any in the book. When Charley develops medical problems and you don’t know what the outcome will be, there’s genuine suspense. As some of you know, I’m a dog person, and Charley’s a great dog.
It’s nice to know that this is as fine a book as I remember it being. Now, will I go back and reread THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONTENT or some of Steinbeck’s other novels and see if they hold up as well? It could happen. They’d make good Forgotten Books, after all, since I don’t think anybody reads Steinbeck much these days, with the possible exception of THE GRAPES OF WRATH for school assignments.