Friday, June 05, 2009

Forgotten Nonfiction Books: Travels With Charley - John Steinbeck

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.


Matthew P. Mayo said...

Hi James,
What a pleasant surprise to read your assessment of this book. It's been one of my favorites for years and I've reread it a few times. I particularly like his more conversational passages--they remind me of EB White's essays (that both men were of the same era might have something to do with it).

I hope other folks will track down the book. It's well worth the read.


pattinase (abbott) said...

And mine too. I love Steinbeck and am so happy to see him appear here. I read all his books in my youth.

Terrie Farley Moran said...

Hi James,

Thanks so much for reminding me about Travels With Charley.

I'm going to toss it on my summer reading list. I remember how much I enjoyed it, far more than I remember the contents. time for a re-read.


Scott Parker said...

Of course, who reads any classic fiction that not a class assignment. The same tragedy about classic fiction is the same tragedy about history: it's rendered boring by teaching it. Just read it for the passion it is.

I've not read this Steinbeck. It's now on The List.

Rittster said...

You're describing my late high school years, as well. I first started reading for my own enjoyment when I was about 17, and read the authors you mentioned (except T.S. Eliot, because poetry just confused me), as well as Thomas Wolfe, Sinclair Lewis, H.L. Mencken, Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, etc. Now that I'm 40, I read "sleaze" novels and a lot of the pulp stories being reprinted by Adventure House and Girasol. You might I started at the top and worked my way down. My favorite "man and his dog" stories are Norbert Davis' three Doan and Carstairs novels.

"It’s a wonder we didn’t choke on our own pretentiousness."
Great line!


Rittster said...


I just noticed on your "links" that it's your birthday, so I composed this little ditty:

Happy Birthday to you,
Your blog's a swell view.
You're a hell of a writer,
And a damn "good egg", too.

James Reasoner said...

Thanks, Brian. This may well be the first time anybody's ever written a song for me.

Matthew P. Mayo said...

Happy Birthday, James!
June's a fab month for such things (mine's on Sunday).

Here's to many more!


Jerry House said...

Best birthday wishes

wv: poriest - Spongebob's entry in The Guiness Book of World Records

Todd Mason said...

Thanks for the citation of the Steinbeck, and let my join the Happy Birthday chorus.

Todd Mason said...

Thanks for the citation of the Steinbeck, and let my join the Happy Birthday chorus.

Juri said...

It's pretty hard to imagine you reading and commenting on Ezra Pound. I really like his Cantos series, even though it's confusing as hell.

Congrats on your birthday, James - even though belated!