Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck

★★★★★ (5/5)

He feels that he is a first-rate dog and has no wish to be a second-rate human.

I found this travelogue quite endearing, despite criticisms on its veracity. But any non-fictional account could trespass into fiction by varying degree. Even in all its fictitious meanderings, this book brings about certain human truths as seen in Steinbeck’s environmentalism, his observations in regards to expansion of cities beyond their sustainable limits, loneliness which blankets each individual, and passage of time and mutability inherent to creatures and objects alike.

With his faithful dog Charley, in his beloved Rocinante (a converted camper named after Don Quixote’s horse) Steinbeck travels the entire length of America in about three months. His primary motivation is to dig into the American psyche (that of its inhabitants as well as that of the nation) to infer some basic truths which may or may not be objective or subjective in nature. The book winds down to one singular conclusion: that no singular conclusion can be made out of this wide a diaspora which is stretched from the Pacific to the Atlantic in all its shameful, ignorant yet unified, majestic glory. Racism, consumerism, wastefulness, patriotism and statism all intertwine in a medley of goodliness and misery to define the American essence.

The riches and horrors of past intermingle with affluence of the present age to paint a picture of Steinbeck’s America in the 60’s. And even after some 60 odd years, his inferences voice out truths that are cemented in the identity of a complex nation.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

On Nations & Governments

  • If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much and I would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy and sick.
  • I find out of long experience that I admire all nations and hate all governments,
  • But government can make you feel so small and mean that it takes some doing to build back a sense of self-importance.
  • “Having too many things,” he says, “[Americans] spend their hours and money on the couch searching for a soul.”
  • This used to be a nation of giants. Where have they gone? You can’t defend a nation with a board of directors. That takes men. Where are they?
  • This monster of a land, this mightiest of nations, this spawn of the future, turns out to be the macrocosm of microcosm me.
  • Texas is a state of mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word.
  • With all the polls and opinion posts, with newspapers more opinion than news so that we no longer know one from the other

On Journeys

  • We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.
  • 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.
  • Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process; a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike.
  • In long-range planning for a trip, I think there is a private conviction that it won’t happen. As the day approached, my warm bed and comfortable house grew increasingly desirable and my dear wife incalculably precious. To give these up for three months for the terrors of the uncomfortable and unknown seemed crazy. I didn’t want to go.
  • They spoke quietly of how they wanted to go someday, to move about, free and unanchored, not toward something but away from something.
  • Having a companion fixes you in time and that the present, but when the quality of aloneness settles down, past, present, and future all flow together. A memory, a present event, and a forecast all equally present.
  • Among nearly forty I didn’t see a single state that hadn’t a good word to say for itself. It seemed a little indelicate. It might be better to let visitors find out for themselves. But maybe we wouldn’t if it weren’t drawn to our attention.
  • have you ever noticed that instructions from one who knows the country get you more lost than you are, even when they are accurate?
  • There’s one thing you can say about cars, there’s nearly always something wrong with them that’s got to be fixed.
  • Again my attitude may be informed by love, but it seemed to me that the towns were places to live in rather than nervous hives. People had time to pause in their occupations to undertake the passing art of neighborliness.

On Self Discovery

  • I suppose our capacity for self-delusion is boundless.
  • My wife married a man; I saw no reason why she should inherit a baby.
  • A kind of second childhood falls on so many men. They trade their violence for the promise of a small increase of life span.
  • It is the nature of a man as he grows older, a small bridge in time, to protest against change, particularly change for the better.
  • In my travels, it was pleasant and good; in writing, it would contribute only a disunity.
  • This sounds as though I bemoan an older time, which is the preoccupation of the old, or cultivate an opposition to change, which is the currency of the rich and stupid.
  • If this were my home, would I get lost in it? If this were my home could I walk the streets and hear no blessing?
  • My town had grown and changed and my friend along with it. Now returning, as changed to my friend as my town was to me, I distorted his picture, muddied his memory. When I went away I had died, and so became fixed and unchangeable. My return caused only confusion and uneasiness.
  • Tom Wolfe was right. You can’t go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory.
  • what I found was closely intermeshed with how I felt at the moment.

On Human Truths

  • Oh, we can populate the dark with horrors, even we who think ourselves informed and sure, believing nothing we cannot measure or weigh.
  • and everything in the world must have design or the human mind rejects it. But in addition it must have purpose or the human conscience shies away from it.
  • What good’s an opinion if you don’t know?
  • The mountains of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use.
  • I don’t even know what happened yesterday, let alone tomorrow. He knew what it was that makes a rock or a table. I don’t even understand the formula that says nobody knows. We’ve got nothing to go on—got no way to think about things.
  • What I set down here is true until someone else passes that way and rearranges the world in his own style.
  • and we brought home two cities, two truths.
  • Communications must destroy localness, by a slow, inevitable process.
  • I am happy to report that in the war between reality and romance, reality is not the stronger.
  • Now the pressure comes from our biologic success as a species. We have overcome all enemies but ourselves.
  • These stories have an inevitable pattern untroubled by the question, If none return, how is it known what is there? Oh, it’s there all right, but if you find it you will never be found.
  • In literary criticism the critic has no choice but to make over the victim of his attention into something the size and shape of himself.

On Nature’s Wonders

  • And the Aurora Borealis was out. I’ve seen it only a few times in my life. It hung and moved with majesty in folds like an infinite traveler upstage in an infinite theater. In colors of rose and lavender and purple it moved and pulsed against the night, and the frost-sharpened stars shone through it. What a thing to see at a time when I needed it so badly!
  • while to the east, where the uninhibited light poured slantwise, the strange landscape shouted with color.
  • As I stood over it facing south it had a strange impact on me that rain falling on my right foot must fall into the Pacific Ocean, while that on my left foot would eventually find its way after uncountable miles to the Atlantic. The place wasn’t impressive enough to carry a stupendous fact like that.
  • No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe.
  • And there’s a breathing in the black, for these huge things that control the day and inhabit the night are living things and have presence, and perhaps feeling, and, somewhere in deep-down perception, perhaps communication.
  • I find most interesting the conspiracy of life in the desert to circumvent the death rays of the all-conquering sun. The beaten earth appears defeated and dead, but it only appears so. A vast and inventive organization of living matter survives by seeming to have lost.
  • For the inhabitants of the desert are well trained and well-armed against desolation.

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