In 1960, when John Steinbeck was 58 years old, ill with the heart disease which was to kill him eight years later and rather discontented with life, he decided to embark on a road trip around the United States in a fitted-out pick-up truck, accompanied by his standard French poodle, Charley. Steinbeck’s plan was to re-connect with the America which had informed his fiction and to assess how much it had changed over the years.
This book is the result of that trip: part memoir, part travelogue, part philosophical treatise … and part fiction. Just how much of the narrative is fiction rather than fact has been the subject of investigation and discussion in recent years, much of it instigated by the work of journalist Bill Steigerwald, who recreated Steinbeck’s trip and exposed what he argues to be the fallacies in the narrative. This article in the New York Times summarises Steigerwald’s findings and typing Steigerwald’s name into any reliable search engine will locate a range of Steigerwald’s writings on the issue, as well as some responses to his position on the book.
While I've read Steigerwald’s conclusions about Steinbeck’s journey with interest, it matters little to me that the work has been edited in such a way as to make it look like Steinbeck and Charley were travelling alone almost all the time, whereas Steinbeck’s original manuscript (held at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City) shows that Steinbeck’s wife Elaine was with him for much of the time and that he probably spent more than half the nights he was away sleeping in hotels rather than in the truck. Likewise, it matters little to me that Steinbeck’s reported conversations with people he meets on the way are fiction rather than reportage.
In relation to this, the fact that Steinbeck preserved and then donated his manuscript indicates that he was not concerned that readers might discover that there was more (or possibly less) to the journey than appears in the book. Further, the narrative itself is full of disclaimers. Steinbeck does not claim that the book is a day-by-day, diary-style account of his journey. Rather, what he conveys is a range of impressions on a number of topics, some insights into issues he considered important and some at times painful self-reflection, all conveyed in Steinbeck’s powerful yet accessible prose. On some matters Steinbeck was ahead of his time. For example, what he wrote about the destruction of the environment and the overuse of packaging products (“The mountain of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use.”), expressed what I doubt was a matter of widespread public concern as early as 1960.
Other parts of the narrative are much more personal. Steinbeck’s encounter with old Latino drinking buddies in a bar in Monterey is particularly poignant. As Steinbeck’s friend tries to persuade the New York resident to come “home”, Steinbeck names all of their friends who have died and concludes that Thomas Wolfe was right: “You can't go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory."
Possibly the most powerful incident in the book is Steinbeck’s witnessing of the “cheerleaders” in New Orleans – a group of women who stood across the street from William Frantz Elementary school and yelled obscenities at Ruby Bridges - the first black child to attend the all-white school - and at the few white parents who did not comply with the white boycott of the school. Ruby, who had started at the school only a week or two before Steinbeck was in New Orleans, was escorted to school by federal marshalls. Her ordeal is recorded in this painting by Norman Rockwell.
Shortly after witnessing the behaviour of the cheerleaders, Steinbeck decided to cut his journey short and head straight back to New York City. The narrative gives the strong impression that the incident left him heart-sick and distressed.
Overall, whatever may be this book’s shortcomings as a piece of travel reportage, it's a moving and engaging piece of writing. Steinbeck had become rather a cranky old man by the time he embarked on the journey, and was an even crankier old man by time he finished it. He was certainly no longer the novelist at the peak of his powers. But there’s still passion, warmth and humour in his words and plenty for the reader who loves Steinbeck’s writing to engage with. And there's Charley. Charley is wonderful.