Restlessness and Summer Reading in Search of America

Summer stirs up a restlessness, perhaps based on years past, being in school and out, or just the change in weather. In the SF Bay Area, summer brings with it the wind, more sailboats out on the bay, and (in the old life) the kite festival the end of July. The approach of this particular summer has shown itself to be a runway of heightened emotions. The restlessness is so much more than just a physical itch; it is a general unrest, sore and sad and angry. A lot needs to change. Here we are, ready to work on it, I hope. Some have begun. Others wait for elections.

While I find myself checking daily to see what day and date and season it is, it is always a season to read, and I am currently immersed in a book that, although written in 1960, is relevant to today's unease and unrest. John Steinbeck decided that he had been away from what he called Americans and needed to see firsthand what was going on across the country. Born and raised in Salinas, California, he grew up knowing a diverse community of people, but he had been living in Sag Harbor, New York for many years, and felt he was out of touch. He had always had a restlessness, and in his 58th year and in not great health, he decided he had better travel now. Packing up a camper cabin on a pickup truck he named Rocinante (after Don Quixote's horse), and with his French poodle (who was blue when he was clean) they set off together, forming the basis for his nonfiction-based book, Travels with Charley: in Search of America.

I started smiling as soon as I started the book. Steinbeck was one of the first authors I read not from the children's section when I was a kid, and the first book I read of his was In Dubious Battle. I remember nothing except that I liked his style and tone. From there I proceeded to The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, and perhaps East of Edenbecause those were on the bookshelf in my house, leftover from my mom's college days, I believe. At some point I must have read The Red Pony. In tenth grade I was writing imitation Steinbeck, and years later I trimmed it all away and found my own voice, leaving Steinbeck on the shelf, forgotten. But I had never heard of Travels with Charley. I was smiling as I read because in this particular book Steinbeck is subtle and imaginative with his language, and to my eyes, very funny, if you stop and pay attention to what he just said. He is also comes across as a mensch, a good, just, and humane person.

He tries to stick to the back roads so he can buy local produce and other local goods and talk with residents. He notices language and how it used to have more regional flavor. He comments on the sameness of the areas where a freeway (or thru-way) was built and the loss of local stores and local characteristics; the perfectly clean and well-prepared food in those places that is also tasteless.

It's hard to meet people outside of breakfasts in diners and church on Sundays. He's a stranger with New York license plates. This is one reason why he has brought Charley, his emissary.

His adventure takes place during the Civil Rights movement, and he has heard of terrible things happening in the South, and he feels he must see them firsthand. And he witnesses racism, anti-Semitism, and intolerance and meanness, something he had not seen growing up in the Salinas Valley, working alongside migrant workers. He reflects deeply on this, on what it means to have roots and why, on loneliness, and on the pressures exerted on oneself by other people, among other topics that run through the book.

In addition to writing philosophically, he meets odd, friendly, polite, strange, funny, and interesting people, and he tells their stories or what he imagines their stories to be. There are very few dated references; they are mostly in relation to the landscape, the others are minor. His reflections are timely and timeless and good food for thought. The book is a great way to think and travel in nature and across America from home.

And someday, in the future, perhaps I will go see Rocinante, now at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas. Next book up for me, more Steinbeck: Cannery Row.


Clara said…
Thanks for this. Your comments made me want to read Travels with Charley, and it’s now on my to-read list. It’s always a joy to “re-discover” a writer you read long ago.
Anne said…
"Travels with Charley" one of my favorite books....first read it when I was a teen in the late 60's. Since my travel plans have been squashed for the time being perhaps it's time to revisit it! That and a few other Steinbeck novels. Thanks for the reminder on what a wonderful books he wrote and what a great author he was.
Alisa said…
Thanks, Clara and Anne—it's always interesting to see what books hold up over time. Glad he resonated with you, too.
dinahmow said…
"Travels With Charley" is one of my favourites, too. And, like you, was heavily influenced by Steinbeck's "voice" in my teenage years.When the library re=opens I'll look for "Cannery Row"-it's been half a lifetime since I read it!
Thank you for the nudge.
Alisa said…
Hi dinahmow, I really miss the library, too. But! Maybe yours is still checking out ebooks? I'm currently reading it on my iPad/Kindle app, checked out through the Overdrive app. Happy reading, whenever you get there.
Ellie Gee said…
Thanks so much for this recommendation. I hadn't read it and it wasn't really on my radar or to be read pile. Having said that, I have always loved Steinbeck, like others here discovered during teenage years. I worked at Penguin many moons ago and acquired many free books as part of the employee terms and conditions. I knew I had quite a few Steinbeck novels and I was so delighted to find 'Charley' on my shelf. Dusted it off and started it the same day as reading this post. I really loved it and there's so much resonance and wisdom, and so much to identify with having done many road trips myself. Will be dusting off more Steinbeck before lock-down here is through I think. Thanks again Alisa. Much love from the UK.
Alisa said…
Thanks for writing, Ellie Gee! You are welcome! How excellent that you worked at Penguin and had a copy right under your nose!