Travels With Charley: In Search of America
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Travels with Charley: Search of America is a travelogue by American author John Steinbeck. It documents the driving trip he took with his poodle, Charley, around the United States in the 1960s. He wrote that he was moved by a desire to see his country on a personal level, since he made his living writing about it. He had many questions going into his journey, the main one being "What are Americans like today". However, he found that the "new America" did not live up to his expectations.
He traveled throughout the United States in a specially made camper called Rocinante, named after the horse of Don Quixote. He started his travels in Long Island, New York. His trip was one that outlined the border of the United States, going all throughout the North, through the Pacific Northwest, down into his native Salinas Valley, across to Texas, up through the Deep South, and then back to New York. His whole trip encompassed nearly 10,000 miles.
Summaries: Part 1
In the two chapters of Part 1, Steinbeck describes his life long wanderlust and his preparations to travel the country after 25 years. He is 58 years old in 1960 and at the end of his career, but he felt that he "was writing of something he did not know about, and it seemed to him that in a so-called writer this is criminal" (6). He has a truck custom-designed for his journey and plans on leaving after Labor Day from his home in Sag Harbor, Long Island, New York. Steinbeck must delay his trip slightly due to Hurricane Donna which makes a direct hit on Long Island. He demonstrates his determination and toughness, even at his age, in wading out in the harbor at the height of the storm to save his boat the Fayre Eleyne.
Summaries: Part 2
Long Island to Connecticut (pages 19-42)
In the first chapter of Part Two, Steinbeck begins his trip, traveling by ferry (boat) from Long Island  to Connecticut. Whilst on a ferry, Steinbeck cautiously watches a group of submarines surface, and discusses the new atomic submarines with a sailor as they approach the Naval Submarine Base New London where many of the new nuclear submarines are stationed. This introduces a theme that hangs over this chapter as Steinbeck notes that the "submarines are armed with mass murder, our silly, only way of deterring mass murder" (21). He talks to a sailor stationed on a sub who enjoys being on them because they offer all kinds of – future” (22). Steinbeck seems to credit this uncertainty about the future to rapid technological and political changes. He mentions the wastefulness of American cities (start with second paragraph of article to see how NYC "dealt" with waste problems) and society, and the large amount of waste as a result of everything being "packaged" (as he passes Hartford and Providence). Moving on, Steinbeck purchases a large quantity of liquors. Then, he meets a friendly farmer who allows him to park on his property; the two discuss Kruschev and politics. Steinbeck discusses many common points brought up in society today. That stage in life where everyone has to slow down because they are “not as young as they once were” is one of the barriers he mentions. He goes on to say that he would rather not settle down. He wants to live life as long as he can (19). He also brings up that as we grow old, and aren’t able to do as much as we would like it, we tend to get sympathy and concern from a lot of people. This makes the oldest of the family almost become baby like. Steinbeck comments that he would rather be a grown adult than a big baby (20).
He has a discussion with a farmer in the White Mountains  about Krushchev’s visit to the United Nations and the approaching presidential election. The two seem to conclude that a combination of fear and uncertainty over the future has limited discussion over the election. Steinbeck seems to learn more about local people through morning radio, although he notes that due to the Top 40: "If Teen-Age Angel is top of the list in Maine, it is the top of the list in Montana" (35).
Reading Guide Questions for pages 19-42
- What causes the fears people seem to have of the future at this time?
- Why might Steinbeck feel that the beginning of the nuclear age is limiting political discussion?
- Do the new national charts (Top 40) minimize regional cultural differences?
- What do you think are some events or reasons why America wastes so much more than other countries?
Maine (pages 43-74)
Steinbeck starts off this part of his journey on US Highway 1 for a visit to Maine. On his way to Maine he notices a commonality between most of the “summer” stores. They are all closed for the winter. Antique shops, that border a lot of the roads up North, sell old “junk” that Steinbeck would buy if he thought he had room for it. During his trip, he stops at a little restaurant just outside the town of Bangor. It’s here he learns that other people’s attitudes can greatly affect your own attitude. As his journey to discover America continues, Steinbeck heads towards Deer Isle. He decides to go to Deer Isle because a friend of his went every time he traveled to Maine. His friend always raved about Deer Isle, Maine, but could never describe exactly what about it was so captivating. When Steinbeck arrived at the house where he was supposed to stay, he met a very terse cat and ate the best lobster he had ever tasted. For the final part of his visit to Maine, Steinbeck traveled around several towns throughout the state and visited popular outdoor clothing stores such as Abercrombie and Fitch.
In this section, Steinbeck makes quite a few references to the changes in the culture of America in this segment. The first change that he makes apparent early on in this section is the waitress in the restaurant of an auto court located outside of Bangor. This waitress sucked all of the happiness out of everyone with her dismal attitude. He, being tired from a long day of driving, could not resist and had his happiness drained away. To add to his depression, many of the hotel items were covered in plastic, making the room feel less homely and welcome. It was only when Charley made Steinbeck walk him and he saw the Aurora Borealis did he regain his joy and awe of this country. This incident is an example of the change of American culture from a homely society to a protect-by-alienation society.
Another change he noticed was during his journey to Deer Isle. Being a man who constantly finds himself lost he asked a state trooper for directions. He had been warned, later on of course, to never ask a local for directions because they will often mislead you. While the officer did NOT mislead him, being that he is bound by the law to assist, he did not say a word to Steinbeck. He merely pointed and motioned to the destination in which he wanted to go. Through this act the officer displayed that people had become less trusting of those they did not know. Aroostook County, being one of the three great potato producers of our country according to Steinbeck, during the planting/harvesting season is home to many French Canadians who have crossed the border to make a small profit. In his travels to northern Maine before turning west, Steinbeck came across one such family of workers. While cautious at first, the Canucks, as they have come to be called, were very friendly with Steinbeck. As an act of good will Steinbeck opened an old bottle of Cognac he was saving for a special occasion, and it was with this that the family really became sociable. While not exactly American, the Canucks display that small part that still exists inside those of the time. Although the threat of Communism appeared to everywhere and everyone had to be cautious, inside they were all just as friendly as the Canucks.
Most of this section was to remind people that Maine was very large and although vastly empty as far as person per square mile went still very much an important aspect of the United States’ culture in the 1950’s. The auto court, the protective yet bothersome aspect of life, the state trooper being an embodiment of many suspicious and cautious people, and Aroostook County being a place of un-American yet inner American migrant farmers.
Upstate New York and Niagara Falls (74-94)
On pages 74-94, Steinbeck travels to the Niagara Falls. As he travels on, he experiences the way people are different everywhere he goes. He describes how wherever you go people’s attitudes and beliefs are going to change depending on where you are. For example, when he went to New England, he saw that people there spoke tersely and usually waited for the newcomer to come up to them and confront them. He explained how strangers talked more freely without caution as a sense of longing for something new and being somewhere other than the place they were. They were so used to their everyday life that when someone new came to town, they were eager to explore new information and imagine new places.
John Steinbeck talks about a lot of different things he comes across. He talks about the Connecticut River  at points and how he doesn’t remember it being so long and wide. On his way navigating the river he comes across a motel, but to his disappointment, it is empty. He spends the night in his car with Charley and leaves the next morning feeling like he was a trespasser. Going up the Connecticut to New England also drew his attention as he saw people’s attitudes change. New Englanders were more to themselves, so Steinbeck would have to come up to each of them for help.
Niagara Falls  is one of the largest water falls in North America, and also serves as the borderline between New York (United States) and Canada. Steinbeck talks about how when he was younger, the laws of getting into and out of Canada were a lot less limiting then they were now. He becomes angry when he is forced to turn around to go get Charley vaccinated before moving on.
Traveling further, Steinbeck discovers that America and technology is quickly advancing to give Americans instant gratification. Vending machines became a big part of America, and started at Steinbeck’s early age. They started off as snack machines only, but through more advanced technology, they can fit whole meals that Steinbeck gets, such as hot soup, coffee, toiletries and even aspirin by simply putting money in a machine. He is very impressed with how the technology seemed to get better in his absence.
Steinbeck’s last day in Vermont is a Sunday, and he puts on his best suit, shaves, and combs his hair to go to church. Sitting in the John Knox  church and listening to the minister gave him a new perspective on sins in life. They weren’t just tiny things that were harmful to children, but should also be considered as big things, that should be taken with dignity. The minister says they are “No damn good”. Steinbeck is so impressed, he gives the church five dollars, and stays after to shake hands with and speak to the minister.
Truck drivers now-a-days are always seen on roadways, but to find them at rest stops  and actually talk to them was a thrill for Steinbeck. He notices how these people are just like the men he met out at sea, who have touched base in every major port in the world, and how truckers are similar only on land. He is fascinated how they set goals for their work, and know almost everything there is to know about America, from the driving, to the rest stops and waitresses. He likes talking to them because they open up to him more, as do other people in Mid-western states. He can also see small towns, become big cities from when he was a boy, and loves the idea of knowing where you’re going, but remembering where you’re coming from.
Reading Guide Questions for pages 74-94
- How have the advancements of technology affected the attitudes and beliefs of American citizens?
- Why do you think that Steinbeck writes about the government and what reasons do you find for him disliking the government?
- How did people's attitudes in different states affect the way John Steinbeck viewed America?
- How has traveling changed since Steinbeck's time (motels, interstates, and highways)?
Midwest Cities (95-125)
In the beginning of the section, John Steinbeck travels to the Midwest states. As he travels he notices a change in the growth of cities in the Midwest versus the last time he went (pg 105, 95). Also, he notices the overall family population growing. As he begins to talk to the locals he makes the point of contrasting the emotions of people in the north versus people in the Midwest. Another thing that was mentioned a lot during this section were the stereotype of a woman. They are often used for advertising during this time period (pg 117-118). He says that they welcomed a newcomer in their town with warmth and curiosity unlike people in New England (pg 107-108).
Traveling further, Steinbeck notices the advancing technology, which leads him to the overall curiosity about Mobile homes. One of the important things he notices are the house hold appliances and the televisions. Televisions become colored during this time period which was a huge impact in the technological industry (98-99). He begins interviewing families that live their life in a mobile home. They discuss points like, if you are living in a mobile home and you are ready to move on to a new place or job, you simply "pick up" your mobile home and leave (pg 95-104).
As he moves deeper in the Midwest, Steinbeck begins to see the colors of the people living down there. He realizes that the number of people immigrating to America has changed over time. He learns that because of immigration in the past it effects a families "roots" and discovers the Nationality act of 1965. He makes conversation with a man that enters his camping site, and discovers more about the lifestyle that development since his last trip there (110-113). At the end of the section, John Steinbeck starts to develop a character in his mind called Lonesome Harry while he was sitting in a room. This character develops and takes life until the end of the section (223-225).
Reading Guide Questions for pages 95-125
- Do you think that if your family comes from some place foreign or their heritage is not American, their ways of life will be different from a typical American?
- Do you think one area of the United States is more materialistic than the others?
Summaries: Part 3
Wisconsin and North Dakota (125-157)
In the Wisconsin and North Dakota section of Travels with Charley, Steinbeck travels to many places such as Sauk Centre and Illinois. Sauk Centre is a city Steinbeck travels through to get to North Dakota. Sauk Centre was also home to Sinclair Lewis whom Steinbeck knew. Upon stopping in the visitors center, he laments at being forced to leave behind the wondrous W.P.A Guides To The States. Some other places he mentioned include St. Paul and Minneapolis. Minneapolis is the largest city in Minnesota. Steinbeck gets lost in the city to which one person replies, "How can you get lost in Minneapolis?"
Steinbeck stops at a diner for directions and realizes that our American society is oblivious to its surrounding, life, and culture. Steinbeck mentions that Americans have put "cleanliness first, at the expense of taste" (141) (as he travels through Fargo, North Dakota), and that the mentality of our nation has grown bland. Allowing his thoughts to slip back to his time in Minnesota, Steinbeck says, "It looks as though the natural contentiousness of people has died" (142) implying the seemingly political ignorance that the society seemed to cling to, and bringing before our eyes the lack of risk our once rebellious nation now embraces. Throughout the section Steinbeck uses simple, symbolic entities he encounters in his travels to express his views of the mindset of the country. For instance, he goes on at one point to speak of a herd of turkey, and after casting criticism and ridicule at the source of Thanksgiving dinner, ends this string of insults with an unexpected transition to American life. He states, " And suddenly I thought of that valley of the turkeys and wondered how I could have the gall to think turkeys stupid. Indeed, they have an advantage over us. They are good to eat"(129). The section closes with John Steinbeck and Charley getting ready to head to Montana and encounter whatever epiphanies may come.
Steinbeck says “Do they find their emotional fare so bland that it must be ladened with sex and sadism through the medium of paperback.” He is speaking of how books with these aspects often draw more attention from the society of that day because these components made books more exciting and enjoyable to the people in society. When applied to a broader scale of things, life in general, things that are deemed as “bad” by society are more stimulating to many people of that society and even society today. When a form of entertainment is composed of these bad things such as “sex, sadism and homicide”, it becomes more appealing to society. He relates this to food because he believes that society “has put cleanliness first, instead of taste”, this applies what he is trying to get across with the books as well. Often society will sacrifice quality for what is exciting or arousing to them. What is deemed as acceptable by the society itself is mainly what populates the minds and thoughts of those in it. What is deemed “cool” is often used in place of the real quality of something far superior, but cast away into the darkness, fore it is deemed “unworthy” by those who cannot or will not value its worth.
Steinbeck speaks of politics of the time as not discussed much. “It seemed to me partly cautious and partly lack of interest, but strong opinions were just not stated”, by this Steinbeck is speaking of society being afraid to speak out. The society of the time was based on conformity, and speaking out against the government was like blasphemy. At the time there was much to be afraid of, if you spoke against the government or America or had anything to do with the sort, you might be accused of being a communist and even executed on terms of treason or espionage. Of course, the government needs to be spoken out against from time to time; there have been enough scandals to verify this. A few paragraphs after this Steinbeck meets a man who opens up a new understanding of political feeling of the time. After some conversation pertain to this, the man says “Oh, sure, hardly a day goes by that somebody doesn’t take a belt at the Russians.” It is revealed here that there is allot of hostility against the Russians at this time and many people blamed unfortunate mishappenings on them. In the society of time “Nobody can find fault with you if you take out after the Russians.” Once again conformity in society is seen, people used the Russians  as a scapegoat for their own personal faults. As long as you stayed in one belief, against the Russians, you were secure from your own flaws. The man also states, “You think then we might be using Russians as an outlet for something else, other things” and "Why, I remember when people took everything out on Mr. Roosevelt” these two things put society and politics hand in hand yet again. In society mistakes are very unwanted, people want to be perfect and they want their country to be perfect. Society often takes every problem with itself or its environment on one centralized being or group. At that time it was the Russians.
Reading Guide Questions for pages 125-157
- What does Steinbeck mean by Americans having put "cleanliness first, at the expense of taste?" How do you know?
- John Steinbeck ties turkeys to humans at one point during his inner pondering. What statement may he being saying about American lifestyle and attitude in comparison to turkeys?
- John Steinbeck talks about the evacuation route on US Highway 10 in this section. What do you think that the Evacuation Route symbolizes in society? What fears does it represent?
Montana, Yellowstone, Idaho, and Washington (158-180)
In this section Steinbeck notices differences between himself and other people, between his home life and the way life is for those in different states. "I am in love with Montana," says Steinbeck on page 158. He explains this as a place unaffected by television, and a place with kind, laid back individuals. "It seemed to me that the frantic bustle of America was not in Montana" (158). Here he also pays his respects to the Sioux chief Sitting Bull, which to him represents how people once were so infatuated with their land, they'd risk anything to keep it, fight until the end, like Sitting Bull and his fight for land.
In the next part of this section, Steinbeck is in Custer, at the battlefield of Little Big Horn. He travels through the Injun Country and thinks of an author who wrote a novel about war against the Nez Perce tribes. Steinbeck here shows a theme that opposes war, in his book, the author explains: "It was the saddest duty he had ever preformed" (160). Steinbeck and Charley then travel to Yellowstone National Park (161) which is a place that "is no more representative of America than Disneyland" (161). These parts, along with others from the book, are examples of the theme that your mood changes with your surroundings. This theme is also apparent when Charley sees the bears in Yellowstone. Steinbeck is surprised at his aggressive and crazy behavior (164).
The next visit is to the Great Divide in the Rocky Mountains. He thinks of the French explorers Lewis and Clark and wonders whether or not the men were impressed with what they found in America. This thought adds to the idea that the people who live in beautiful places, often don't realize it, and they take what they have for granted. He also expresses how the explorers would find modern people lazy. For instance, it took those men two and a half years to travel to the Pacific Ocean from St. Louis. Now, it takes just a month if you dawdle, a week if you drive, and five hours if you fly. Steinbeck makes people today seem small and sluggish, like if they don't have any real accomplishments even a tenth as remarkable as what these men did.
Finally, Steinbeck constantly shows that people are never happy staying in one place. He shows this through the eyes of the teenager he meets at the cabins. The teenager, along with many people in the book so far, are constantly wondering what it is like somewhere else, they are never content with what they have (171-172).
Reading Guide Questions for pages 158-180
- Why was it so important for Steinbeck to visit General Custer and Sitting Bull?
- Does Steinbeck's actions make him seem like a true American?
- If you could change one thing about Americans what would it be? How would this impact America?
- What is Steinbeck's point when he says that Yellowstone "is no more representative of America than Disneyland (161)."
Seattle, Oregon, and California (180-208)
In these pages Steinbeck visits the West Coast. First he goes to Seattle, Washington. He notices how much the city has changed. Before it was a small city sitting on a hill with lots of rural and country roads surrounding it, but now it has eight-lane highways and is a lot more industrialized. Steinbeck grew up around this area, so much of this section is him revisiting the area and seeing it’s changes and progressions. During this section Steinbeck makes a reflection when seeing the Columbia River (180) and how Lewis and Clark (180) must have felt when coming west. After this he notices the change that the west has underwent and he says on page 180 that “It was only as I approached Seattle that the unbelievable change became apparent.” A main point he states, while seeing all of this change and modernization is “I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction.”(181) This shows that he sees it as a possible detriment to the area and to the authenticity of the land.
Later on, while driving in Oregon he blows a tire and has to try to fix it, and he does just enough so that he gets to a small service station. There, a scary looking man (the owner) helps Steinbeck and arranges for larger tires to be brought to Steinbeck. This is when Steinbeck realizes that you can’t judge a person by appearance. Though the specialized tires were hard to come by, the problem was solved in mere hours by the unexpected generosity of the gas station attendant.
In the next section, Steinbeck focuses on the giant redwood trees (188) and ancient Sequoia Trees (195) that he has come to appreciate and adore in his lifetime. He says, “The vainest, most slap-happy and irreverent of men, in the presence of redwoods, goes under a spell of wonder and respect.”(189) This quote shows this appreciation, and more of the things he says to describe the trees really displays the way he is fearing this lack of appreciation as the times become more modern. “‘If I thought he did it out of spite or to make a joke,’ I said to myself, ‘I’d kill him out of hand.’”(191) Steinbeck thinks this to himself when his loyal companion Charley cannot appreciate the trees as he can.
In the next sections, he visits a bar of his youth where he meets and catches up with many friends, learning that a lot of regulars and childhood chums have passed away. Steinbeck thinks about how he is a ghost since all the people he grew up with were dead. He then heads up to Fremont’s Peakseems to say goodbye to his hometown for the last time. During the time it takes for him to say good bye he makes an allusion to a book by Thomas Wolfe  You Can't Go Home Again(201) This section of the story is concluded with, “I printed once more on my eyes, south, west, and north, and then we hurried away from the permanent and changeless past where my mother is always shooting a wildcat and my father is always burning his name with his love.”(208). This shows that even though he knows the country is changing, his memories of the towns he lived in will always be with him.
Reading Guide Questions for pages 180-208
- Based on the main ideas of this section of the reading, in your opinion what are Steinbeck’s beliefs on nature and the settlement of the West?
- How do the Redwoods seem to affect Steinbeck?
Summaries: Part 4
Arizona, New Mexico, Texas (219-248)
This section of the story follows John Steinbeck and his dog Charley through Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. He does not spend much time in Arizona or New Mexico, but he does appreciate the beauty of the vast mountains in those regions (227-230). We discover how close Steinbeck is to his dog, and get a deeper look at their relationship. The majority of the section is based on Texas where he spends a few days over Thanksgiving.
Upon arriving in Texas Steinbeck discovers that Charley is ill, but he took him to a veterinarian and learned that Charley merely had Prostatitis and that a few days stay would cure him (235). Steinbeck describes Texas and its different aspects that make it very unique from other states. He comments on the Panhandle  which is the Northern most part of the state where Texas borders New Mexico and Oklahoma. Steinbeck also comments on the Rio Grande Valley, which is really a delta rather than a valley.
Steinbeck felt that "people either passionately love or passionately hate Texas," referring to people who are just passersby like himself (229). He discusses a book about a tiny group of rich Texans that was written by Edna Ferber , and relates it to his own experience with a family similar to the one in the book. Steinbeck stays with this family with his wife who flew into the state to celebrate Thanksgiving. The two of them visit friends and have a Thanksgiving party. Also on Thanksgiving Steinbeck goes quail hunting with some of the men (235-242). He then goes on to talk about the black and white relations in the South compared to the relations in the North and in his hometown of Salinas, California, sharing the theory of "separate but equal’ (248). Steinbeck writes about the desegregation of schools  and how there is a change in the North. In the southern states, such as Texas, he mentions a bit about how when people are not proud of something they have been involved in, that they don't like to welcome any witnesses, because they believe that witnesses may be the ones causing all the trouble. This enables him to revert back to his childhood in California, writing about an African-American family that he knew, the Coopers, and never seemed threatened by them or noticed much of a difference, relating back to black and white relations during that time.
In the last pages of this section, Steinbeck comments briefly on his home town of Salinas, California. “Although people around the country are individuals, certain customs and characteristics are similar,” (244). Steinbeck makes a number of statements about politics, human nature, and regional differences. In the quote above, he is stating that through out his travels he has noticed that no matter where you travel in the Unites States, the people might be different but our culture is for the most part everywhere. He realizes that although Americans are individuals and come from different regions, he also realizes that “there are many customs that assimilate then into like-minded people."
Reading Guide Questions for pages 219-248
- When you traveled to a different state, was it different as your home state or the same?
- Steinbeck says, “The south is a place of hatred, violence, and bigotry,” (pg. 243-248). Why do you think that Steinbeck feels this way about the south?
- Do Steinbeck's comments about Texas reflect what he finds in the rest of the South?
New Orleans and Mississippi (249-273)
In the second to last chapter of Part Four, Steinbeck is drawn to the “distortion of normal life” (249) and leaves Texas in search of the so-called "Cheerleaders" (256) who are protesting the integration of black children in a school in New Orleans. Before reaching the city, Steinbeck welcomes in the “singing language of Acadia” (252) while recalling the memory of an old friend, Dr. St. Martin, who healed children and Cajuns. Upon entering New Orleans, Steinbeck immediately encounters the racism of the South and soon finds that racism was not only towards blacks, but also towards Jews, “ It’s the goddamn New York Jews cause all the trouble” (254). Steinbeck then experiences the “bestial and filthy” 257) show that the Cheerleaders put on while the black children entered school. The applause and praise of the crowd brought Steinbeck to realize that there were no thoughtful people like his old friends Lyle Saxon and Roark Bradford, in the city and that they had “left New Orleans misrepresented to the world” (259). After the incident, Steinbeck no longer desired to visit some of his favorite places, like Gallatoir’s Restaurant , fearing more racially divided ideals. In search of a secluded place, he sits beside the Father of Waters or Mississippi River, and encounters a man who looks similar to Greco San Pablo. They eat together and talk of Lewis Carroll  and the “queer” (261) epitaph by Rober John Croswell. After giving a ride to both a wary black man and a racist white man, Steinbeck becomes aware that the Southern people are afraid to change their way of life just as the Cockneys children in London were and that they will accept that fear despite the Gandhi inspired works of Martin Luther King.
Reading Guide Questions for pages 249-273
- Why do you think that the "Cheerleaders" protesting was censored in the media and do you think the media was for or against integration based on their censoring?
- Do you think it is within human nature to discriminate? Why or why not?
- Why do you think race is so important in this section?
This guide is an adaptation of the Wikipedia article, Wikipedia:Travels With Charley: In Search of America, at 6 April 2006.