Friday, 26 July 2019

My return caused only confusion and uneasiness

Travels with Charley: In Search of America Towards the end of his life, John Steinbeck took a road trip across America, "determined to look again, to try to rediscover this monster land." He converts a truck into a mobile home he calls Rocinante, and sets off with only his aged French poodle, Charley, for company.

Steinbeck's relationship with Charley forms the major part of the book's charm. The author's love for his dog shines through, and Charley's scenes are written with a great deal of humour.

What Steinbeck finds along the way are "the mountains of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use," and he muses on "the wild and reckless exuberance of our production." He asserts that "a beard is the one thing a woman cannot do better than a man, or if she can her success is assured only in a circus," and questions what drives "millions of armed American males to forests and hills every autumn,", thinking that "somehow the hunting process has to do with masculinity, but I don't quite know how."

The later parts of the book were the most engaging. Steinbeck visits his native Salinas, California, where his emigrant status has made him a stranger:
the "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. Although they could not say it, my old friends wanted me gone so that I could take my proper place in the pattern of remembrance -- and I wanted to go for the same reason."


Steinbeck's road then leads through Texas, his wife's state, and New Orleans, where Ruby Bridges was making history as the first African-American child to attend an all-white elementary school. After this, he made his way back to New York, tired of traveling, glad to return home.

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