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Tuesday, July 3, 2018

John Steinbeck - Travels with Charley (Edited Slightly)

I have been recently reading a number of travel books, and began in 2017 when I realized that John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley (Viking 1962) had been published 55 years before. I reread Travels and noted, as I had in my two previous readings, that some of the incidents that Steinbeck describes seemed very unlikely. Indeed his oldest son, Thom, had once remarked publicly that his dad was too introverted and not good at interacting with strangers to have had many of encounters reported along the road. He stated that his father probably sat a lot in his pickup camper, which he named Rocinante (after Don Quixote’s horse), doing what he did best - fictionalizing many details of his trip.

Some critics had noted this through the years, and Steinbeck was apparently using some fictionalized  encounters with people along the road to segue into current issues that he wanted to discuss (the Cold War, migrant farm workers, mobile homes, the glut of trash he encountered many places, the arts, the homogenization that was occurring across the land, and segregation and racism). His assessment of how our country was doing was certainly not upbeat. Many feel that this was due to depression and his health. But, two of the most unsettled decades in our history occurred following his trip. 

Photos of front and back of book's dust jacket, along with the endpages map of Steinbeck's route around much of the country. 

Steinbeck and Charlie at home in Sag Harbor, Long Island New York, before beginning their trip.

Since he apparently didn’t keep a detailed log of his trip, or record tapes recounting his daily progress, nor snap photos along the way, it is very difficult for others to try to reconstruct the details of his trip. It is curious that Steinbeck named his pickup camper Rocinante. In many ways Steinbeck was like Quixote at this point in his life: awkward, past his prime, and engaged in a task that was beyond his capabilities and personality. Regardless, Steinbeck did go off in search of America and his book about the trip has become a true classic of travel writing, even if parts of it were fictionalized. Thom also remarked that his father knew that his health was deteriorating (Steinbeck died in 1968 at the age of 66), and that the real reason for the trip was to see the country again, and to prove to himself that he could still drive around it.

Steinbeck's steed, Rocinante, at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California.

As for book collecting: copies of the first printing of Charlie are sought after and often priced in the range $350.00 to $750.00. The dust jacket was very fragile and was prone to sun toning over the years, especially on the spine. The photograph of book I used above is a later printing – the true 1st state of the jacket does not have the Nobel prize blurb below “Steinbeck.”