I have just returned from a trip with John Steinbeck–52 years late.
This journey with Steinbeck came about because a wonderful friend in California recently gave me a copy of Travels with Charley. She had bought several copies of the book she loved and offered me one. My “to-read” pile already tall, I had initially declined. Fortunately she persisted, and one of the most enjoyable reading experiences ever ensued.
In resisting the gift, I had been influenced by prejudice and ignorance as well as other reading obligations. I’m very embarrassed to admit that I had never read a book by Steinbeck, who won the Nobel Prize for literature back in 1962, the same year that Travels with Charley came out. How is that for ignorance in an English major? And now for the prejudice. Somehow I had formed the idea that I would find his books depressing, about people having hard times.
And with regard to this book, I somehow thought it was the story of a blond cocker spaniel running around the countryside with two stray buddies. Again both ignorance and prejudice were afoot. Spaniels are OK, but . . . In fact, Charley was a big French poodle, disqualified as a show dog by a dental fault that caused him to lisp “Ftt” when he wished to communicate discreetly.
Now to further humble myself, the imagined rural ramble by a cocker spaniel and friends was actually a brief but epic journey by the aristocratic poodle and Steinbeck together. At age 58, Steinbeck realized that he had lost touch with America, and his intention was to rediscover this “monster land” and its people. He bought a big truck and had it custom-fitted with a cabin that included all the amenities he and Charley would need to be self-sufficient on the road. It was named Rocinante After Don Quixote’s horse.
With Charley sitting up in the front seat beside him or napping with his head in Steinbeck’s lap, the two traveled counter-clockwise around the United States. Leaving New York in September and spending some poignant time in Steinbeck’s birthplace in Salinas, California, they completed the 10,000-mile journey before Christmas.
Steinbeck had the gift of being present, of connecting with people everywhere he went, having fascinating talks with them abroad as well as in his cabin over drinks and strong coffee often laced with alcohol. An acute observer, he seemed to take note of every detail and have total recall of dialog.
It was all fascinating, but Steinbeck reached me in a very personal way near the end of the book. Here he and Charley drove through Texas, where I had grown up, and on into Louisiana, where I was born.
I chuckled over Steinbeck’s comments on the “mystique closely approximating a religion” that Texas enjoys. Beyond state lines this mystique can become obnoxious.
By treaty Texas can secede at will, and it continually threatens to do so. Steinbeck had finally acted to silence this threat in conversation by referring to The American Friends for Texas Secession, which he had created. “They want to be able to secede,” he explained, “but they don’t want anyone to want them to.”
Once the interminable drive across the state was over, Steinbeck faced Louisiana with dread. This was 1960, and the conflict over segregation was heating up. “I knew as everyone knows,” he wrote, “that true but incomplete statement of the problem–that original sin of the fathers was being visited on the children of succeeding generations.”
He and Charley arrived in New Orleans in time to see two tiny children, one black and one white, escorted into a school. A group of middle-aged women known as the “Cheerleaders” was on hand. Trained like actresses in screaming words Steinbeck called “bestial and filthy and degenerate,” they gathered daily for a time to abuse the children to the applause of an avid audience.
The little girl entered with the help of marshals, and she was followed by a white man, gray-faced in a gray suit, escorting his son by the hand. Steinbeck described his clenched jaws, “a man afraid who by his will held his fears in check as a great rider directs a panicked horse.”
Steinbeck had friends in New Orleans, a world apart in sensibilities from the ravening crowd, but of course they were nowhere to be seen. Where were they, he wondered, “the ones who would be proud they were of a species with the gray man?”
Suffering from what he described as a weary, hopeless nausea, Steinbeck left New Orleans without seeing friends or eating in a fine restaurant. He bought a poor-boy sandwich and found a pleasant place to pull over outside of town where he could eat watching the Mississippi River flow by. Charley did not wander around as usual but came and leaned his shoulder against Steinbeck’s knee, which he did only when his master was ill.
It was at this point in the book that I reached a new level of understanding and compassion for the people of the South, some of them my people. We hear a lot now about how “Government is the problem,” a theme popular with all conservatives but one that has special significance among Southerners with deep roots.
When you think about it, Southerners were defeated by Government (capitalization intended) in the Civil War. Then Government forced the Civil Rights Act on them in 1964. Both events have been the source of both bitterness and defensiveness. In the case of conflict over civil rights, the media captured much that was regrettable in human behavior and less that would have been the source of pride.
And now in the White House is a man who reminds entrenched Southerners of their humiliations. Of course he is only part black and was born in the United States as far away from the South as one can get. Even his black father had nothing at all to do with the “original sin” of slavery. Nevertheless, the President evokes all the resentful memories and has become a symbol of Government as oppressor that only the South has really known.
My compassion comes from understanding what heavy freight history is for Southerners. I am so grateful that I never had to bear it. My father moved my family to Texas with all its arrogant pride before my siblings and I would ever experience the critical perspective of outsiders.
So how will this ever change? The world over, we’re seeing the need for this generation to unload ancestral grievances in order simply to survive. I thought of a pledge: “I shall not be defined or limited by what was, nor will I allow the past to determine the future. I shall deal wisely with the moment.” Something like that, anyway.
When I closed Travels with Charley, I felt as though I were parting very pleasant company with a brilliant writer who was also a wonderful human being. Steinbeck died at age 68 from congestive heart failure and multiple strokes. I found his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. One can see the struggle for breath and a touching nervousness, but his few words reveal the nobility of a very fine mind. They are also very timely.
Now, thanks to my friend Yvonne, I will set off on another journey. Where will I begin? Tortilla Flat? The Pearl? Of Mice and Men? East of Eden? The Grapes of Wrath? Ah. I am excited.