Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck

What is America?

In 1960, at the age of 58, John Steinbeck set out on a quixotic journey to search for America. Having lived in New York City for the last ten years, he felt that he had lost touch with what “the people” of America was like. Although he said his plan was “clear, concise, and reasonable,” naming his vehicle Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse gave a truer sense of what he thought lay ahead. The discoveries he made 54 years ago still resonate today.

One of Mr. Steinbeck’s first observations was that people were losing their accents, and that as a culture we were becoming homogenized through radio and television. “Communications must destroy localness, by a slow, inevitable process.” He longed to travel the back roads rather than the interstates, where the surrounding areas were a blur, but he could not escape the highways.

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In 2014 the trend has continued. It’s not the lack of accents but the loss of regional cultures that has affected America. Local businesses and restaurants have been under assault by national stores and restaurant chains so that downtowns have become ghost towns. By 1960 the rise of the shopping center had taken over the newly-created suburbs and was slowly taking over small towns as well. We’ve gone through a period where shopping centers were eclipsed by self-contained malls, the malls losing favor to a return of outdoor shopping centers (The number of abandoned malls has led to websites that are dedicated to “Dead Malls“.This article shows photos of 9 abandoned malls).

When Mr. Steinbeck reaches California he finds himself fighting with his sisters over politics. 1960 was the close Presidential election that pitted then Vice-President Richard Nixon against John F. Kennedy. Steinbeck’s family was Republican, but he had ”work[ed] closely with migrants and bindlestiffs on California ranches. Those relationships, coupled with an early sympathy for the weak and defenseless, deepened his empathy for workers, the disenfranchised, the lonely and dislocated, an empathy that is characteristic in his work. [Center for Steinbeck Studies biography].”

His sisters had remained Republican, and they fought venomously over politics. Mr. Steinbeck said that he felt that these politically-charged arguments were happening privately, but in public many people wouldn’t discuss politics. The country was on the edge of a new era of politics and hoped that silence would keep tide of change at bay.

Looking back we can see what happened politically in the 1960’s – a flood of anger and change that has unfortunately been beaten back by a last desperate attempt to return to the 1950’s. Political discourse has not remained private, but has become a national pastime. Political campaigns in the U.S. have not changed much in the course of our history. What is different now is the rise of money in campaigns and the Republicans switching their priorities from legislating to waging an endless political campaign. As long as money is the main fuel of politics the country will continue to suffer.

After California Mr. Steinbeck goes to Texas to visit his rich in-laws. A man of precise words, Steinbeck says “no account of Texas would be complete without a Texas orgy, showing men of great wealth squandering their millions on tasteless and impassioned exhibitionism.” John Steinbeck did not come from a wealthy family, but he had to temper his criticism of the rich, as he recognized that he was now one of them.

Before returning home the author makes a visit to the American South, where he confronts the racism that would define America in the coming decades. Integration in New Orleans’ schools caused a furor and gave rise to overt racism that was fueled by newspaper and television stories. The was a group of “stout middle-aged women who, by some curious definition of the word ‘mother,’ gathered every day to scream invectives at children.” These Cheerleaders drew a big crowd and Mr. Steinbeck stopped by to take a look. Although the conservatives on the Supreme Court would like us to believe that racism is over, recent stories about Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling remind us that racism is still a big part of America. And though the overt racism we see today seems to be limited to old white men, there is still institutional racism that needs to be addressed.

John Steinbeck’s writing is wonderful throughout the book. His gift of language reminds me of why I enjoy reading. Even with the homogenization of America he is able to describe unique vistas and individual portraits of the people he met. What I see 54 years after he wrote the book is an America that has seen cosmetic changes but still retains the character of 1960.