“We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” – John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley
Journeys are often transformative ventures. Whether we consciously acknowledge it or not, it is impossible to return from a journey as the same person you were when you first departed. Encountering new places, people, and perspectives changes us.
Steinbeck’s final full-length novel, Travels with Charley is a journey in both a physical and a spiritual sense. The novel details Steinbeck’s 1960 cross-country road trip in his pickup truck Rocinante (named for Don Quixote’s trusted steed) with his stately and consistently endearing French poodle Charley at his side. Biographer Jackson Benson called Travels “an act of courage,” for recent health scares had lent a sense of precariousness to Steinbeck’s life. Steinbeck and his family understood that “the end could come at any time” (Benson 881).
As Steinbeck proceeds across the country, he begins to re-acquaint himself with the spirit of America – to compensate for the fact that he, a self-described “American writer…writing about America,” was “writing of something [he] did not know about.” This is a novel of rediscovery, of bewilderment, and ultimately of hope, as Steinbeck’s trip takes him through a country he wants to feel, see, and know in his heart again.
Did you know? Both his wife Elaine and his agent, Elizabeth Otis, were initially extremely opposed to the trip due to Steinbeck’s deteriorating health. It was only a pleading nine-page letter in which Steinbeck framed his proposal as “a frantic last attempt to save [his] life and the integrity of [his] creative pulse” that persuaded Elizabeth and consequently Elaine to reluctantly approve of the undertaking (Benson 882).
“Travels with Charley is an undeniably remarkable book. Trying to capture the essence of a nation and pin it down on paper is no easy task. Steinbeck is explicit about his struggle to do so. Yet in the end, his words flow with grace and the images he imparts on the mind of the reader are aptly chosen. In particular, his description of the redwoods in the Santa Cruz mountains will always stay with me.” – Jenna Garden, National Steinbeck Center summer intern 2017