In 1960, at the age of 58, John Steinbeck decided that he’d been making a living writing about an America he no longer knew. He wanted to travel, to see the United States one more time as it now existed, to see if there was any such thing as the American People, to scratch the itch of wanderlust. He traveled in a specially fitted-out camper he named Rocinante, and he traveled with his dog, a standard poodle named Charley.
Jenny: The only other book I’ve read by Steinbeck was The Grapes of Wrath, and that was 23 years ago! Since it’s been so long for me, I was ready for anything with this. I have to admit, I loved it from the very beginning. Steinbeck seemed to me to be open to any kind of adventure, ready for any type of discovery. He wasn’t embarking on this journey with preconceived notions of what he would find. Instead, he wanted to talk to individuals and see what portrait of America he could sketch through those talks. That’s just the kind of portrait I crave.
Teresa: I read quite a lot of Steinbeck in high school but hardly any since. Still, it’s been ages, and I’d never read any of his nonfiction, so I didn’t know what to expect from this. What fascinated me was how his journey evolved. He said he was going to create a portion of America, but there were some points when we was too focused on getting to his next planned destination to do any observing. In a way, though, that sense of hurrying becomes part of the portrait—he was just experiencing it instead of observing it.
Jenny: One of the reasons I wanted to read this particular work is that I like travelogues. I figured that even if the Steinbeck portion fell through, the travel part would be a pleasure. And even though Steinbeck didn’t fail me, the travel was wonderful! I enjoyed his thoughts about the travel itself — asking directions, avoiding big highways, stocking up for Rocinante — almost as much as his observations during his stops.
One of my favorite scenes came early in the book, when he parked near a group of migrant Canadian workers in Maine. It resonated with The Grapes of Wrath, with its strong sense of the essential dignity of the people he was talking to, but it also had a rich vein of humor in it — and so did most of the book.
Teresa: I don’t think of Steinbeck as a comic author, but he certainly was here. Travel stories bring out the humor, especially when the travel is unconventional and involves a dog! But for me, it was his treatment of the people he met that really stood out. He does seem to want to find the dignity within each one, at least until they prove themselves unreliable (like the veterinarian in Spokane) or just hateful (like the Southern racist he picked up).
His desire to be always respectful impressed me most in the section on the South. It was deeply uncomfortable to read about women shouting hateful invectives at children going to school and white men openly saying they’d happily kill a black man. Shocking, really, and Steinbeck is clear about how wrong this is. But he also sees the conflict within so many individual Southerners of the time. The frank conversation between him and “Monsieur Ci Gît,” followed by his attempt to talk with the black man he picked up on the road, got at just how deep-seated the pain and fear were for all these people living “in the meanwhile,” waiting for a future yet to come.
Jenny: That section stood out for me, too. Steinbeck wasn’t proposing answers, and he wasn’t suggesting that he had a complete picture of what it meant to live in the South. But it was a pretty vivid portrait, just the same, from a very troubled time in our history. Just imagine — he saw Ruby Bridges! And his ability to understand what he was seeing came from a place of real compassion, which I think he brought with him wherever he went. Whether he was thinking about the rootlessness of Americans and their mobile homes, or the fear that prompts people to name a road an “Evacuation Highway,” or the way a man must feel who has to kick someone off private property, he seemed genuinely able to look at a situation and see into the heart of it. I came away feeling that Steinbeck was a generous person. I would be really curious to know what he’d see if he made such a trip today.
Teresa: I have to mention how exciting it was for me to read his impressions of mobile homes, since I grew up in one myself. It couldn’t have been more than 10 years after Steinbeck wrote this that my parents bought our home and set it up right next to my grandparents’ house, just as Steinbeck described. It reminded me that in some small way, all Americans are part of the larger story of our country.
As for what he’d find today, that’s a good question. Plenty of the same fears remain—his conversation with the Canadian workers seemed eerily relevant. We’ve made progress (although not enough) when it comes to race, but now we have the equally hateful anti-gay demonstrations. So much has changed, but so much has not.
We read this book as part of the Classics Circuit tour celebrating the work of John Steinbeck. Look for the itinerary of the rest of the tour and for sign-ups for future tours at the Classics Circuit website!