Thoreau builds a truck and drives across America — a look at Steinbeck's last great work.
I was largely untouched by secondary school English literature.There seemed something dutiful and servile in our kneeling before Austen's novels, the grand Shakespeare plays and, of course, the dreaded war poets. Their genius had been established, but what did they have to say to the average schoolchild at the turn of the millennium?
I recall only Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men communicating most deeply to me — perhaps due to its simple and limpid style, perhaps because it traced the nation that seemed to be the pilot of the world, the moral leader of civilization at that time and today. The genesis, promise and pitfalls of America was more ably described in Steinbeck than in any history books, and as literature it spoke about a world that was also, at least tangentially, my world.
Of Mice and Men, like East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath, was dispatched in a simple, detached narrative style in which the prose is infused by the sort of 'omniscient intelligence' which characterizes the literary lineage of which Steinbeck is a part. In this literary form, the author is everywhere and nowhere, engineering the credible development of character within a thematic framework and, like dominoes, allowing the inexorable developments to take their course and reveal, on the way, something about human character. The author in this literary convention is not merely a dispassionate observer, as might be implied by this narrative distance, but on the contrary he trusts that the presentation of characters in plausible but morally loaded predicaments will sufficiently reveal important fundamentals, which are, in turn, the author's fundamentals. Steinbeck remains a ghostly presence in these works, and operating in this form he exists as a consciousness behind every word, but it is never made flesh.
It is Steinbeck's 1961 travelogue Travels with Charley — a simple, first-person journal documenting a road trip he took with his aged poodle of said name — that reveals a little more of Steinbeck himself, as flesh, his personality delivered not through the medium of character and plot nor through fictional architecture, but simply from his own mouth, his own pen. What is revealed in the subsequent pages are sides to Steinbeck which aren't so detectable in his fictional works. And coming when it did — towards the end of his life — there is a frankness, a determination to make amends and to speak clearly, deeply, to reveal himself a little more.
Underlying his decision to take the trip despite deteriorating health (he had suffered a stroke in 1959) were two strong urges, one essential to his character and the other contingent upon his stage in life. Firstly, and as Steinbeck proclaims in the opening paragraphs, 'the urge to be someplace else was on me… the sound of the jet, an engine warming up, even the clumping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder'. Steinbeck was a born explorer, and his wanderlust never left him even as he entered his sixth decade ('I was assured that maturity would cure this itch … and now that I'm 58 perhaps senility will do the job'). Yet more pressing was a sense that, since becoming 'reasonably well-known', the country upon which he had based his observations was changing - and he was not entirely in tune with the new America: 'I discovered that I did not know my own country. I, an American writer, writing about America, was working from memory and the memory is at best a faulty, warpy reservoir. I had not heard the speech of America, smelled the grass and trees and sewage, seen its hills and water'.
Steinbeck commissioned a truck to be built, weighing 3/4 tonne — a 'tough, fast, comfortable vehicle, mounting a camper top — a little house with double bed, a four-burner stove, a heater, refrigerator and lights operating on butane, a chemical toilet, closet space, storage space, window screened against insects'. He named the truck Rocinante, after Don Quixote's horse, and departed from Sag Harbor in New York, through Massachusetts, Michigan and California, circling the entire nation, with his elderly poodle, whom he regularly talks, cajoles, pities and admires.
Revealed in the subsequent pages are touches of humor, loneliness and odd-ball surrealism that afford us a deeper understanding of Steinbeck himself. He seems to take himself less seriously than you might imagine. Attending a hellfire church sermon in Vermont, he muses that 'for some years now God has been a pal to us, practicing togetherness, and that causes the same emptiness a father does playing softball with his son. But this Vermont God cared enough about me to go to a lot of trouble kicking the hell out of me'.
He takes exceptional pleasure in fixing things, repairing parts of his vehicle and building extensions to his house, in his imagination. Storing some dirty clothes in a water-filled bucket in the back of the van, he also invents his own sort of washing machine in which the movement of the vehicle jostles the clothes and brings them out spring clean. His delight is palpable, and charming. He adored hot baths, and coffee. He took a particularly masculine enjoyment in his appetite and strength, in the fact that he either sleeps 'long or not at all'. For all this he comes across as a sort of Thoreau-on-the-move, his tough/lyrical musings on nature reaching an exceptional zenith in a long passage detailing how, because the pitiless desert inspires organisms to develop internally and change themselves, it is thus the last stand of life against unlife — 'for in the rich and most wanted areas of the world, life pyramids against itself and its confusion has finally allied itself with the enemy — nonlife'.
Steinbeck hungers for contact at almost every stage, and without contact he becomes depressed, and often drinks. He talks with park wardens, bartenders, farmers, truckers and waitresses. He's saved by a service station man in Oregon whom he blesses to 'live a thousand years and people the earth with his offspring'. He feels close to the different dialects and analyses them — for instance noting how Texans insert extra syllables in monosyllabic words ('yayus') — like a zoologist might analyse the call of animals. Sharing coffee, gate-crashing in on people's bonfires, debating the nature of 'home' with an old friend in his hometown or quizzing a penniless actor on what fuels him to travel from village to village, Steinbeck 'found no strangers… these are my people and this is my country'. Through Fargo, the Badlands, Maple River and Montana, there is something of a reunion and farewell about this book.
Yet his acceptance knows limits, since this was a country changing for the worst and Steinbeck was in some ways a conservative (with a small 'c'). 'I remembered Seattle as a town sitting on hills beside a matchless harborage... It is no longer so. The tops of hills are shaved off to make level warrens for the rabbits of the present… On the outskirts of this place I once knew well I could not find my way'. He goes on to wonder why progress 'looks so much like destruction', and in conversation with an old acquaintance named Johnny Garcia, Steinbeck drunkenly proclaims - with impressive lucidity — 'What we knew is dead, and maybe the greatest part of what we were is dead. What's out there is new and perhaps good, but it's nothing we know'.
At the heart of this book remains the unresolved contradiction of America and of Steinbeck — of a man both hungry for movement and the satisfaction of appetites but opposed to change and the pursuit of comfort. And these vulnerabilities, contradictions, and ditherings do not come through in the masterful, composed grandeur of his fictive novels, which imply a powerful, wise observer. Travels With Charley is, on the contrary, Steinbeck alone, drunk, faulty, but his seriousness and integrity towards his fellow humans and to his beloved country remain undimmed in what was to be his last major work.