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In 1960, Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck decided that it would be kind of hard to live up to his "Great American Author" title if he was totally out of touch with "today's" America (today for him, not today for us). So, he decided to hit the road to check out what had been going on and what people were like these (er, those) days across the U.S. The result was the 1962 Travels with Charley: In Search of America.
To ensure his creature comforts on the journey, Steinbeck commissioned a tripped-out truck named "Rocinante" (a hat tip to Don Quixote, another man who was also arguably on a crazy mission), and took along his French poodle, Charley, for companionship.
You might think it's a bit weird or silly that a dog would play such a big (i.e., titular) role in this very important author's very important exploration of these great United States, but believe us—his presence actually is pretty key.
Okay, yes, the presence of a dog is often played for laughs; Steinbeck's deadpan discussions of Charley's human-like qualities are often totally hilarious. But there's a lot more at stake than giggles when Steinbeck blurs the line between Charley's doglike and humanlike qualities (check out our "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" section for more). By the end, we wind up wondering if Charley actually does have more humanity than some of the people Steinbeck encounters.
You see, when Steinbeck took his trip, it was a tense time in America. The Cold War was in full swing, which meant everyone (and Steinbeck especially) was kind of worried about the potential for nuclear war (and wondering why mankind would create a weapon to eliminate itself in the first place). Also, there were a lot of racial tensions and conflicts going on in the South as the Civil Rights Movement heated up. In the book, Steinbeck details some pretty inhuman behavior among the folks who were against civil rights.
With mankind kind of making a bad name for itself, is it any wonder that Steinbeck preferred the company of the dignified and well-bred Charley? You read and decide.
Before you do, though, we should mention that scholars believe Steinbeck's "account" of his travels has been pretty heavily fictionalized. However, even if Steinbeck embellished or got some of his facts scrambled (or outright fabricated some of his interactions), it seems that he is certainly using the book to convey the spirit of America and its people at the time that he was writing. So, take that for what it's worth in considering the book's "truth."
Don't you ever just kind of wish you could take off? Ever yearn to head out and explore some other part of the world, freed from your everyday responsibilities? Doesn't it sound great to be able to just drive around and get to think, eat, and observe the world around you without getting interrupted or told you should be doing your homework or heading off to SAT prep class?
Come on, we know you're into it—and according to Steinbeck, it's a totally natural and perhaps even universal human feeling. As he was traveling around, he found that everyone from small children to old men indicated they wished they were doing exactly the same thing, and some even begged to tag along.
Of course, most of us don't have the time or resources to just peel out of our home driveway one morning and go exploring for several months (or we have family members that would stop us), but we can live vicariously through tales like Steinbeck's. By writing his observations down and making them public, he allows us to share in that journey and escape (at least mentally) from our everyday lives. That's something, right?
Oh, and we get the added benefit of being transported to a past America that we would never be able to "visit" otherwise, no matter how far we drove with the family dog next to us.
Obsession with Charley?
Journalist Bill Steigerwald even has a whole website devoted to the "truth about [Steinbeck's travels with] Charley."
Journalist Bill Steigerwald retraced Steinbeck's steps and wrote about it in a 2010 article. His conclusion? Charley is pretty much fiction.
Fact-Checkers: They're Not Just Good for Election Season
The New York Times's Charles McGrath takes a stab at sifting fact from fiction in Travels with Charley, using Steigerwald's research and more.
Confessions of a Penguin... Regarding a Book about a Dog
Bill Steigerwald writes about the fact that Penguin Group has basically admitted Travels with Charley is fiction, a couple of years after he originally blew the whistle.
From the Penguin's Mouth
Check out the Penguin site for the book, with Jay Parini's synopsis (he wrote the introduction to the Penguin edition).
National Steinbeck Center
Here's a one-stop shop for all things Steinbeck.
Charley: Live Action Hero
Okay, not really—but Travels with Charley was (kind of) made into a TV movie.
Steinbeck gets Steigerwalled
Bill Steigerwald gets Q and A'd about Charley on C-SPAN.
Steinbeck: The Next Generation
Steinbeck's son, Thomas, visited the Carlsbad City library to discuss his dad and Travels with Charley.
Title Sequence... But No Film?
Check out this title sequence for a Travels with Charley movie... that, um, doesn't exist.
Is There a Nobel Prize in Awesomeness?
Check out Steinbeck receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962.
Travels with an iPod
If you can't handle text, perhaps you'll like this audiobook version of the book.
The Dynamic Duo
The cover of this edition of Travels with Charley features Steinbeck with his traveling buddy.
A Land Before Mapquest
This map of Steinbeck's path is just a little less precise than Google Maps, but perhaps better than the first launch of Apple Maps (ooo, cold burn).