As we've mentioned elsewhere, Steinbeck has a solid sense of humor—both when it comes to other people and when it comes to himself. It's a dry and deadpan kind of humor, though; lots of the funniest stuff he says is delivered with the utmost apparent seriousness (which of course makes it even funnier).
As Exhibit A, let's check out one of his descriptions of Charley. Even though his language is outwardly dead serious, it's so peppered with ridiculousness and anthropomorphizing that it's hard not to get the giggles as Steinbeck tells us about Charley's haughty, dignified anger after returning from the kennel and groomer's (where he was abandoned while Steinbeck was in Chicago):
Charley was torn three ways—with anger at me for leaving him, with gladness at the sight of Rocinante, and with pure pride in his appearance. For when Charley is groomed and clipped and washed he is as pleased with himself as is a man with a good tailor or a woman newly patinaed by a beauty parlor, all of whom can believe they are like that clear through. Charley's combed columns of legs were noble things, his cap of silver blue fur was rakish, and he carried the pompon of his tail like the baton of a bandmaster. A wealth of combed and clipped mustache gave him the appearance and attitude of a French rake of the nineteenth century, and incidentally concealed his crooked front teeth. I happen to now what he looks like without the tailoring. One summer when his fur grew matted and mildewed I clipped him to the skin. Under those sturdy towers of legs are spindly shanks, thin and not too straight; with his chest ruff removed one can see the sagging stomach of the middle-aged. But if Charley was aware of his deep-down inadequacy, he gave no sign. If manners maketh man, then manner and grooming maketh poodle. He sat straight and nobly in the seat of Rocinante and he gave me to understand that while forgiveness was not impossible, I would have to work for it. (3.1.4)
All right, sure, we believe that the poodle has a lot of emotions—but the comparisons to nineteenth-century rakes? And the faux, antiquated English: "If manners maketh man, then manner and grooming maketh poodle"? Come on, you know that's tongue-in-cheek.
Steinbeck's deadpan style and these ridiculous moments of poodle/human blurring give us the sense that the author likes to keep things pretty light, even when getting pretty insightful and dismantling the world around him.
That's right—don't go thinking Steinbeck's observations are just for comic relief; with the humor comes a lot of analysis of people and places. Even when it comes to Charley (as we discuss in the "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" section), Steinbeck really kind of ends up making a larger point about humanity when his dog looks more "human" than some of the human characters.
By naming his truck Rocinante, Steinbeck automatically aligns himself with the quester to end all questers: Don Quixote. You know, that's the dude who was so committed to his trip that he embarked on it, and then continued on it, despite everyone else pretty much thinking he was a lunatic.
Plus, Steinbeck spends the whole story on a trip, so is it really so surprising that we would categorize it as a "Quest"? We didn't think so. Sure, Steinbeck isn't enflamed by some kind of divine or romantic purpose in making his journey (as many questers are), but he has a goal:
My plan was clear, concise, and reasonable, I think. For many years I have traveled in many parts of the world. In America I live in New York, or dip into Chicago or San Francisco. But New York is no more America than Paris is France or London is England. Thus 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, its color and quality of light. I knew the changes only from books and newspapers. But more than this, I had not felt the country for twenty-five years. In short, I was writing of something I did not know about, and it seems to me that in a so-called writer this is criminal. My memories were distorted by twenty-five intervening years. (1.2.1)
So, there you have it: even if it was just a general mission to reacquaint himself with his subject matter, the story contains the kind of clear goal in a journey that defines the "Quest" genre. Also, he certainly encounters lots of obstacles (getting lost, flat tires, a sick dog, horrible racists) that impede him, and those sorts of hurdles are also staples of the quest.
Well, there aren't a lot of frills, bells, or whistles in the title, or a lot of mystery for that matter. Travels with Charley: In Search of America is just what the title says it is: the story of John Steinbeck's trip through the U.S. with his dog as the silent witness (and sometimes counterpoint) to everything he sees.
As we've noted in the "Characters" and "Symbolism" sections, Charley's unique qualities as a silent companion and nearly-human dog confer more importance on him than you might expect in a dog, so it's only fair that he appears in the title as well.
You'll notice, though, that it's not called My Travels with Charley. Steinbeck leaves himself out of the title, which seems appropriate given his commitment to kind of anonymously observing everything around him as he goes.
Appropriately enough, Steinbeck ends the story with him getting lost, this time in New York City. He's spent a lot of the story turned around, so it seems only fitting that he would get lost one last time—even though he's basically back on his home turf. We guess that's proof that you can have journeys and adventures, with all the pitfalls that go with them, even when you're at home. The policeman who helps him out with directions admits that he himself got lost just that past Saturday.
And so, Steinbeck signs off with the novel's final words: "And that's how the traveler came home again." Once again, as in the title, he emphasizes the journey rather than himself, referring to himself in the third-person to kind of highlight the fact that the quest itself is what's important, not his particular role in it.
Steinbeck is traveling all over the U.S. in this tome, so our setting switches up a lot throughout the story. However, we've divided the kind of descriptions he gives into three main categories for your edification and amusement. Check 'em out.
Steinbeck comes across a lot of super-pretty scenery in his travels, and he's often taken off-guard with how gorgeous the country is. For example, when he gets into New England in time to see the fall colors coming out, he's pretty blown away:
To find not only that this bedlam of color was true but that the pictures were pale and inaccurate translations, was to me startling. I can't even imagine the forest colors when I am not seeing them. I wondered whether constant association could cause inattention, and asked a native New Hampshire woman about it. She said the autumn never failed to amaze her; to elate. "It is a glory," she said, "and can't be remembered, so that it always comes as a surprise." (2.1.116)
In Steinbeck's view, the reality of the fall foliage is even better than pictures make it out to be—and how often does that happen? We're talking #nofilter for sure.
But don't think Steinbeck just sticks to the superficial stuff in giving us an idea of what a place is like. Sometimes, the beauty or "warmth" of a setting for him has to do with both the physical landscape and its people. For example, as he heads west, he observes:
I had forgotten how rich and beautiful is the countryside—the deep topsoil, the wealth of great trees, the lake country of Michigan handsome as a well-made woman, and dressed and jeweled. It seemed to me that the earth was generous and outgoing here in the heartland, and perhaps the people took a cue from it. (2.5.79)
Steinbeck speculates that the people in the Midwest take their cues in warmth and kindness from the land, "generous" and "outgoing" like their "heartland" home. It sounds pretty good—sign us up.
Unfortunately, Steinbeck is less happy with some of what he finds further west, particularly when he sees that the march of progress has been marching all over the landscape around Seattle. In his opinion, Seattle has not changed for better with the influx of industry and technology:
The highways eight lanes wide cut like glaciers through the uneasy land. This Seattle had no relation to the one I remembered. The traffic rushed with murderous intensity. On the outskirts of this place I once knew well I could not find my way. Along what had been country lanes rich with berries, high wire fences and mile-long factories stretched, and the yellow smoke of progress hung over all, fighting the sea winds' efforts to drive them off. (3.7.116)
Yikes, that's a pretty bleak picture, if you ask us. Nature (in the form of the sea winds) is battling against the "yellow smoke" of pollution, but it's all dirty highways and "murderous" traffic. It sounds unpleasant, and not really much like progress. Steinbeck himself finds a paradox in the way supposed innovation can wreck a landscape, musing, "I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction" (3.7.117).
So, it's not all flowers and fall foliage for Steinbeck in his journey—there's ugliness out there, for sure. Again, you get the sense that the landscape might seep into the emotional life of the land and its people when Steinbeck uses words like "uneasy" to describe the area around Seattle.
Okay, Steinbeck seems to have a lot of reservations about modernity and technology (and their effects on the land and its residents), but later he finds something even worse: the pervasive racism going on in the Deep South during his visit there (and the violence that comes with it). Even before he goes to check out the hateful atmosphere that protestors called the "Cheerleaders" are creating outside of a local school, Steinbeck is aware that the environment he is stepping into is electric (and not in a boogie woogie kind of way): "Even I know better than to drive a car near trouble, particularly Rocinante, with New York license plates. Only yesterday a reporter had been beaten and his camera smashed, for even convinced voters are reluctant to have their moment of history recorded and preserved" (4.3.7).
Even though Steinbeck's skin color isn't likely to cause him problems, the fact that he's an outsider—and a Yankee one at that—is likely to raise eyebrows and potentially cause some problems. So he tries to go into observation mode anonymously—and with an awareness that he's dealing with people whose commitments and sensibilities are completely foreign to his own.
Yeah, Steinbeck really covered the highs and lows of America, its setting, and its people through his travels, and he relays it all to us pretty freely—no filter.
Steinbeck's writing style is straightforward and mostly free of million-dollar words (or even ten-thousand dollar words), so we don't think you'll find the book too hard to trudge through on that level. That said, sometimes he asks you to read between the lines rather than telling you exactly what's on his mind. For example, some of his references to his fears about nukes are more on the subtle side, requiring that you be, you know, awake in order to pick up on them.
Also, there's a lot of rough (to put it mildly) language once he gets into the Civil Rights Movement, and you'll have to endure free and frequent use of the N-word during those chapters as he reports the conversations he had while traveling through the South. Apart from that, though, the language is on the lighter side, difficulty-wise.
As we noted in the "Tone" section, Steinbeck tends to say the most ridiculous things with a completely straight "face" (which makes them totally hilarious). In fact, sometimes he really ramps up the "fancy" factor in his writing to highlight the disconnect between the subject matter and the writing style. For example, in the same description of Charley we used in "Tone," Steinbeck plays up Charley's noble beauty with utter seriousness and even dignity:
Charley's combed columns of legs were noble things, his cap of silver blue fur was rakish, and he carried the pompon of his tail like the baton of a bandmaster. A wealth of combed and clipped mustache gave him the appearance and attitude of a French rake of the nineteenth century, and incidentally concealed his crooked front teeth. (3.1.4)
Of course, the image of Charley carrying "the pompon of his tail like the baton of a bandmaster" is about as silly as it gets, but if Steinbeck agrees, he doesn't let on—nope, he just continues on with his reverent description of Charley, even comparing him to the sexy figure of the nineteenth-century rake. In this description, and elsewhere throughout the book, he's not going to add a lot of extra window dressing. He shows; he doesn't tell. Most of the time, the facts—combined with his descriptions of them—are more than enough to get the job done. In this case, of course we know he's kidding, but the point is that his style is totally deadpan. You dig?
Okay, so, yes, Charley is treated as pseudo-human—and, as such, a character in his own right—but he also has considerable symbolic heft. In fact, Charley's ability to do double-duty as a human and an object is pretty important and definitely not an accident.
You see, even though Steinbeck seems to be playing the whole idea of his "gentlemanly" dog for laughs (and he is), Charley's ability to pass as human takes on some less humorous undertones when Steinbeck gets into the Deep South and people "mistake" Charley (who rides shotgun in Steinbeck's truck) for an African American passenger.
Steinbeck reports that this happened repeatedly, and here the equating of Charley with another human being is hardly complimentary. Steinbeck describes the first time a man made this "mistake," and how pervasive that kind of thing continued to be throughout his swing through the South:
"Hey, it's a dog! I thought you had a n***** in there." And he laughed delightedly. It was the first of many repetitions. At least twenty times I heard it—"Thought you had a n***** in there." It was an unusual joke—always fresh—and never N**** or even Nigra, always N***** or rather Niggah. That word seemed terribly important, a kind of safety word to cling to lest some structure collapse. (4.3.5)
Whereas Steinbeck has previously compared Charley to humans in order to compliment his dog and show how awesome he is, here the idea seems to be that African Americans are indistinguishable from animals. The purveyors of these "jokes" think they are funny, but of course, Steinbeck isn't laughing.
The great irony is that, with humans like that walking around, the whole idea of Charley's overall humanity becomes a lot less ridiculous. Compared to the hateful people throwing out these little "jokes," Charley does look pretty gentlemanly and humane (and human). We sure think we'd prefer Charley's company to that of the racists Steinbeck meets. After all, being a dog is way better than being someone who compares people to dogs on the basis of race.
To carry him through the U.S. in style, Steinbeck commissions a special truck with a little house on the back so that he can bring everything he might need and be able to sleep back there, if needed.
According to Steinbeck, he decided to name the truck Rocinante because his friends seemed to think his travel plan was as silly and, well, quixotic, as the famous literary hero Don Quixote: "because my planned trip had aroused some satiric remarks among my friends, I named it Rocinante, which you will remember was the name of Don Quixote's horse" (1.2.4).
Of course, Steinbeck thinks what he's doing is pretty important (at least, for him personally), but his truck's name is a little tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of the fact that dropping everything in your life, leaving your wife at home, and just setting out on the road without a clear purpose (and as a middle-aged man) might seem (or be) a little... kooky.
In other words, the truck kind of symbolizes the wackiness and lack of structure in the whole trip, signaling that the journey is more about a general bee in Steinbeck's bonnet and need for a quest than some kind of clear and structured mission. And hey, that's okay—kudos to Steinbeck for being able to joke about it.
Although they only appear once in the story, submarines are an early sign that Steinbeck is pretty interested in the Cold War and focused on the anxieties of that time in America.
Steinbeck spots the subs while he's taking a ferry across the Long Island Sound to get on the road in New England, and we quickly learn that he is not a fan:
A lovely sloop stood away from us, her genoa set like a curving scarf, and all the coastal craft trudged up the Sound or wallowed heavily toward New York. Then a submarine slipped to the surface half a mile away, and the day lost part of its brightness. Farther away another dark creature slashed through the water, and another; of course they are based in New London, and this is their home. And perhaps they are keeping the world's peace with this venom. I wish I could like submarines, for then I might find them beautiful, but they are designed for destruction, and while they may explore and chart the sea bottom, and draw new trade lines under the Arctic ice, their main purpose is threat. (2.1.4)
As you can see here, Steinbeck much prefers the "lovely sloop," which is a kind of sailboat, to the submarines, since he can only really associate the latter with warfare. And not just any kind of warfare—after all, boats have been used for war for, uh… a long time. No, in Steinbeck's mind, these subs are associated with nukes.
We learn as much when he strikes up a convo with another passenger on the ferry, who just happens to work on a submarine. Steinbeck's first question to him is "Atomic?," so it seems pretty clear that Steinbeck is concerned about this particular use for subs.
Of course, as the book goes on, we find that Steinbeck is pretty preoccupied with the Cold War and the power of nuclear weapons—and interested in how others felt about these topics. So, the submarines are an early indicator and symbol of that overall preoccupation.
This is Steinbeck's personal (if heavily fictionalized) account of his jaunt around the U.S. with his dog, so it's hardly a stunner that he's the first-person narrator of the tale. As we mentioned when it comes to his "character," Steinbeck doesn't really like to dwell too much on his inner life—but he certainly doesn't hide his opinions or the fact that all the perceptions and observations he offers are coming from a definite place of "I."
We get a good sense of what we're in for narrator-wise from the very first sentences of the story:
When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight, perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. (1.1.1)
With just a few sentences injected with a healthy dose of wry humor, Steinbeck allows us to size him up pretty quickly. We can tell that he's a humorous guy who has no problem making fun of himself and his kind of "odd duck" status with respect to other people and society as a whole—which, of course, is helpful in anticipating how he's going to interact with others and his "subject." If he can make fun of himself and is already kind of an outsider among men, then he's probably going to be able to take a relatively objective, non-egotistical take on the world around him. In short: we know we can trust him, and he doesn't really mind if we laugh at him. That's something we really appreciate—since we Shmoopers are definitely the laughing kind.
When the book opens, Steinbeck and his poodle, Charley, are preparing for a cross-country "boys"-only road trip. A hurricane hits right before Steinbeck is slated to leave, but everything is all cleared up before he has to hit the road. To make sure they roll on in comfort, Steinbeck has had a special souped-up truck named "Rocinante" custom-made for him. Rocinante has a house on the back with lots of amenities and comforts that Steinbeck didn't want to have to give up while he was traveling.
First, he heads out toward Connecticut and up through New England.
Steinbeck travels through New England and is largely charmed (and if not charmed, certainly amused) by the people and places he encounters up there. There's lots of great scenery, and he meets lots of interesting people, including Quebecois migrant farmers and taciturn Maine state troopers. Aside from getting lonely from time to time, he seems to be enjoying himself.
Of course, Steinbeck's propensity for getting lost gets in his way from time to time, and that is certainly the case when he heads west and has trouble navigating the area around Minneapolis (and then, to make matters worse, the locals make fun of him). Also, even before that, he encounters some issues when trying to take a short cut through Canada (since he has a dog, and he is advised not to cross the border because he wouldn't be able to get back in).
Then later, after a glorious time in Montana, he tries to go south to Yellowstone but has to leave almost immediately because Charley is going batty over the bears there. And then there are still more frustrations when he gets home to California, where he argues with his sisters. Come to think of it, his journey has quite a few little bumps and annoyances midway, doesn't it?
Okay, annoyances are one thing, but really things don't seem to get dark until very close to the end, when Steinbeck gets into the Deep South. As you know, the Civil Rights Movement was in full effect during that time, and the South was in complete social and cultural upheaval over it. Trying to get the pulse of what was happening with all that, Steinbeck decides to check out a school in New Orleans where there were women protesting the matriculation of two young African American children.
Steinbeck is beyond disturbed by what he sees: a bunch of supposed mothers screaming bloody murder (and lots of expletives) at children, and a crowd of others is cheering the protestors on. Also, he notices that everyone involved is pretty excited about the media attention, which strikes him as way gross (given how they're getting the attention). He is totally sickened and saddened by the behavior and attitudes he finds in New Orleans, and by the fact that these women have so many supporters.
Steinbeck basically flees from New Orleans after watching the Cheerleaders. He is so disturbed that he just can't handle it, so he grabs a sandwich and hits the road. On his way out of town, he has mixed results when he tries to broach the topic of race relations with other people. He finds a couple of people who are civil and interested in talking about it (the older gentleman who jokingly calls himself "Ci Git" and an African American student), but there are others who aren't as receptive to his views and attempts at reasoned discussion.
In one instance, he tries to strike up a convo with an older African American hitchhiker, but that goes really badly; the guy is super-uncomfortable being trapped in a truck with some white guy asking him questions, so he asks to be let out. Then, the next day, Steinbeck picks up a guy who is totally racist and pro-Cheerleader, so Steinbeck tells him off and kicks him out of the car.
From there, the action calms down a lot, and Steinbeck heads back north. He decides, in Virginia, that he's mentally done with his exploration of America.
Steinbeck and Charley get ready to set out on the road so Steinbeck can reconnect with America—you know, the land and the people and all that. He decides to leave right after Labor Day so that he can avoid the summer traffic. While he's waiting to set out, there's a hurricane. Yikes—hey John, you know some people would take that as an omen, right?
Once John gets out on the road, he starts meeting a whole bunch of interesting people and sees some cool things—you know, pretty fall foliage, the Bad Lands, lots of highway, that kind of stuff. Oh, and Yellowstone—well, he kind of sees Yellowstone, anyway. He has to leave pretty quickly because Charley goes bananas over the bears (Charley thinks he could take them—right...). He goes all the way to the West Coast, where he spends some time with family and old friends, and then he drives back through the South.
On his way through Louisiana, he checks out a group of women known as the "Cheerleaders" who have made a name nationally for protesting the enrollment of two African American children at a New Orleans school. Apparently, the women work themselves up into a giant hate- and expletive-filled frenzy, and Steinbeck, who seems hard to faze, is pretty shocked and even nauseated.
Even though it shows up really close to the end of the book, this is the big emotional moment in the story. Steinbeck has been kind of sniffing out the political climate of the U.S. in terms of attitudes about the Cold War and nukes, but only in Louisiana does he put his finger on the pulse of the political issue that is really rocking the country: civil rights.
After seeing the Cheerleaders in action in New Orleans, Steinbeck seems kind of shell-shocked. He wants to get more people's perspectives on civil rights—and hopefully find some sane and reasonable people—but his attempts yield mixed results.
After one pretty humane discussion with a guy just outside of New Orleans about the sad political climate in the South, he starts picking up hitchhikers on his way out of town. The first one, an older African American man, gets way uncomfortable when Steinbeck tries to chat him up about race relations and asks to be let out immediately. Then, the next guy Steinbeck gives a ride to is extremely racist and pro-Cheerleader, so Steinbeck kicks him out of his truck. Then, after those two extremes, he picks up a young African American student who is willing to talk politics and race relations with Steinbeck and who is vocal and articulate in his views. So, the third hitchhiker in, Steinbeck finally gets the chitchat he was hoping for.
Not too much happens in the way of excitement after Louisiana, and Steinbeck reflects that he had basically given up questing by the time he got to Virginia. Even though he still had several miles left before he was physically home, his brain was done checking out America, taking its temperature, etc.—he just wanted to go home. And so he did—after getting a bit lost, of course.
Steinbeck and his French poodle, Charley, pack up their stuff in a big truck named "Rocinante" and hit the road to check out America. And we mean really check it out—they're planning to go all over: north and south, east and—you guessed it—west.
As promised, Steinbeck heads up from Long Island through Connecticut and the rest of New England before heading back down and west. Along the way, he meets a lot of interesting folks and talks with them about all kinds of different topics, from nuclear submarines to hairdressing. He also meets up with his family and friends out in the area around Salinas where he grew up (in California). Then, he heads back east by swinging through the South.
The South is where this mostly pleasant and inoffensive journey takes a turn for the distinctly unpleasant and (way) offensive. He's traveling through the South during a time when race relations are super-tense and civil rights is the big topic, so there are a lot of ugly racial stereotypes and epithets dropped in conversations. Steinbeck is totally shocked by the nastiness of the emotions involved, particularly on the side of white folks.
He checks out a group of women, for example, who have made it their life's mission to protest the enrollment of African American children at a New Orleans school by cussing them out as they arrive at school. Steinbeck is totally shocked at the women's behavior—and still more appalled when he realizes how many people around there support and applaud the women's efforts. Gross.
Things calm down again (for him, not for the South) from there, and he drives back north to get home. He decides his journey is over—mentally, at least—in Abingdon, Virginia.