Study Guide

Travels with Charley Quotes

By John Steinbeck

  • Race

    "Well, you try to root a few out. We need them. I swear to God the only people in this country with any guts seem to be N****es. Mind you," he said, "I don't want to keep N****es out of the hero business, but I'm damned if I want them to corner the market. You dig me up ten white, able-bodied Americans who aren't afraid to have a conviction, an idea, or an opinion in an unpopular field, and I'll have the major part of a standing army." (3.7.8)

    Steinbeck's journalist friend claims that he thinks there are no real men left in America at that point, aside from African Americans. It's a weird moment; he apparently is trying to backpedal on appearing racist with his statement, but he also seems to think it's somehow important for white men in particular to reclaim their manliness. Hmm...

    The Texans, they say, didn't want to pay taxes and, second, Mexico had abolished slavery in 1829, and Texas, being part of Mexico, was required to free its slaves. Of course there were other causes of revolt, but these two are spectacular to a European, and rarely mentioned here. (4.1.8)

    Steinbeck is musing on the origins of Texas and its desires to break free of Mexico back in the day. As you can see, slavery played a role in that whole rigmarole, although apparently Americans and Texans are less ready to talk about it than Europeans.

    I knew, as everyone knows, the true but incomplete statement of the problem—that an original sin of the fathers was being visited on the children of succeeding generations. I have many Southern friends, both N**** and white, many of them of superb minds and characters, and often, when not the problem but the mere suggestion of the N****-white subject has come up, I have seen and felt them go into a room of experience into which I cannot enter. (4.2.5)

    Steinbeck knows he's viewing a lot of the racial tensions going on in the U.S. as an outsider, since the real hotbed of these problems has been the South and he's definitely not a southerner. Here, he's reflecting on how his friends on both sides of the racial "divide" understand the problem and experience it in a way that he can't.

    If there was any color prejudice in Salinas I never heard or felt a breath of it. The Coopers were respected, and their self-respect was in no way forced. (4.2.8)

    Musing some more about racial tensions, Steinbeck thinks a lot about the Coopers, an African American family he knew when he was growing up. Apparently, in Steinbeck's view, Salinas was pretty race blind.

    Now, these were the only N****es I knew or had contact with in the days of my flypaper childhood, and you can see how little I was prepared for the great world. When I heard, for example, that N****es were an inferior race, I thought the authority was misinformed. When I heard that N****es were dirty I remembered Mrs. Cooper's shining kitchen. Lazy? The drone and clop of Mr. Cooper's horse-drawn dray in the street outside used to awaken us in the dawn. Dishonest? Mr. Cooper was one of the very few Salinans who never let a debt cross the fifteenth of the month. (4.2.9)

    Apparently, the big inequality question with respect to the Coopers was whether everyone else could measure up to the bar they had set. This is a big point of contrast to the kind of race-based assumptions about African Americans (and how they measure up to white folks) that Steinbeck sees going on now that he's left Salinas.

    Thus it remains that I am basically unfitted to take sides in the racial conflict. I must admit that cruelty and force exerted against weakness turn me sick with rage, but this would be equally true in the treatment of any weak by any strong. (4.2.12)

    This is hardly a rallying cry for civil rights (and problematic in its total confidence in the weakness of African Americans), but Steinbeck is basically trying to say that he doesn't approve of the "cruelty" and "force" being used against African Americans in this "racial conflict."

    Beyond my failings as a racist, I knew I was not wanted in the South. When people are engaged in something they are not proud of, they do not want witnesses. In fact, they come to believe the witness causes the trouble. (4.2.13)

    Both because he wasn't a racist and because he was an outsider, Steinbeck did not feel terribly welcome in the South. To make matters even dicier for him, he was running around with New York plates on his car. Eep.

    Recently a dear Southern friend instructed me passionately in the theory of "equal but separate." "It just happens," he said, "that in my town there are three new N**** schools not equal but superior to the white schools. Now wouldn't you think they would be satisfied with that? And in the bus station the washrooms are exactly the same. What's your answer to that?"

    I said, "Maybe it's a matter of ignorance. You could solve it and really put them in their places if you switched schools and toilets. The moment they realized that your schools weren't as good as theirs, they would realize their error." (4.2.15-16)

    Steinbeck manages to turn the tables on a Southern friend who was trying to defend the whole idea of separate but equal. Wethinks he makes a pretty compelling point: if it's so "equal," why wouldn't the white folks want to use the same facilities as the African Americans?

    While I was still in Texas, late in 1960, the incident most reported and pictured in the newspapers was the matriculation of a couple of tiny N**** children in a New Orleans school. (4.3.1)

    Steinbeck swings through the South during a pretty volatile time. In New Orleans, there were protests against the enrollment of African American children at a school. Some women called the "Cheerleaders" were camped out yelling nasty things to try to deter the kids from, you know, getting an education. Steinbeck is not impressed.

    "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)

    As with the Cheerleaders, Steinbeck is less than impressed by the many jokes people make about how easy it is to confuse Charley with an African American. Also, he notes the fact that these people tended to cling to the N-word like it was a safety blanket, which speaks to the nasty power that world wielded (and still does).

  • Men and Masculinity

    During the previous winter I had become rather seriously ill with one of those carefully named difficulties which are the whispers of approaching age. When I came out of it I received the usual lecture about slowing up, losing weight, limiting the cholesterol intake. It happens to many men, and I think doctors have memorized the litany. It had happened to so many of my friends. The lecture ends, "Slow down. You're not as young as you once were." And I had seen so many begin to pack their lives in cotton wool, smother their impulses, hood their passions, and gradually retire from their manhood into a kind of spiritual and physical semi-invalidism. In this they are encouraged by wives and relatives, and it's such a sweet trap. (2.1.1)

    Although it's not like Steinbeck comes off as John Wayne or anything, he does kind of give us a sense early on that his manhood is pretty important to him. You'll notice throughout the book that he talks about ways in which American culture (in terms of religion, psychology, and—as here—health) has gone "soft," and he's totally against that whole trend. This is the first moment he really clues us into that theme.

    Who doesn't like to be a center for concern? A kind of second childhood falls on so many men. They trade their violence for the promise of a small increase of life span. In effect, the head of the house becomes the youngest child. (2.1.2)

    Although we're sure older women don't enjoy being treated like babies either, Steinbeck makes it a masculinity issue—and he is not down with going gently (and unmanly-ly) into that good night.

    I've lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as a punishment. I did not want to surrender fierceness for a small gain in yardage. My wife married a man; I saw no reason why she should inherit a baby. (2.1.2)

    Just in case we weren't absolutely clear on where Steinbeck stands on this whole issue, he says outright here that he has no intention of giving up being "a man" for a tiny bump in lifespan. His motto seems to be "Live fast, die manly."

    Somehow the hunting process has to do with masculinity, but I don't quite know how. (2.2.54)

    Here, Steinbeck seems to kind of be making fun of the whole notion of expressing your masculinity through an enthusiasm for guns. Mind you, he's definitely not anti-gun or anti-hunting, but he does make fun of hunters who exercise poor judgment or don't have skills (which, in his opinion, is a lot of them).

    My wants are simple. I have no desire to latch onto a monster symbol of fate and prove my manhood in titanic piscine war. (2.5.86)

    Apparently, Steinbeck is also a little judgy about using fishing to prove one's manliness. For someone who made a big show about how important manliness is to him at the beginning, Steinbeck seems to be against big, showy demonstrations of masculinity. Interesting...

    He said bitterly, "If anywhere in your travels you come on a man with guts, mark the place. I want to go see him. I haven't seen anything but cowardice and expediency. This used to be a nation of giants. Where have they gone? You can't defend a nation with a board of directors. That takes men. Where are they?" (3.7.6)

    Steinbeck's journalist friend is also kind of concerned about the state of masculinity in America. According to this guy, there aren't any real men to be found—and by that, he means men with guts. Hmm—we wonder what "guts" entails.

    "Well, you try to root a few out. We need them. I swear to God the only people in this country with any guts seem to be N****es. Mind you," he said, "I don't want to keep N****es out of the hero business, but I'm damned if I want them to corner the market. You dig me up ten white, able-bodied Americans who aren't afraid to have a conviction, an idea, or an opinion in an unpopular field, and I'll have the major part of a standing army." (3.7.8)

    Ah, now we start to understand what Steinbeck's journalist friend means by "guts": the ability and willingness to express a strong opinion, even when it's "unpopular." Of course, he realizes that those fighting for civil rights (many of whom are African American) are doing just that, but apparently that's not enough—he wants white men to reclaim that manliness for themselves. Well, alrighty then.

    His obvious worry in this matter impressed me, so I did listen and look along the way. And it is true I didn't hear many convictions. I saw only two real-man fights, with bare fists and enthusiastic inaccuracy, and both of those were over women. (3.7.9)

    Steinbeck listened to his friend and decided to take him up on the challenge to find a real man... and struck out. Apparently, he only saw a couple of "real-man" fights—and, even then, they were over women, rather than a "conviction," which is really what the journalist friend was looking for.

    I drank Charley's health in straight whisky as he ate and licked up the syrup. And then we both felt better. But there was the Narváez party—eight years. There were men in those days. (3.13.26)

    Steinbeck is comparing himself and his journey to that of the explorers in the Narváez group, who spent eight long years on their expedition. You get the feeling that Steinbeck doesn't think slurping up whisky and syrup really compares to that kind of long-haul journey.

    The doctor gave me pills to give at intervals while traveling so that the ailment never came back. There's absolutely nothing to take the place of a good man. (4.1.28)

    This is Steinbeck's comment when he finally finds a kind, helpful vet who cures Charley's bladder issue. Even though he's probably not a "real man" in the sense that the journalist was talking about when he asked Steinbeck to be on the lookout for one, at least this guy is a "good" one.

  • Warfare

    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)

    At the surface, Steinbeck keeps things pretty funny and relatively light for a lot of the book, but don't be fooled—there are clues from early on that he has some weightier things on his mind (and other Americans do, too). For example, here he is fresh out on the road, staring out at the Long Island Sound, and his mind turns to... nuclear war? You see, that's the first thing that comes to mind when he sees submarines. As you'll learn once you get further into the book, Steinbeck's mind returns early and often to the subject of nuclear war and the potential for total annihilation that it presents.

    And I remember too well crossing the Atlantic on a troop ship and knowing that somewhere on the way the dark things lurked searching for us with their single-stalk eyes. (2.1.4)

    Ah, now we get the submarine connection a little better. Apparently, he associates them with traveling on a troop ship and knowing that subs were below him. Of course, he associates subs with war, then—he was with troops during one when he first encountered them.

    "How can you tell them?"
    "I know them. I'm on them."
    "Atomic?"
    "Not yet, but I've got an uncle on one, and maybe pretty soon." (2.1.6-9)

    Steinbeck meets a guy on the ferry across the Long Island Sound who can distinguish between the different types of subs. Apparently, the one Steinbeck just spotted is a new one—the guy knows because he works on them.

    This cap is pretty ratty and salt-crusted, but it was given me by the skipper of a motor torpedo boat on which I sailed out of Dover during the war—a gentle gentleman and a murderer. After I left his command he attacked a German E-boat and held his fire trying to take it whole since none had ever been captured, and in the process he got himself sunk. I have worn his cap ever since in his honor and in his memory. (2.1.124)

    Steinbeck doesn't go into too much detail about his war experiences here (he was a correspondent), but we get some little glimpses and references here and there, like this one. These stories aren't exactly warm and fuzzy (surprise, surprise, right?), and the fact that they keep popping up gives you the sense that Steinbeck is kind of stuck on the topic—and war's unpleasantness in general.

    First the traffic stuck me like a tidal wave and carried me along, a bit of shiny flotsam bounded in front by a gasoline truck half a block long. Behind me was an enormous cement mixer on wheels, its big howitzer revolving as it proceeded. On my right was what I judged to be an atomic cannon. (3.2.9)

    See, even when Steinbeck is just describing traffic, he ends up comparing the vehicles around them to war machines. If that's not proof that Steinbeck has war on the brain a lot, what is?

    It took me nearly four hours to get through the Twin Cities. I've heard that some parts of them are beautiful. And I never found Golden Valley. Charley was no help. He wasn't involved with a race that could build a thing it had to escape from. (3.2.11)

    These are Steinbeck's thoughts about his trip through the Twin Cities. As we already mentioned, he's been comparing the surrounding traffic to war machines, and here he's just realized that the highway has been designated an emergency evacuation route (in case of, like, an emergency). Given that the U.S. is super-enmeshed in the Cold War at this point, it doesn't take a genius to figure out what the most likely cause of evacuation would be at that time: nuclear war. Steinbeck is clearly alluding to nuclear technology when he notes that Charley (as a dog) is too smart to create the kind of weapon you'd need an evacuation route to flee from.

    "Oh, sure! Hardly a day goes by somebody doesn't take a belt at the Russians." For some reason he was getting a little easier, even permitted himself a chuckle that could have turned to throat-clearing if he saw a bad reaction from me.

    I asked, "Anybody know any Russians around here?"

    And now he went all out and laughed. "Course not. That's why they're valuable. Nobody can find fault with you if you take out after the Russians." (3.3.28-30)

    Steinbeck has trouble finding people willing to express strong or unpopular opinions (see "Men and Masculinity"), but hating the Russians during the Cold War is something seemingly everyone can get behind, according to his account.

    If the most versatile of living forms, the human, now fights for survival as it always has, it can eliminate not only itself but all other life. And if that should transpire, unwanted places like the desert might be the harsh mother of repopulation. (3.12.24)

    Now Steinbeck is thinking explicitly about what a post-nuke America might look like. It sounds pretty topsy turvy—can you imagine fleeing to the desert for life and a future? Apparently Steinbeck can. Scary times.

    I had seen so little of the whole. I didn't see a great deal of World War II—one landing out of a hundred, a few separated times of combat, a few thousand dead out of millions—but I saw enough and felt enough to believe war was no stranger. So here—a little episode, a few people, but the breath of fear was everywhere. I wanted to get away—a cowardly attitude, perhaps, but more cowardly to deny. But the people around me lived here. They accepted it as a permanent way of life, had never known it otherwise nor expected it to stop. The Cockney children in London were restless when the bombing stopped and disturbed a pattern to which they had grown accustomed. (4.4.85)

    Steinbeck associates the kind of violence and fear that surrounds the civil rights conflict with wartime, suggesting that acclimating to this kind of tension is akin to acclimating to wartime.

    I tossed about until Charley grew angry with me and told me "Ftt" several times. But Charley doesn't have our problems. He doesn't belong to a species clever enough to split the atom but not clever enough to live in peace with itself. (4.4.86)

    Once again, Steinbeck uses Charley as an important focal point in critiquing human beings. He makes a compelling point: Charley might be a dog, but at least he hasn't made the catastrophic mistake of unleashing devastating technology in a non-peaceful world. Hmm, good point

  • Literature and Writing

    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)

    Steinbeck has apparently always had an irresistible urge to travel and be out there learning. Although he doesn't specifically mention writing, his thirst to explore is definitely about his projects and mission as a writer.

    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)

    There you have it: this whole writing project is about making sure Steinbeck has legit American author status—and how can you have that without having explored America recently? That's Steinbeck's perspective, at least, so that's why he's hitting the road.

    I wondered how in hell I'd got myself mixed up in a project that couldn't be carried out. It was like starting to write a novel. When I face the desolate impossibility of writing five hundred pages a sick sense of failure falls on me and I know I can never do it. This happens every time. Then gradually I write one page and then another. One day's work is all I can permit myself to contemplate and I eliminate the possibility of ever finishing. So it was now, as I looked at the bright-colored projection of monster America. (2.1.31)

    Steinbeck definitely dips into reflections about writing and authorship throughout the story, and this is just one example of his musings on the subject. There's some good advice in here, Shmoopers—sometimes you just have to take writing a bite at a time until you get to a whole product (but just remember to outline first, if we're talking about an essay).

    Sunday, January 29, 1961. Yes, Joseph Addison, I hear and I will obey within Reason, for it appears that the Curiosity you speak of has in no Way abated. I have found many Readers more interested in what I wear than in what I think, more avid to know how I do it than in what I do. In regarding my Work, some Readers profess greater Feeling for what it makes than for what it says. Since a Suggestion from the Master is a Command not unlike Holy Writ, I shall digress and comply at the same Time. (2.1.122)

    Because he admires Joseph Addison, who thought it was important to come out with who you are as an author right off the bat, Steinbeck decides to follow suit and give us some deets about who he is. The thing is, he doesn't actually tell us anything important about who he is inside. It's primarily about how he looks, how tall he is in comparison to other family members—that kind of stuff. But hey, it's what he thinks the public wants to know, we guess.

    Thus far with Addison's injunction, but my Reader has me back in that New Hampshire picnic place. As I sat there fingering the first volume of The Spectator and considering how the mind usually does two things at once that it knows about and probably several it doesn't, a luxurious car drove in and a rather stout and bedizened woman released a rather stout and bedizened Pomeranian of the female persuasion. (2.1.125)

    Steinbeck is really good at toggling from lofty and fancy-sounding thoughts to pretty ridiculous topics, and this is a prime example. And so, all his deep thoughts about writing and keeping himself honest and transparent as an author give way to the tyranny of a "bedizened Pomeranian."

    On the long journey doubts were often my companions. I've always admired those reporters who can descend on an area, talk to key people, ask key questions, take samplings of opinions, and then set down an orderly report very like a road map. What I set down here is true until someone else passes that way and rearranges the world in his own style. In literary criticism the critic has no choice but to make over the victim of his attention into something the size and shape of himself. (2.3.61)

    Now we're back to pretty insightful musings about writing and how an author can shape the "truth" that s/he presents to readers. Of course, we know that Steinbeck did not stick to the literal truth as often as people might have originally assumed when he wrote Travels with Charley, and this little "Well, what is truth anyway?" speech might be a little wink in that direction, no?

    Joe and I flew home to America in the same plane, and on the way he told me about Prague, and his Prague had no relation to the city I had seen and heard. It just wasn't the same place, and yet each of us was honest, neither one a liar, both pretty good observers by any standard, and we brought home two cities, two truths. For this reason I cannot commend this account as an America that you will find. So much there is to see, but our morning eyes describe a different world than do our afternoon eyes, and surely our wearied evening eyes can report only a weary evening world. (2.3.62)

    Of course, John, we might also find a different America because you made a lot of what you encountered up, but sure—the larger point stands: two different people on the same trip will likely have completely different experiences. So, again, truth is relative, according to Steinbeck.

    So it went on—a profession older than writing and one that will probably survive when the written word has disappeared. And all the sterile wonders of movies and television and radio will fail to wipe it out—a living man in communication with a living audience. (3.3.109)

    While he was camping out, Steinbeck meets an actor who told him a lot about his life in the theater and "the profession." Apparently, Steinbeck thinks that his kind of art will outlast written expression, even with film and TV taking over.

    The road surface tore viciously at my tires and made Rocinante's overloaded springs cry with anguish. What a place for a colony of troglodytes, or better, of trolls. And here's an odd thing. Just as I felt unwanted in this land, so do I feel a reluctance in writing about it. (3.4.6)

    Steinbeck reflects that, because he was uncomfortable while driving through the Bad Lands (at least, at first), it's hard for him to even write about his observations from that time. Some authors gravitate toward what makes them uncomfortable (and hey, if Steinbeck's nuke references are any indication, he's perhaps one of them), but there's something about feeling unwelcome in a place that shuts down Steinbeck's writerly impulses.

    Writers facing the problem of Texas find themselves floundering in generalities, and I am no exception. Texas is a state of mind. Texas is an obsession. (4.1.3)

    Steinbeck spends a truly remarkable amount of time talking about Texas. Compared to other places, it gets a lot of airtime. Despite saying that he can only talk in generalities, he actually gives us a fair amount of historical detail. But that said, the basic point is that Texas is so huge (both geographically and, it seems, as an idea) that it's hard for any writer to wrap his or her head around it.

  • Truth

    Oh, we can populate the dark with horrors, even we who think ourselves informed and sure, believing nothing we cannot measure or weigh. I knew beyond all doubt that the dark things crowding in on me either did not exist or were not dangerous to me, and still I was afraid. I thought how terrible the nights must have been in a time when men knew the things were there and were deadly. But no, that's wrong. If I knew they were there, I would have weapons against them, charms, prayers, some kind of alliance with forces equally strong but on my side. Knowing they were not there made me defenseless against them and perhaps more afraid. (2.3.2)

    In Steinbeck's view, even things that you know aren't real can be pretty scary—apparently because, even if you "know" they aren't there, they still might be there and, if so, you'll be defenseless against them. Really, this is just an example of how the mind can spiral in isolation, right?

    On the long journey doubts were often my companions. I've always admired those reporters who can descend on an area, talk to key people, ask key questions, take samplings of opinions, and then set down an orderly report very like a road map. What I set down here is true until someone else passes that way and rearranges the world in his own style. In literary criticism the critic has no choice but to make over the victim of his attention into something the size and shape of himself. (2.3.61)

    As we've already discussed elsewhere, Steinbeck played a bit fast and loose with the truth in this "travelogue," and his musings about truth (and whether it's possible to convey and embody it in writing) might represent a wink wink moment, a kind of nudge toward not really thinking about what Steinbeck writes in terms of strict notions of truth and fiction.

    Joe and I flew home to America in the same plane, and on the way he told me about Prague, and his Prague had no relation to the city I had seen and heard. It just wasn't the same place, and yet each of us was honest, neither one a liar, both pretty good observers by any standard, and we brought home two cities, two truths. For this reason I cannot commend this account as an America that you will find. So much there is to see, but our morning eyes describe a different world than do our afternoon eyes, and surely our wearied evening eyes can report only a weary evening world. (2.3.62)

    Again, we've definitely covered this general topic elsewhere (and this specific quote in "Literature and Writing"), but basically truth is kind of a relative, situational, subjective thing for Steinbeck, and he just doesn't think that two people can necessarily come up with a consistent "truth" about a place. That said, it doesn't mean someone is lying or anything—different people just have different experiences at different times.

    It is the nature of a man as he grows older, a small bridge in time, to protest against change, particularly change for the better. But it is true that we have exchanged corpulence for starvation, and either one will kill us. The lines of change are down. We, or at least I, can have no conception of human life and human thought in a hundred years or fifty years. Perhaps my greatest wisdom is the knowledge that I do not know. The sad ones are those who waste their energy in trying to hold it back, for they can only feel bitterness in loss and no joy in gain. (2.5.53)

    In addition to disavowing any ability to convey the truth of a place or event, Steinbeck basically says it's impossible to even know the truth behind certain things. Real power and wisdom, he suggests, comes from just admitting that you don't know everything. Hey, we appreciate that—because admitting you don't know is the first step toward learning, right?

    He drove ahead of me in the jeep and helped me find a level place in the pine grove. And after dark he came into Rocinante and admired her facilities and we drank some whisky together and had a nice visit and told each other a few lies. (2.5.79)

    Steinbeck makes it sound like telling "a few lies" is just part of norming bonding behavior between strangers. Yes, as long as you're not in a courtroom or a police station, and those strangers aren't lawyers or policemen...

    And I found with joy that the fact of Fargo had in no way disturbed my mind's picture of it. I could still think of Fargo as I always had—blizzard-riven, heat blasted, dust-raddled. I am happy to report that in the war between reality and romance, reality is not the stronger. (3.3.10)

    Unfortunately, Steinbeck got a not-so-nice surprise when he finally got to visit Fargo, ND, and discovered it wasn't really like his childhood fantasies of the place. However, since he has that nifty belief in the power of fiction and the relative uselessness of truth, you probably won't be surprised to hear that he comforted himself by just continuing to imagine Fargo the way he always had, regardless of what he actually saw and experienced.

    For myself, I try to keep the line open even for things I can't understand or explain, but it is difficult in this frightened time. At this moment in North Dakota I had a reluctance to drive on that amounted to fear. (3.4.2)

    Okay, good—at least now we know Steinbeck is human because he admits he's scared of what he can't understand or explain. This only seems natural, right? We like people who own up to when they don't know about something—and who are open to learning about such things, even when they're scary.

    And there is another monolithic tale which never changes. Two prospectors in partnership discover a mine of preternatural richness—of gold or diamonds or rubies. […] Sometimes in the story the survivor dies after leaving directions with his rescuers, or again he is nursed back to strength. Then a well-equipped party sets out to find the treasure, and it can never be found again. That is the invariable end of the story—it is never found again. I have heard this story many times, and it never changes. There is nourishment in the desert for myth, but myth must somewhere have its roots in reality. (3.12.20)

    Steinbeck is relaying a yarn that he's heard often over the years. Even though he seems to doubt that it's all true, he suspect that there are "roots in reality." Hey, that's kind of like this story. Sure, he might have gotten some of his dates flubbed and made dialogue up, but there are probably some "roots in reality" in a lot of his interactions and observations about the country, right?

    But if there is indeed an American image built of truth rather than reflecting either hostility or wishful thinking, what is this image? What does it look like? What does it do? If the same song, the same joke, the same style sweeps through all parts of the country at once, it must be that all Americans are alike in something. (4.2.3)

    Given that Steinbeck set out on this whole trip to try to figure out what America is, or was, it's not really surprising that he muses about what it means to try to describe one "true" America when everything (and everyone) within her borders is so different. His argument seems to be that if a song, joke, or style can have broad national appeal, there must be something that unites us—he just can't quite pinpoint what it is.

    I knew, as everyone knows, the true but incomplete statement of the problem—that an original sin of the fathers was being visited on the children of succeeding generations. I have many Southern friends, both N**** and white, many of them of superb minds and characters, and often, when not the problem but the mere suggestion of the N****-white subject has come up, I have seen and felt them go into a room of experience into which I cannot enter. (4.2.5)

    Here, it seems that the "truth" of racial inequality and its impact isn't really accessible to Steinbeck, since he hasn't lived in a context shaped by that issue. As a northerner, he believes he is barred from that kind of understanding.

  • Foreignness and "The Other"

    They should have known Charley for a French national by his manners. (2.3.34)

    Steinbeck makes friends with some French Canadians when he's up in Maine, and he implies that these French-speaking folks should have known Charley as one of their own (in a way) by his excellent manners. Sure...

    Joe and I flew home to America in the same plane, and on the way he told me about Prague, and his Prague had no relation to the city I had seen and heard. It just wasn't the same place, and yet each of us was honest, neither one a liar, both pretty good observers by any standard, and we brought home two cities, two truths. For this reason I cannot commend this account as an America that you will find. So much there is to see, but our morning eyes describe a different world than do our afternoon eyes, and surely our wearied evening eyes can report only a weary evening world. (2.3.62)

    Steinbeck reflects on how different two visitors' perspectives on a place can be. Of course, it's not just about being foreign—really, it's just about everyone being kind of different and foreign to each other, which means you're always coming at "reality" from different places. And that means that reality kind of shifts as a concept. (Deep thoughts, Shmoopers.)

    Can I then say that the America I saw has put cleanliness first, at the expense of taste? And—since all our perceptive nerve trunks including that of taste are not only perfectible but also capable of trauma—that the sense of taste tends to disappear and that strong, pungent, or exotic flavors arouse suspicion and dislike and so are eliminated? (3.3.21)

    Steinbeck observes that Americans have gotten pretty interested in sterile cleanliness, to the point where (he thinks) it's become more important than, say, taste. And that means that "exotic" things prompt "suspicion." We know he's just talking about food, but really, don't those word choices imply that this tendency is bigger than just food?

    "Oh, sure! Hardly a day goes by somebody doesn't take a belt at the Russians." For some reason he was getting a little easier, even permitted himself a chuckle that could have turned to throat-clearing if he saw a bad reaction from me.

    I asked, "Anybody know any Russians around here?"

    And now he went all out and laughed. "Course not. That's why they're valuable. Nobody can find fault with you if you take out after the Russians." (3.3.28-30)

    Ah, nothing bonds a community like identifying a common enemy to rally against, right? That seems to be what's happening in the town where the local shopkeeper avoids politics and strong opinions to avoid division, but everyone can agree on disliking the Russians.

    "Maybe everybody needs Russians. I'll bet even in Russia they need Russians. Maybe they call it Americans." (3.3.35)

    Steinbeck comments that the community-building power of a common enemy is not just visible in America. It might just be a human trait, and so the Russians probably bond over hating Americans, he muses.

    "But aren't people scared of gypsies, vagabonds, and actors?" (3.3.83)

    Steinbeck is surprised that people are so welcoming of an actor he meets while traveling about; he seems to think that the thespian would be too foreign and transient to be accepted. The actor admits that people are a little skittish at first, but he warms them up—plus, he doesn't charge that much.

    To the sequoias everyone is a stranger, a barbarian. (3.10.4)

    In a book that's pretty preoccupied with xenophobia and race-based fear and loathing, Steinbeck pauses for a sec and reminds basically everyone that, as far as the ancient trees in California are concerned, we're all interlopers (and "barbarians" too, for that matter). It kind of puts all this huffing and puffing about politics, civil rights, and what's "mine" and "yours" in a new light, huh?

    A Texan outside of Texas is a foreigner. My wife refers to herself as the Texan that got away, but that is only partly true. She has virtually no accent until she talks to a Texan, when she instantly reverts. (4.1.3)

    Although Steinbeck sees evidence of insularity throughout his trip, Texas is the only place where he outright states that a visitor is a foreigner. Hmm, it seems that people aren't kidding when they say Texas is like another country, huh?

    In Europe it is a popular sport to describe what the Americans are like. Everyone seems to know. And we are equally happy in this game. How many times have I not heard one of my fellow countrymen, after a three-week tour of Europe, describe with certainty the nature of the French, the British, the Italians, the Germans, and above all the Russians? Traveling about, I early learned the difference between an American and the Americans. (4.2.2)

    Steinbeck makes a really interesting point here: when we talk about other countries in the big picture, we talk about their people like they can all pretty much be summed up the same way. However, if you're doing this in front of a person from the country you're describing, you tend to say, "Oh, except for you." Ever have that experience? Or been on the other side of it, with people trying to generalize Americans and exempting you from the general wisdom about the U.S.? Well, it's pretty common, actually, as Steinbeck observes. It seems that human beings as groups kind of act and are similar (at least when viewed from afar), but they have a lot of particularity when, you know, you actually get to know them. There's a lesson in here somewhere about not generalizing about groups...

    Beyond my failings as a racist, I knew I was not wanted in the South. When people are engaged in something they are not proud of, they do not want witnesses. In fact, they come to believe the witness causes the trouble. (4.2.13)

    Steinbeck encounters a fair amount of suspicion in the South, since he's not from there (and, worse, he's a Yankee from New York). These are his observations on that score.

  • Change

    And I drove as quietly as I could, for on this day I intended to drive a little west and then take the long road south down the long reach of Maine. There are times that one treasures for all one's life, and such times are burned clearly and sharply on the material of total recall. I felt very fortunate that morning. (2.3.47)

    Steinbeck starts out being kind of worried about his memory. After all, this project is all about updating his fuzzy (and outdated) recall of his native land. However, apparently some things are impossible for him to forget, such as the vistas he got to gaze upon as he drove through Maine.

    I can report this because I have a map before me, but what I remember has no reference to the numbers and colored lines and squiggles. (2.3.49)

    Now Steinbeck is back to questioning his memory, suggesting that his memories bear no relationship to the orderly numbers, lines, and squiggles of the map.

    One of my purposes was to listen, to hear speech, accent, speech rhythms, overtones, and emphasis. For speech is so much more than words and sentences. I did listen everywhere. It seemed to me that regional speech is in the process of disappearing, not gone but going. Forty years of radio and twenty years of television must have this impact. (2.5.80)

    Steinbeck focuses a lot on how technology appears to be changing America, and one of the big things that disturbs him is how dialects are disappearing because of radio and television. He claims that he doesn't get to hear real regional speech pretty much until he gets into Montana.

    It is a rare house or building that is not rigged with spiky combers of the air. Radio and television speech becomes standardized, perhaps better English than we have ever used. Just as our bread, mixed and baked, packaged and sold without benefit of accident or human frailty, is uniformly good and uniformly tasteless, so will our speech become one speech. (2.5.80)

    Again, Steinbeck is worried about how a nation of rich dialects and accents will get homogenized through the influences coming into our homes through the "spiky combers of the air" (antennae). He needn't have worried about English becoming "better English than we have ever used," though. That doesn't seem to have happened.

    Of course the Deep South holds on by main strength to its regional expressions, just as it holds and treasures some other anachronisms, but no region can hold out for long against the highway, the high-tension line, and the national television. What I am mourning is perhaps not worth saving, but I regret its loss nevertheless. (2.5.81)

    Oh, right, and the highways—those are the other big villains in Steinbeck's universe, in terms of changes for the worse. Steinbeck seems to loathe highways, since they are crowded and not very scenic. He does admit that some of his resistance to change and nostalgia for the old days might not have a solid basis, but he still laments a lot of the changes that mass communication and highways have brought to America.

    It is the nature of a man as he grows older, a small bridge in time, to protest against change, particularly change for the better. But it is true that we have exchanged corpulence for starvation, and either one will kill us. The lines of change are down. We, or at least I, can have no conception of human life and human thought in a hundred years or fifty years. Perhaps my greatest wisdom is the knowledge that I do not know. The sad ones are those who waste their energy in trying to hold it back, for they can only feel bitterness in loss and no joy in gain. (2.5.53)

    Steinbeck seems to be trying hard not to be a curmudgeon about change—or, at least, to be self-aware about being a curmudgeon—but he still stands by his assertion that we've replaced certain ills or problems with new ones, like "corpulence for starvation." But he does admit that, really, at the end of the day, he doesn't really know anything about what the world will or should look like. By being humble like that, he kind of redeems himself from straight-up curmudgeon status.

    And I made some notes on a sheet of yellow paper on the nature and quality of being alone. These notes would in the normal course of events have been lost as notes are always lost, but these particular notes turned up long afterward wrapped around a bottle of ketchup and secured with a rubber band. The first note says: "Relationship of Time to Aloneness." And I remember about that. Having a companion fixes you in time and that the present, but when the quality of aloneness settles down, past, present, and future all flow together. A memory, a present event, and a forecast all equally present. (3.3.12)

    Apparently, solitude made the past, present, and future all equally available to Steinbeck; without someone to anchor you down into the present, you can just go all over the place. We suppose this is another way of saying that too much alone time can make you crazy and delusional.

    After Spokane, the danger of early snows had passed, for the air was changed and mulsed by the strong breath of the Pacific. The actual time on the way from Chicago was short, but the overwhelming size and variety of the land, the many incidents and people along the way, had stretched time out of all bearing. For it is not true that an uneventful time in the past is remembered as fast. On the contrary, it takes the time-stones of events to give a memory past dimension. Eventlessness collapses time. (3.7.13)

    Steinbeck thinks a lot about memory and how it works, and here he suggests that the more eventful a past event was, the longer that remembered time will appear to be (in the mind of the person remembering).

    This sounds as though I bemoan an older time, which is the preoccupation of the old, or cultivate an opposition to change, which is the currency of the rich and stupid. It is not so. This Seattle was not something changed that I once knew. It was a new thing. Set down there not knowing it was Seattle, I could not have told where I was. Everywhere frantic growth, a carcinomatous growth. Bulldozers rolled up the green forests and reaped the resulting trash for burning. The torn white lumber from concrete forms was piled beside gray walls. I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction. (3.7.117)

    Steinbeck defends himself against the possible charge that he just doesn't like change, claiming that he just plain doesn't like what Seattle's become—and not because he remembers the way it used to be. He claims he'd have had no idea he was in Seattle if someone had set him down there randomly, and he would have hated it just as much. So, we guess he would be okay with progress and change—if it just didn't look so much like "destruction" or general awfulness.

    Quite naturally, as we moved down the beautiful coast my method of travel was changed. Each evening I found a pleasant auto court to rest in, beautiful new places that have spring up in recent years. Now I began to experience a tendency in the West that perhaps I am too old to accept. It is the principle of do it yourself. At breakfast a toaster is on your table. You make your own toast. (3.7.120)

    Steinbeck does not like the "do it yourself" attitude that has cropped up in hotels lately, because it basically means that you don't have to interact with anyone—you can just make or get everything you need yourself. It sounds like he's finding that parts of the country have grown more impersonal, or at least, hotels in certain parts of the country have.

  • Isolation

    The morning came, a bright one with the tawny look of autumn in the sunlight. My wife and I parted very quickly, since both of us hate good-bys, and neither of us wanted to be left when the other had gone. (2.1.3)

    Even though Steinbeck signed up for this solitary (except for Charley) adventure, he sure doesn't seem to be excited about going out alone.

    She gunned her motor and exploded away for New York and I, with Charley beside me, drove Rocinante to the Shelter Island Ferry, and then to a second ferry to Greenport and a third from Orient Point to the coast of Connecticut, across Long Island Sound, for I wanted to avoid New York traffic and get well on my way. And I confess to a feeling of gray desolation. (2.1.3)

    It didn't take long for Steinbeck to start feeling kind of sad and lonely, it seems. Even though he doesn't specifically use those words, what else could it be, since he admitted parting from his wife was difficult?

    We drove on in the autumn afternoon, heading north. Because I was self-contained, I thought it might be nice if I could invite people I met along the way to my home for a drink, but I had neglected to lay in liquor. (2.1.33)

    To help offset some of the natural isolation of his project, Steinbeck quickly outfits Rocinante with a full liquor bar to help attract visitors. Because nothing says fun like going into a stranger's car to consume alcohol.

    Even the cabin was dismal and damp. I turned the gas mantle high, lit the kerosene lamp, and lighted two burners of my stove to drive the loneliness away. The rain drummed on the metal roof. (2.3.2)

    The day Steinbeck drove through Maine in the rain seemed to be particularly lonely and depressing for him. By the end, it seems like he was feeling thoroughly down and isolated, as his thoughts here can attest.

    On the long journey doubts were often my companions. (2.3.61)

    Hmm, now that does sound lonely—having only your thoughts as company is one thing, but having only your doubts sounds a lot worse.

    After the comfort and company of Chicago I had had to learn to be alone again. It takes a little time. But there on the Maple River, not far from Alice, the gift of it was coming back. (3.3.12)

    Oh, okay, so here we're getting some nice comments about solitude. Even though most of the time he's lonely, he obviously sees a purpose and a comfort in isolation, too—at least, at certain times and in certain doses.

    And I made some notes on a sheet of yellow paper on the nature and quality of being alone. These notes would in the normal course of events have been lost as notes are always lost, but these particular notes turned up long afterward wrapped around a bottle of ketchup and secured with a rubber band. The first note says: "Relationship of Time to Aloneness." And I remember about that. Having a companion fixes you in time and that the present, but when the quality of aloneness settles down, past, present, and future all flow together. A memory, a present event, and a forecast all equally present. (3.3.12)

    Here we get more musings on isolation and how it can affect someone. Apparently, in Steinbeck's view, isolation makes past, present, and future all appear to be equally present, whereas having someone around forces you just to live in the here and now.

    A number of years ago I had some experience with being alone. For two succeeding years I was alone each winter for eight months at a stretch in the Sierra Nevada mountains on Lake Tahoe. I was a caretaker on a summer estate during the winter months when it was snowed in. And I made some observations then. As the time went on I found that my reactions thickened. Ordinarily I am a whistler. I stopped whistling. I stopped conversing with my dogs, and I believe that subtleties of feeling began to disappear until finally I was on a pleasure-pain basis. Then it occurred to me that the delicate shades of feeling, of reaction, are the result of communication, and without such communication they tend to disappear. A man with nothing to say has no words.

    Of course, Steinbeck always comes back to the dangers of being too isolated. Here, he suggests that if you get too accustomed to not being around people, you lose language—and the "shades of feeling" that come as a result of communicating. So, you not only lose words, but you also lose the emotions that they express. We guess it's all an illustration of that old saying "use it or lose it."

    A little farther along I stopped at a small house, a section of war-surplus barracks, it looked, but painted white with yellow trim, and with the dying vestiges of a garden, frosted-down geraniums and a few clusters of chrysanthemums, little button things yellow and red-brown. I walked up the path with the certainty that I was being regarded from behind the white window curtains. An old woman answered my knock and gave me the drink of water I asked for and nearly talked my arm off. She was hungry to talk, frantic to talk, about her relatives, her friends, and how she wasn't used to this. For she was not a native and she didn't rightly belong here. (3.4.21)

    Steinbeck encounters a woman who apparently has become so isolated that she appears to feel unsafe even in her own home. She is basically begging Steinbeck to stay and hang out with her.

    Everything was convenient, centrally located, and lonesome. I lived in the utmost luxury. Other guests came and went silently. If one confronted them with "Good evening," they looked a little confused and then responded, "Good evening." It seemed to me that they looked at me for a place to insert a coin. (3.7.120)

    Steinbeck laments the impersonal hotel/motel culture in the West, where the "do it yourself" attitude means you can toast your own bread and basically make your own breakfast without having to ever interact with anyone. And so, when you actually try to interact with someone, they look at you like you're cray-cray. Steinbeck is not a fan.