In 1939 John Steinbeck won The National Book Award for The Grapes of Wrath, a truly American novel. But about two decades later he felt that he had lost touch with his country. He wrote “I, an American writer, writing about America, was working from memory, and the memory is at best a faulty, warpy reservoir… I had not felt the country for twenty five years…So it was that I determined to look again, to try to rediscover this monster land.”
It was 1960, a time before the elaborate campers and motor homes we have today, but Steinbeck had an idea. He wrote to the head of a truck manufacturing company and specified his needs. He wanted a sturdy three-quarter-ton pick-up truck with a “little house” built on the back.
And in this “rig” he would take to the road, in search of America.
On the side of the camper, in sixteenth century Spanish script, Steinbeck painted the name, Rocinante. This was the name of Don Quixote’s horse, which he rode on his great quest. And so John Steinbeck set out on his own great quest.
And just as Don Quixote took faithful Sancho Panza as his traveling companion, John Steinbeck chose his own traveling companion with care. He would travel with “an old French gentleman poodle known as Charley…He is a very big poodle, of a color called bleu, and he is blue when he is clean…If he occurs at length in this account, it is because he contributed much to the trip. A dog, particularly an exotic like Charley, is a bond between strangers. Many conversations en route began with ‘What degree of a dog is that?’ ”
And Charley was indeed the ice-breaker in many conversations with people they met over the next three months, as the exotic dog and his master traveled more than ten thousand miles through thirty-four states.
Our family read this book for the first time about 15 years ago, and it gave us the dream of taking our own Rocinante Trip some day. Steinbeck talks about this; the longing he saw on the faces of so many people he met on his journey. So many people with a desire to get up and go. Somewhere. Anywhere. The Paladini Rocinante trip is still being planned, and still far in the future, but in the meantime it has been fun to travel again with Steinbeck and Charley, through the pages of their journey across America.
From their home in Long Island they headed north just after Labor Day, traveling through the beautiful New England fall colors. Then, avoiding major freeways, they drove across the northern states towards Oregon, and turned south to follow the coast down to Salinas, where Steinbeck grew up. John and I listened to the audio book recently, and John said he felt sad when finally, leaving California, Steinbeck turned east and headed homeward across the southern states. My husband had been so involved with the story that he personally felt the journey was coming to a close.
It would be hard for me to say what part of the book was my favourite. The last time I read it I put at least twenty pink stickies on pages to mark passages I like. But there were even more than that.
The book is filled with really lovely stories about the people Steinbeck met along the way, and although not all of the people were lovely, every story has a point.
But not only does Steinbeck share personal experiences related to the people he met, but the book is full of thought-provoking essays about intangible things, both serious and funny.
Describing the various states, their nicknames, and their highway signs, Steinbeck writes: “We know, of course, that each of our states is an individual and proud of it. Not content with their names, they take descriptive titles also – The Empire State, the Garden State, the Granite State – titles proudly born and little given to understatement. But now for the first time I became aware that each state has also its individual prose style, made sharply evident in its highway signs. Crossing state lines one is aware of this change of language. The New England states use a terse form of instruction, a tight-lipped, laconic style sheet, wasting no words and few letters. New York State shouts at you the whole time. Do this. Do that. Squeeze left. Squeeze right. Every few feet an imperious command. In Ohio the signs are more benign. They offer friendly advice, and are more like suggestions. Some states use a turgid style which can get you lost with the greatest ease…Nearly all have abandoned the adverb for the adjective. Drive Slow. Drive Safe.”
There’s also a wonderful monologue – I guess it was actually a dialogue since he was probably having a discussion with Charley. He took some pages wondering about what people think about when they drive? I’ve never really thought about what I think about when I drive. But it made me think.
He talks about immigration, taxes, labor unions, politics, and law-enforcement. To name a few. In the South he meets head on, the issue of civil rights; which was red hot when this book was written.
Throughout the book he does quite a bit of lamenting about the so-called “progress” of super-highways, automation, and all the plastic-wrapped self-service that had come on the scene in the last twenty five years. I had to laugh at that. Since the book was published 50 years ago some of his commentary was, shall we say, dated. Here in 2012 I find myself thinking, “I wonder what Steinbeck would say if he could see the way it is today?”
But whether his comments were dated or timeless, the book itself is timeless and classic. Steinbeck went “in search of America” and he captured it!