What John Steinbeck acquired Proper, and Incorrect, About America 50 Years In the past
In September 1960, John Steinbeck decided to attach a trailer to a pickup truck, leave his New York home, and take a road trip across the United States. While preparing his mobile home – named Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse – he recalled a similar trip he had taken in 1936 when he set up a used bakery delivery truck, left his home near Monterey, California, and went into it San Joaquin Valley drove reports of desperate migrant farm workers flooding the area. That first road trip led to his first big book, The Grapes of Wrath from 1939. The second would lead to one of his last – 1962 charming, angry, and (timely) controversial trips with Charley in search of America.
As Steinbeck writes on the first pages of Charley, he missed the practical experience of experiencing the diversity of the country for himself. “I hadn’t heard America’s speech, smelled the grass, the trees and the sewage, seen the hills and the water, the color and the quality of the light,” he wrote. The impetus for Wrath was similar, but Steinbeck is difficult to make connections between experiences. For better or for worse, he has never written the same book twice. (“When the curtain rises, he always puts on a different kind of show,” wrote critic Edmund Wilson.) As William Souder writes in his beautiful new biography of Steinbeck, Mad at the World, the writer was a born adversary.
“I think a reason he left [on the Charley trip] That’s because a lot of people tried to dissuade him, ”says Souder, whose previous books include biographies of John James Audubon and Rachel Carson. Those close to him, adds Souder, “thought that he was neither physically nor emotionally capable of doing this. And of course Steinbeck always pushed himself back against someone who told him there was nothing he could do. He had an instinctive resistance to being pushed around by anyone. “
He had reasons to feel frustrated and to flee. He had worked for years on a novel based on one of his favorite childhood books, Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, but the project defeated him. The novels he completed instead – The Wayward Bus, The Winter of Our Discontents – were decidedly minor. He had suffered a stroke in late 1959. Charley would be proof that he could prevent the literary and physical decline.
Steinbeck’s two-and-a-half-month circumnavigation of the country – a 10,000-mile counterclockwise stretch accompanied by his poodle Charley – introduced him to a variety of salt-of-the-earth types. He wrote of meeting potato pickers in Maine, waitresses in Minnesota, and ranchers in Texas. But while the mood is generally upbeat – and a lot of Charley thinks Steinbeck is the funniest – there is also a slowly growing tension in the book. 1960 was an election year and he noted across the country a concern about his direction that most people could only express in private. He feared the new highways would wipe out what made the country interesting: “If we get these passages across the country, as we want and need, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing anything .” he wrote.
Charley’s climax is the darkest moment when Steinbeck visits New Orleans, where he sees white protesters opposed to school integration. He describes the self-righteous, misguided anger of the crowd in terms that could be transported 60 years into the future without changing a word, and repeats a MAGA rally today: “There was no principle good or bad, no direction”, he wrote. “They simulated in a happy, almost innocent triumph when they were applauded. Hers was the insane cruelty of self-centered children, and somehow that made their insensitive animality far more heartbreaking. These weren’t mothers, not even women. They were crazy actors playing in front of crazy audiences. “
Charley illustrated what Souder describes as Steinbeck’s lifelong frustration with the mass evil in the world, be it from exploitative landowners or Nazis or virulent, native racists. “I think what he set out and what he carried with him all his life was the idea that there is good and bad in the world, that we live in these black and white circumstances,” he says. “And that it is the responsibility of some people, whether they are a mighty knight or an American writer, to stand up for what is good or to expose what is not.”
“Steinbeck really didn’t get angry until he got to New Orleans, and anger is always the subtext for his best work,” says Souder. “I think this part of the book really reaches out and grabs you – it seems timely in the moment we live in, as does so much of its work.”
Steinbeck was a good observer of American life, but that’s not the same as saying he was a great reporter. As Souder explains, even while researching the Grapes of Anger, Steinbeck could be painfully shy and needed help getting information. “He wasn’t a fearless reporter,” he says. “He wasn’t someone who made it easy to walk up to a stranger and say, ‘I’m John Steinbeck, I’ll do this, can I talk to you?'” It’s important to know because as committed as Charley is , it’s as much fiction as fact. In 2011, a reporter, Bill Steigerwald, noted that Steinbeck spent more time in hotels than Rocinante, was often accompanied by his wife Elaine, and likely invented many of the characters he met along the way. (The 50th anniversary edition of the book added a note that Steinbeck “took liberties with the facts”.)
However, if there were any questions about Charley’s authenticity at the time, they evaporated when Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in Literature a few months after the book was published. The question of whether Steinbeck deserved the award haunted him until his death in 1968, and Steinbeck’s reputation is shaky to this day – Wrath is an undoubtedly great novel, but also a sentimental one, and his moral vision could be simplistic. (For his part, Steinbeck dismissed his critics as “the gray priesthood that defines literature and has little to do with reading.”) “The complaint against Steinbeck was that he might have been the William Faulkner of California, someone who was writing again and again about the same culture and the same environment, ”says Souder. “But he was kind of a relentless experimenter.”
Had all this reinvention taken its toll? Despite his obvious successes, did his mistakes nag him? In Charley there is a lovely, melancholy set piece that establishes the book as, if not as an accurate representation of America, at least as a fascinating projection of its author. When he arrives in Chicago tired, he goes to a hotel – his reserved room is not ready, but he got another one that has just been vacated. He imagines the previous resident, a “lonely Harry” – a businessman who misses his wife but has a girlfriend out of town. He drank a lot, but tried to keep his life in order. “He didn’t do anything that couldn’t be predicted,” wrote Steinbeck. “Didn’t break a glass or a mirror, cause outrage, leave no physical evidence of joy.” Alone in a room with an imaginary person on the street in the middle of America, he wrote about his deepest worries for his country, but also for himself.