Books on Tap met virtually to discuss Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck. In 1960 Steinbeck loaded up a trailer he named Rocinante (after Don Quixote’s horse) and his poodle Charley and circumnavigated the US. Nearing the end of his life, he wanted to see for himself what modern Americans were like. Along the way, he ruminates about social, racial and environmental changes. Charley both provides structure to Steinbeck’s days and is an ambassador to the folks they meet.
Most book club members had read at least one book by Steinbeck and enjoyed this one. It has been criticized for being fictionalized but our readers didn’t expect it to be the definitive travelogue. The country is too big with too many cultures for any one story to encompass it. However, Steinbeck introduces us to characters (who may or may not have been composites) who feel genuine and who illuminate mid-century American worries. Each of us could point to one, like the hairdresser or traveling salesmen, who made a lasting impression. Some of us thought Steinbeck gave himself too much credit for “discovering” the extent of pollution and racism, but perhaps this was a useful window for his intended white, middle-class readers.
One book club member called the book a snapshot and argued that it could have been even shorter. In fact, Steinbeck himself seems burned-out halfway through the trip, which we related to. It offered us both a way to travel while staying at home and brought up issues that are still relevant sixty years later.
Books on Tap will meet again on January 7th via Zoom. For the link, please contact Krista Farrell (kfarrell at jmrl dot org). We’ll be reading In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides, which the library owns in multiple formats. Email Sarah Hamfeldt (shamfeldt at jmrl dot org) for help accessing these titles for curbside pickup or by download.
About the author
About the novel
Interview with the author’s son about Travels with Charley
Other Works Discussed
The Truth about Travels with Charley