Sunday, July 5, 2015

Travels with Charley [1962]

Anyone intending to learn how a good travelogue really ought to be written, must read John Steinbeck’s delightful penultimate book Travels with Charley, published in the same year he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Laced with perceptive observations, wry humour and a disarmingly lucid style, this richly textured account of the vast expanse of land that is America evoked the suppressed travel-bug in me, and the desire to seek and to know. At the age of 58, Steinbeck, realizing that he was losing touch with his country, decided to hit the road with his “French gentleman poodle” Charley as his companion in search of America. His cross-country road trip provided a fascinating chronicle of the places, the people, the cultural shifts, the natural landscapes and the subtle connecting threads that together, through a complex equation, define a country. Endearing encounters during his journey, befuddled awareness of the growing trend towards mobile homes, the lonely lives of long-distance truckers, the funny ways in which road signs and behavioral change across state-lines – these and so much more added up to make this a quixotic socio-cultural essay by a world-weary man. The inherent selfishness, rabid consumerism, rootlessness, socio-economic gaps, and the dark undercurrents of racism that he witnessed, however, made him sad and even angry. He reserved the most eloquent sections to three states in particular – the laidback charm of Montana filled him with joy, he reminisced about his childhood in California while melancholically noticing the rampant changes that it had undergone, and he amusingly described the land of contradictions that Texas is. Though accused of fictionalization from some quarters, as renowned biographer Jay Parini aptly remarked in the preface, “It would be a mistake to take this travelogue too literally, as Steinbeck was at heart a novelist”. The book, therefore, was closer to the domain of non-fiction novel made legendary by Capote in masterful In Cold Blood, or even, for that matter, Kerouac’s fictionalized narrative of his own road trips in his iconic On the Road.

Author: John Steinbeck
Genre: Travelogue/Non-Fiction/Road Novel
Language: English
Country: US

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