Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck
I have been reading John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, In Search of America (1962). Charley was Steinbeck’s standard poodle and companion. The America Steinbeck was in search of was the one he thought he had forgotten through years in New York City. He had written Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, East of Eden, etc., won the Pulitzer Prize and, in 1962, the Nobel Prize for Literature, following in the line of Sinclair Lewis (1930) and Ernest Hemingway (1954). Steinbeck was a novelist of place and a spiritual writer. He would not have set out on a pilgrimage in a pick-up camper (an unusual rig in those days) in search of America if he had not been both of those things. He was searching for his place. My son, Matt, said that Steinbeck knew he was dying when he set out across the country with his poodle. Near the end of the book Steinbeck returns to his native California. He climbs Freemont Peak, overlooking the Salinas Valley and Monerey Bay. The section surrounding his home place is abbreviated as if going deeper would require more energy and pain than the older writer had.
In a flurry of nostalgic spite, I have done the Monterey Peninsula a disservice. It is a beautiful place, clean, well run, and progressive…The place of my origin had changed, and having gone away I had not changed with it. In my memory it stood as it once did and its outward appearance confused and angered me…I remembered how once, in that part of youth that is deeply concerned with death, I wanted to be buried on this peak where without eyes I could see everything I knew and loved, for in those days there was no world beyond the mountains. And I remembered how intensely I felt about my interment. It s strange and perhaps fortunate that when one’s time grows nearer one’s interest in it flags as death becomes a fact rather than a pageantry. pp. 156 ff.
Steinbeck died in December 1968. His ashes were interred in the family plot in Salinas, California.
More quotations from Travels with Charley will appear here presently.