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On the road with Steinbeck

Posted: October 22, 2010 11:05 a.m.
Updated: October 25, 2010 5:00 a.m.

Last week we talked about John Steinbeck’s 1960 journey across America. Today I’ll share a few stories about the months-long trip he took.

Steinbeck, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Grapes of Wrath” and many more novels, left his Long Island, N. Y. home 50 years ago this month in a pickup camper he named Rocinante, after the horse owned by Don Quixote in Cervantes’ book of the same name.

Traveling with his big black poodle, Charley, Steinbeck put his experiences together in “Travels With Charley,” one of the first great American travel books. That was, of course, in an era before such wayfaring books showed up in stores on almost a weekly basis.

Steinbeck set out to discover an America from which he felt increasingly isolated. He did so in a more innocent time, when a man in a camper could merely pull off the road into a parking lot and sleep safely, or nose his little rig into a bluff high above a river without fear of being run off by a suspicious property owner.

In planning for his journey, Steinbeck decided he “had to be self-contained, a kind of casual turtle carrying his house on his back.” Thus the camper.

As the day of departure approached, Steinbeck began to fear that at 58 he might be too old to attempt such a marathon. Amid doctors’ lectures about the dangers of such a journey, he reflected, “I had seen so many (aging men) begin to pack their lives in cotton wool, smother their impulses, hood their passions and gradually retire from their manhood into a kind of spiritual and physical semi-invalidism. In this they are encouraged by their wives and relatives, and it’s such a sweet trap.”

And so, avoiding such pitfalls, Steinbeck set out.

In Vermont, only days into his trip, he stopped on a Sunday morning to attend church, noting that in large cities, it had become the practice to determine that sins aren’t really sins at all but accidents set in motion by forces beyond people’s controls.

The Vermont preacher set that straight.

 “A man of iron with tool-steel eyes and a delivery like a pneumatic drill,” Steinbeck wrote of the clergyman, “he opened up with prayer and reassured us we were a pretty sorry lot. Then, having softened us up, he went into a glorious sermon, a fire-and-brimstone sermon. He painted with cool certainty what was likely to happen to us.

 “He spoke of hell as an expert, not the mush-mush hell of these soft days, but a well-stoked, white-hot hell served by technicians of the first order.”

Thus chastised, and feeling the better for it, Steinbeck moved on.

In Maine, he stopped to ask directions of a state trooper who seemed perfectly civil but gave all his directional advice by pointing.

 “I’ve always heard,” Steinbeck wrote, “that Maine people are rather taciturn, but for this candidate for Mount Rushmore to point twice in one afternoon was to be unbearably talkative. If the afternoon had not been advancing I would have tried for a word from him even if doomed to failure.”

Heading through the Midwest, he mourned the homogenization of the country and the disappearance of regional accents. “With (the loss of) local accent will disappear local tempo,” he wrote. “The idioms, the figures of speech that make language rich and full of the poetry of place and time must go. And in their place with be a national speech, wrapped and packaged, standard and tasteless.”

Steinbeck would find one region still rich in local dialect and idioms – the South. He would celebrate the people of our region, but his accounts of the racism he encountered are painful to read, primarily because in the days of the Jim Crow South – this was 1960, which seems an entire world away – they were true.

I could go on and on, but my space is limited. Nobody wrote novels like Steinbeck did, and he proved himself just as adept in recounting a journey across America.

 “Travels With Charley” is quite a trip, for the reader as well as the author.

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