This book is one of the most interesting that I have read in a very long time. It is the thoughts and experiences of one of America’s greatest authors, John Steinbeck, as he travels across the United States with his dog, Charley. He begins his travels from his home in New York, driving across the northern half of the country on his way to his childhood home in California. In his journey back east, he travels the length of Texas as well as a South in the midst of desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement.
Along the way, Steinbeck experiences America through conversations with average Americans of all sorts. His focus throughout the book is largely upon these conversations and the impressions they make upon him as well as the insights they grant him into what makes America and its people unique and what binds them together.
I found the second half of the book, which features his travels through Texas and the Deep South, the most interesting. It is here, as Steinbeck sees the Civil Rights Movement and the South’s racial attitudes first hand, that we get to see Steinbeck at his best, both in his ability to empathize with black and white in the South, to see the complexities of the situation. Rather than reducing the South and its relationship to race to simple assertions of good vs. evil, Steinbeck sees the human element throughout and allows the reader to see it as well.
Although it is now 50 years old, the America that this book shows remains largely the same in spirit and substance. Travels with Charley is essential reading for anyone looking for the meaning of America.
There are a number of important and interesting themes that run throughout Steinbeck’s classic work. While each deserves a great deal of attention, I will, in this review, provide just a few meditations upon one element which stood out to me as predominant.
This element is the theme of the desire to establish existence through procuring a permanent identity. Curly’s wife, for example, is consistently referred to merely as “Curly’s wife” rather than by her actual name, thereby denying her an existent independent of Curly through an individual identity. Her dreams of establishing such an identity, making a name for herself so to speak, through becoming a movie star, are dashed by her marriage to Curly. The result is that she is a figure of the devil. She has become one without existence properly speaking who seeks to lure others into the realm of non-existence.
The same theme is present in the association between the dog, who will leave no legacy, and the various men, each of whom will leave behind nothing of lasting significance in this world. The only one who does, who has a letter published in a magazine, does not himself appear in the novel and may be altogether unaware of his lasting significance, thereby himself being denied the ability to establish a permanent identity.
The pairing of George and Lennie, of course, is the example of inability to establish identity par excellence. Their ultimate desire is to own a piece of land, to have a piece of the earth which is theirs, a permanent establishment through which to derive selfhood. Lennie, however, may be the exception to the rule in his driving desire for passing pleasures which lead inevitably to the destruction of each thing from which he derives pleasure.
As I said, this, as well as many other themes in this short novel, deserve a great deal more attention. I share my thoughts because I desire them to act as an impetus to others who have not yet read this classic novel to take it up for themselves and enjoy it as much as I have.