John Steinbeck and son John visit LBJ at the oval office in the White House, 1966
By 1960, a year that would prove to be late in his life, John Steinbeck had found he had lost touch with America. For the last couple of decades, he'd traveled in Europe and lived in New York, a place he thought "no more America than Paris is France or London is England."
A decade-and-a-half before the The New Yorker published its famous cover depicting a New Yorker’s view of the world as mostly the Avenues and a few fuzzy notions of what stretched beyond, Steinbeck knew he'd never be able to reacquaint himself with the nation whose chronicling had made him famous, clinging from his perch at the edge of the North American continent. So he packed up the camper-truck he christened Rocinante in homage to Don Quixote’s steed, cleared a bit of room for his French Poodle Charley, and headed west. He was going, as the subtitle of his travelogue Travels with Charley made clear, "in Search of America."
The idea that the true soul of America can be found in the small places of the interior provinces is an enduring, perhaps constitutional, one. It is why presidential candidates spend their first campaign dollars, raised in the gilded enclosures of the un-American metropolises, handshaking around the tiny cafés of Iowa and New Hampshire, asking about the state of the nation and meeting people who may become a backdrop to their inaugural ceremony.
Steinbeck too went out to collect information on how the everyday American was doing. He wanted to know if the "small diagnostic truths" he found would confirm the larger received truth that reached him in New York, one that resonates with those aspiring Presidents: that America was in peril.
Before Steinbeck set out he consulted with a political-reporter friend, a patriot who had been "grass-rooting with the presidential candidates."
"'If anywhere in your travels you come on a man with guts, mark that place,'" the reporter told Steinbeck. "'I haven’t seen anything but cowardice and expediency. This used to be a nation of giants…where are they?'"
Steinbeck was not one to omit critique of America's social ills from his writing. It’s a quality that some critics, arguing he too easily slips into moral polemic, feel detracts from his work. Throughout his earlier writing, he expressed concern for social equality, regionalism, and economic justice. In his trip around America on the threshold of such a pivotal decade, he found much to worry about for the future of the country. It was a dismay that started early.
On his first day out he took Rocinante on a ferry across the Long Island Sound, where he saw the black voids of nuclear submarines slipping below the water. For Steinbeck, who had covered the Second World War for the New York Herald Tribune, the submarines were crafts "armed with mass murder, our silly, only way of deterring mass murder."
Throughout the rest of his trip, he would remark on a country where land was becoming increasingly monopolized and people were detaching themselves from permanence and moving into trailer parks, ready to flee the latest economic bust in search of the next boom. A place where the potential of nation-spanning thruways risked making it possible to drive "from New York to California without seeing a single thing." Already the thruways Steinbeck traveled on were littered with diners, universally alike and universally sparkling with plastic blandness. The roads cut, he found, across a land where, thanks to national radio and TV, everyone was starting to sound the same.
"I can remember a time when I could almost pinpoint a man's place of origin by his speech. That is growing more difficult now and will in some foreseeable future become impossible," he wrote. "Communications must destroy localness."
Much of what Steinbeck saw, of what made him hold America's future in suspicion, were the tribulations of social change. In one of the book's most vivid scenes, he passes through New Orleans during desegregation to see the "Cheerleaders," protesters who spewed hate at the schoolchildren walking into their newly integrated school. In his travels in the South, Steinbeck had discovered a phenomenon of people with whom he'd had casual interactions -- gas-station and parking-lot attendants -- who slurred that on first glance they'd thought Charley, perched on the passenger seat, was a black man.
Yet it wasn't just the Cheerleaders' vociferous racism that disturbed Steinbeck. What he said he found supremely nauseating was the realization that they were spectacle.
"This was theater. I watched the intent faces of the listening crowd and they were the faces of an audience. When there was applause, it was for a performer," he wrote. Once all the schoolchildren had passed through the hecklers' gauntlet into their classrooms "the crowd, no doubt, rushed home to see themselves on television, and what they saw went out all over the world, unchallenged by other things I knew are there."
A couple of decades later, the French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard would take a similar trip through America and conclude that like the country's cities, which had been so reengineered for the freeway that they came to seem built for it, the screen had caused an equally total transformation of American reality.
"It was there before the screen was invented, but everything about the way it is today suggests it was invented with the screen in mind, that it is the refraction of a giant screen…the screen and its refraction are fundamental determinants of everyday events."
If America, especially the American interior, is meant to be broadcast, what are we to make of the reality from those who broadcast it? Certainly the realities reported back by the political candidates are plural and conflictual. So what to believe? For Steinbeck the answer was that that reality is subjective.
"This monster of a land, this mightiest of nations, this spawn of the future, turns out to be the macrocosm of microcosm me…if other Americans reading this account should feel it true, that agreement would only mean that we are alike in our Americanness," Steinbeck wrote.
Travels with Charley feels prescient and deeply true. But many have pointed out that much of it is not, at least not literally. Tracing his path, reading his correspondence, critics have found that many of the details in it simply could not have happened as Steinbeck said they happened.
But Steinbeck was, after all, setting out to create an experience that would be broadcast. Early in the book he likens the task to writing a novel. It’s something he can only do page-by-page, mile-by-mile, perched on his latter-day Rocinante, a knight-errant out testing his ideas about America.