Closer Readings Commentary

Traveling with John Steinbeck—and Charley!

“I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation—a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any Here. They spoke quietly of how they wanted to go someday, to move about, free and unanchored, not toward something but away from something. I saw this look and heard this yearning everywhere in every state I visited. Nearly every American hungers to move.” —John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

Summer 1960. JKF was running for President. Vietnam was a little-known country in Asia. “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-dot Bikini” was at the top of the pop music charts. Harper Lee had just published To Kill a Mockingbird. Ernest Hemingway graced the cover of Life magazine. Eisenhower had signed The Civil Rights Act of 1960 in an effort to halt discrimination in voter registration. I was taking my first steps.

America drifted along making its daily rounds in a somnolent state, blissfully unaware of the coming upheavals that tumultuous decade would bring—ripping apart the seams of our national garment. 

Early that September in a quiet corner of a Long Island, New York, fishing village world-famous novelist John Steinbeck was busy with a new project—fitting a truck with a custom-made trailer (appropriately nicknamed “Rocinante”) in preparation for a road trip cross country.

Anyone who has undertaken a solo trip across this great land will appreciate the planning that goes into it and what anxiety it brings. Steinbeck was no different. At 58, he had been out of the literary limelight for a number of years and his health was failing. He felt he had lost touch with the American spirit that he had so aptly captured in his novels. This trip would be a way to reacquaint himself with the land and reconnect with its people—a last hurrah!

Right before he left, Steinbeck decided to take his adorable French poodle, Charley, along for the ride. Charley would provide needed company on the long stretches between stops. In the course of the trip, Charley served as a helpmate and humorous foil to his owner’s soulfulness—a canine Sancho Panza to Steinbeck’s Don Quixote.

The resulting account was published in 1962 as Travels with Charley: In Search of America. This work is listed as a Common Core State Standard informational exemplar text for grades 6–8. Here are some suggestions for ways it may be used by teachers in secondary English Language Arts curriculum.

In recent years articles have been written examining the veracity of Travels with Charley, questioning if this work should rightly be classified nonfiction, since it may not strictly conform to the actual itinerary that Steinbeck followed and may expound on certain situations. Steinbeck scholar, Susan Shillinglaw, is quoted in a New York Times article, saying, “Any writer has the right to shape materials, and undoubtedly Steinbeck left things out. That doesn’t make the book a lie.” The National Steinbeck Center classifies this text as “creative nonfiction.”

Teachers may want to delve into this aspect of the narrative, using it to discuss the somewhat blurry line that exists between fiction and nonfiction. Ask students to consider where does one end and the other begin? Where do they intersect? Should they be kept separate more strictly or should there be alternative forms of classification to reflect that texts likely encompass both elements?

Travels with Charley was not Steinbeck’s first travelogue. He had produced a log of his trip across the Sea of Cortez two decades earlier. Tracking Steinbeck provides an original series of short video clips featuring a discussion of various influences that expedition had on his later masterwork, The Grapes of Wrath. Teachers may want to undertake a comparative study of the two travel narratives as a way to help students arrive at an understanding of Steinbeck’s unique voice and world view, and to consider how each travel experience reflected the state of the America at the time it was undertaken, 1940 and 1960, respectively.

Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, appears on the list of CCSS fictional exemplar texts for grades 9–10, yet it also contains nonfictional elements. The following suite of resources serve as entry points to that text, and they can be used to work through comparisons with Travels with Charley.

Steinbeck’s Use of Nonfiction Sources in The Grapes of Wrath illustrates how John Steinbeck drew upon and transformed Tom Collins’s Arvin migrant camp reports into narrative elements in The Grapes of Wrath. This lesson shows how Steinbeck’s commitment to write the novel evolved out of experiences “on the road.” 

Compare the actual road trip in Travels with Charley with the Joads’ fictional road trip to California in The Grapes of Wrath. Look at the similarities and differences in landscape, experiences, characters encountered along the way, etc. Teachers may ask students to consider the inherent differences between a trip that serves as a reflective experience and a trip that serves as a means for survival.

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath: The Inner Chapters is two books in one. One half tells the story of the Joads, while the other half tells the story of nameless people. John Steinbeck employed inner chapters and placed them intermittently between the narrative Joad chapters in The Grapes of Wrath.

Compare how Steinbeck configures the textual structure of Travels with Charley with The Grapes of Wrath. Consider how he orders events, what he leaves out and what he puts in, and what effect these choices have on the reader.

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath: Verbal Pictures shows how Steinbeck’s impressions of 1930s FSA photographs were transformed into journalistic and then literary pictorial prose. The similarity between Steinbeck’s prose and this style of photography, including Dorothea Lange’s images, reflects the author’s “sharp, detailed focus upon ‘the little picture’ ‘within’ the large picture.” Steinbeck’s writing also mirrored the photographic images from newspaper accounts of the day.

Teachers may ask students to take a key scene in Travels with Charley and observe how Steinbeck produces a verbal snapshot within the larger framework of the national scene in 1960s America. Then compare how Steinbeck works that same magic in a chapter from The Grapes of Wrath. Teachers may ask students to look back to newspaper articles and illustrations from the early 1960s to determine if Steinbeck’s prose in Travels with Charley reflects that record.