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May 14, 2007 | by  | in Books |
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Travels with Charley – In Search of America

America is nothing if not an enigmatic place – the people, culture and government, the vast size and landscape;,the stunning diversity (and equally amazing uniformity) and all of the contradictions these things encompass will no doubt continue to inspire writers and artists for many years yet.

Before Jonathan Franzen and Bill Bryson tried to discover what the place was all about, John Steinbeck was putting some serious thought into the question.

At the age of 58, Steinbeck had decided that he had lost contact with his country. Driven by his love of travelling – a love he refers to as akin to an obsession or disease – he set out across 38 states in a camper van (which he named Rocinante), accompanied only by his French poodle, Charles le Chien (Charley).

Over several months in 1960, he wandered from Maine to California – through the Deep South and across the plains lying beneath the massive skies of Montana. Along the way, he recorded his meetings and conversations, his thoughts and reflections, and his ideas about what makes America what it is.

Put simply, Travels with Charley is a brilliant piece of writing. The ease with which it is read belies the beauty of Steinbeck’s use of language, and – despite wanting to savour every line – I read the book in about a day (and then read through most of it a second time).

I find that travel writing often descends into repetitive and disjointed episodes (“And then I did this. And then I did that”), reminiscent of listening to somebody talk about their holiday snapshots. Unsurprisingly, Steinbeck evades this trap with ease. The humour, sensitivity, and passion with which he approaches his subject all set the book apart from other explorations of the USA.

Travels with Charley is a classic that I’ve always felt is unfairly overshadowed by Steinbeck’s more famous works and, although the journey it depicts was taken in the 1960’s, many of the observations are still interesting and relevant today.

JOHN STEINBECK

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