Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

The editorial notes on this Penguin edition emphasise the prophetic nature of this memoir, written in the early 1960s when the writer was successful, well known and seeking by a journey across America some refreshment of his faculties. He does make some telling observations about consumerism and the impact of mass communications that are as valid today as they were then. Which maybe tells us something, as the world has not gone quite to hell in a hand cart as he, in his gentle and humane way, sort of predicts.

His companion is the Charley of the title, a giant French poodle and there is much to enjoy here for anyone who has a dog or even a passing interest in them. Charley acts, as Steinbeck says, as a diplomat, breaking the ice with the people he encounters and, when we reach the only dark section of the book in the racially charged melting pot of the South, acting as a cypher for the hatred that seems to seep everywhere. The dog is shaggy and sits on the front seat. Steinbeck recounts how many times he was told by white people ‘I thought you had a nigger in there.’ It is a very sharp way of putting the sad, sad situation that prevailed at the time in the context of the book overall.

The book is full of nice vignettes and Steinbeck’s style is intellectual but at the same time easy and accessible. He is relaxed about the autobiographical nature of some of what he writes, shifting easily from straightforward accounts of his domestic and family arrangements to ruminations on the Great Divide (the line of mountain ridges that divide the Atlantic east of America from the Pacific west) and the depopulation of the American west.

A nice, thought-provoking but enjoyably down home sort of book.


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