Travels with Charley in Search of America
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An intimate journey across America, as told by one of its most beloved writers
To hear the speech of the real America, to smell the grass and the trees, to see the colors and the light—these were John Steinbeck's goals as he set out, at the age of fifty-eight, to rediscover the country he had been writing about for so many years.
With Charley, his French poodle, Steinbeck drives the interstates and the country roads, dines with truckers, encounters bears at Yellowstone and old friends in San Francisco. Along the way he reflects on the American character, racial hostility, the particular form of American loneliness he finds almost everywhere, and the unexpected kindness of strangers.
“Heating. ” After a minute a red light flashes on and off until you open a little door and remove the paper cup of boiling-hot soup. It is life at a peak of some kind of civilization. The restaurant accommodations, great scallops of counters with simulated leather stools, are as spotless as and not unlike the lavatories. Everything that can be captured and held down is sealed in clear plastic. The food is oven-fresh, spotless and tasteless; untouched by human hands. I remembered with an ache
everybody slept, grandpa, father, and all the kids, no place to read, no place to be alone, and never had had. Was that better? I bet if you gave my old man the choice he’d cut his roots and live like this.” He waved his hands at the comfortable room. “Fact is, he cut his roots away and came to America. Then he lived in a tenement in New York—just one room, walk-up, cold water and no heat. That’s where I was born and I lived in the streets as a kid until my old man got a job upstate in New York
beside my shop. That way I would have a bell and give twenty-four-hour service.” “Sounds like a good deal,” I said. And it does. “Best thing about it,” Joe went on, “if business fell off, why, I’d just move on where it was good.” His wife said, “Joe’s got it all worked out on paper where everything’s going to go, every wrench and drill, even an electric welder. Joe’s a wonderful welder.” I said, “I take back what I said, Joe. I guess you’ve got your roots in a grease pit.” “You could do
impossible. It is a rare house or building that is not rigged with spiky combers of the air. Radio and television speech becomes standardized, perhaps better English than we have ever used. Just as our bread, mixed and baked, packaged and sold without benefit of accident or human frailty, is uniformly good and uniformly tasteless, so will our speech become one speech. I who love words and the endless possibility of words am saddened by this inevitability. For with local accent will disappear
but at least anything that can happen to it has, and there’s no worrying. For a week our host had noted where the coveys were gathering. We spread out and moved through brush and thicket, down into water, out, and up, while the spring-steel pointers worked ahead of us and a fat old bitch pointer named Duchess with flame in her eyes outworked them all, and us too. We found quail tracks in the dust, quail tracks in the sand and mud of stream beds, bits of quail-feather fluff in the dry tips of the