What John Steinbeck Got Right — And Wrong — About America 50 Years Ago

A talk with the Nobel Prize winner's biographer about the writer's 1960 drive across the country

October 19, 2020 6:00 am
John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck as a young man.
Corbis via Getty Images

In September 1960, John Steinbeck decided to hitch a trailer to a pickup truck, leave his home in New York, and take a road trip around the United States. As he prepped his RV — nicknamed Rocinante, after Don Quixote’s horse — he recalled a similar trip he had taken in 1936, when he rigged a used bakery delivery truck, left his home near Monterey, California, and headed to the San Joaquin Valley to report on the desperate migrant farm workers flooding the region. That first road trip resulted in his first major book, 1939’s The Grapes of Wrath. The second would lead to one of his last — 1962’s charming, angry and (in time) controversial Travels With Charley in Search of America.

As Steinbeck writes in the opening pages of Charley, he missed the hands-on experience of witnessing the diversity of the country for himself. “I had not heard the speech of America, smelled the grass and trees and sewage, seen its hills and water, its color and quality of light,” he wrote. The impetus for Wrath was similar, but drawing connections between experiences is a tricky business with Steinbeck. For both better and worse, he never wrote the same book twice. (“When his curtain goes up, he always puts on a different kind of show,” the critic Edmund Wilson wrote.) As William Souder writes in his fine new biography of Steinbeck, Mad at the World, the novelist was a born contrarian. 

“I think one reason that he went [on the Charley trip] is because a bunch of people tried to talk him out of it,” says Souder, whose previous books include biographies of John James Audubon and Rachel Carson. Those close to him, Souder adds, “thought he wasn’t physically or emotionally up to it. And of course, Steinbeck always pushed back against anybody who told him that he couldn’t do something. He had an instinctive resistance to being pushed around by anybody.”

He had reasons to feel frustrated and eager to escape. He’d spent years working on a novel based on one of his favorite childhood books, Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, but the project defeated him. The novels he finished instead — The Wayward Bus, The Winter of Our Discontent — were decidedly minor. He’d suffered what was likely a stroke in late 1959. Charley would be proof that he could stave off literary and physical decline.

Steinbeck’s two-and-a-half-month circumnavigation of the country — a 10,000-mile counterclockwise circuit, accompanied by his poodle, Charley — introduced him to a host of salt-of-the-earth types. He wrote about meeting potato pickers in Maine, waitresses in Minnesota, ranchers in Texas. But while the mood is generally cheerful — and much of Charley finds Steinbeck at his funniest — there’s also a slow-growing tension in the book. 1960 was an election year, and he detected a low-boil anxiety around the country over its direction, something most people were comfortable expressing only in private. He feared that the new interstate highways were erasing what made the country interesting: “When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing,” he wrote.

The climax of Charley is its darkest moment, as Steinbeck visits New Orleans, where he witnesses white protesters agitating against school integration. He describes the crowd’s self-righteous, misguided anger in terms that could be transported 60 years into the future without changing a word, echoing a MAGA rally today: “Here was no principle good or bad, no direction,” he wrote. “They simpered in happy, almost innocent triumph when they were applauded. Theirs was the demented cruelty of egocentric children, and somehow this made their insensate beastliness much more heartbreaking. These were not mothers, not even women. They were crazy actors playing to a crazy audience.”

Charley exemplified what Souder describes as Steinbeck’s lifelong frustration with mass evil in the world, be it from exploitative landowners or Nazis or virulent, homegrown racists. “I think what he fixed on, and what he carried with him through his whole life, was this idea that there is good and evil in the world, that we live in this black and white circumstance,” he says. “And that it’s the responsibility of some people, whether they are a powerful knight or an American writer, to stand up for what’s good or to expose what isn’t.”

“Steinbeck really didn’t get angry until he got to New Orleans, and anger is always the subtext for his best work,” Souder says. “I think that part of the book really reaches out and grabs you — it seems timely in the moment that we’re living in, as so much of his work does.”

Steinbeck was a fine observer of American life, but that’s not the same thing as saying he was a great reporter. As Souder explains, even when Steinbeck was researching The Grapes of Wrath, he could be painfully shy and needed help getting information. “He was not an intrepid reporter,” he says. “He was not someone who was comfortable walking up to a stranger and saying, ‘I’m John Steinbeck, I’m doing this, can I talk to you?’” That’s important to know because, however engaging Charley is, it’s as much fiction as fact. In 2011 a reporter, Bill Steigerwald, found that Steinbeck spent more time in hotels than in Rocinante, was often accompanied by his wife, Elaine, and likely invented many of the characters he met on the way. (The 50th anniversary edition of the book added a note that Steinbeck “took liberties with the facts.”)

But if there were any questions about the authenticity of Charley at the time, they vaporized when Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature just months after the book was published. The question of whether Steinbeck deserved the award dogged him until his death in 1968, and Steinbeck’s reputation remains shaky to this day — Wrath is an unquestionably great novel but also a sentimental one, and his moral vision could be simplistic. (Steinbeck, for his part, dismissed his critics as “that grey priesthood which defines literature and has little to do with reading.”) “The complaint against Steinbeck was that he could have been the William Faulkner of California, somebody who just wrote again and again about the same culture and the same environment,” Souder says. “But he was a kind of relentless experimenter.”

Had all of that reinvention taken its toll? Were his failures gnawing at him, in spite of his obvious successes? There’s a pretty, melancholy set piece in Charley that establishes the book as, if not an accurate rendering of America, at least a fascinating projection of its author. Arriving in Chicago tired, he heads for a hotel — his reserved room isn’t ready, but he’s given another one that’s just been vacated. He imagines the previous occupant, a “Lonesome Harry” — a businessman who misses his wife but keeps an out-of-town girlfriend. He drank a lot but strived to keep his life in order. “He didn’t do a single thing that couldn’t be predicted,” Steinbeck wrote. “Didn’t break a glass or a mirror, committed no outrages, left no physical evidence of joy.” Alone in a room with an imaginary person, on the road in the middle of America, he was writing about his deepest concerns for his country, but also for himself.

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