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Lost & Found: Tom Grimes on John Steinbeck
It might be a stretch to call Travels with Charley a lost book, but it’s certainly one that speaks to the tradition of getting lost in the search for America. Here’s Tom Grimes on Steinbeck’s troubled vision of America as seen from the open road.
Does any writer ever truly capture an era or become the voice of a generation? I don’t think so. Art is artifice, invention, not reportage. So when John Steinbeck announces in his 1962 memoir, Travels with Charley, that he’s heading out in search of America, he really means, to me, that he’s heading out in search of his projection of America.
Travels with Charley appeared less than five years after On the Road, and yet Jack Kerouac’s rapturous fantasies of America find their absolute antithesis in Steinbeck’s ambivalent and often dyspeptic vision of what is ostensibly the same country. Kerouac, the optimist, was in search of his future; Steinbeck, the realist, was in search of his past.
The books’ divergence of tone and expectation can be explained by their opposing definitions of “the road.” In his 1930s classic, The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck traced the Great Depression’s dustbowl parade from the economically ravaged Midwest to the mythic promise of California. But twenty years later, that novel’s questing, archetypal hero, Tom Joad, wouldn’t recognize his literary offspring, Kerouac’s Sal Paradise. Joad fled poverty, hunger, and hopelessness; Paradise ran towards a luscious, abundant, and enthralling America. Tom’s rickety, overloaded truck crawled along potholed roads; Sal hitchhiked across the smooth precursors of our interstates. The speed and exuberance of Kerouac’s ecstasy conjured up vague and generalized revelations that were the exact opposite of Steinbeck’s concrete and vivid imagery. Tom Joad would never suggest, as Sal does, that “the prettiest girls in the world live in Des Moines.” Nor would he believe Sal when he says when he says, “I sat down in a kind of homemade diner. I heard a great laugh, the greatest laugh in the world, and here came this rawhide oldtimer Nebraska farmer… He didn’t have a care in the world…It was the spirit of the West sitting right next to me. I wished I knew his whole raw life.” Hours later, Sal imagines “a dark and dusty night on the plains, and the faces of Nebraska families everywhere wandering by…with their rosy children looking at everything with awe.” Steinbeck empathized with migrant workers; Kerouac romanticized dharma bums. He left behind the hardscrabble grimness of Steinbeck’s road and composed his own, imbuing it with a halcyon simplicity. Thus in lieu of Steinbeck’s working-class hero, we encounter Kerouac’s naïve portrait of a laborer, the so-called “spirit of the West.”
This was in 1957. Barely half a decade later, Kerouac’s cotton-candy America had disappeared, for Steinbeck had decided that “The new American finds his challenge and his love in traffic-choked streets, skies nested in smog, choking with the acids of industry, the screech of rubber and houses leashed in against one another while the townlets wither a time and die.” Now, rather than tracking the journey of an archetype, Steinbeck travels with his blue poodle, Charley. And whereas he’d once plotted Tom Joad’s mythic westward quest, Steinbeck now relies on a map. His America had become atomized, alien; and although he and Charley make their journey during JFK’s brief reign, the route takes them far from the age’s numinous and fictive Camelot.
Travels with Charley appeared late in Steinbeck’s career; the organizing force of his artistry was diminished, and his flagging imagination conjured up a country stripped of its magic. America fails to cohere as a projection of his sensibilities, and he finds himself emotionally defenseless. Toward the end of the trip, the road overwhelms him. His vision borders on hallucination when in segregated New Orleans, he watches a Negro girl being escorted into an all-white school outside of which “the police had set up wooden barriers to keep the crowd back…along the curb the United States marshals were spaced, not in uniform but wearing armbands to identify them.” From behind the barricades, women shout “bestial and filthy and degenerate” words, which to Steinbeck sound like “the vomitings of demoniac humans… a kind of frightening witches’ Sabbath.” Sickened, he turns toward home, envying Charley because he “doesn’t even know about race.” Nor is the dog troubled by the sentiments of a hitchhiker Steinbeck later picks up who says of the protestors in New Orleans, “God bless them. Somebody got to keep the goddamn niggers out of our school.” Within miles, Steinbeck forces the man out of the truck. By that point, Charley, like his owner, simply wanted to get home.
“It would be pleasant to be able to say of my travels with Charley,” Steinbeck writes, that “I went out to find the truth about my country and I found it.” But he can’t, nor can Kerouac. Because there is no truth, only stories. In them, characters travel roads fashioned out of an author’s longing and imagination. And when an author’s vision is powerful enough, as it is in both Steinbeck’s and Kerouac’s work, all a reader can do is follow.
Tom Grimes is the author of five novels, a play, and Mentor: A Memoir (Tin House Books). He edited Workshop: Seven Decades of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, the creative writing program from which he graduated. He now directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Texas State University.