Travels with Charley: In Search of America
By John Steinbeck. First published 1961. Penguin Edition, 1986, 277 pp.
John Steinbeck’s account of the American road trip he took in 1960 with his French poodle Charley is surely a classic that all travel book reviewers should have read. So it’s with some embarrassment that I confess I’ve only gotten around to it now. Why had I never read it? After all, you don’t simply miss such an acclaimed and popular work in your field. Clearly, I had avoided it.
In retrospect—and I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this as well—I think my problem was the dog. When I was younger, I wasn’t overly fond of dogs. The only dog I’d had anything to do with was the one my parents got after I’d left home, a neurotic Scottie who growled at me on visits, and bared his teeth. I sympathized with the neurosis—a family trait!—but kept my distance all the same. He was not a friendly soul.
I also think I felt—without having read the book—that Steinbeck might have used the dog as a gimmick. And I find that travel book gimmicks—designed, I always feel, to sell books—can be annoying.
In any case, before I turn off all dog lovers—which seems to be most Americans—let me say that having lived with and loved a dog in recent years, my attitude has entirely changed.
So while I regret not having read Steinbeck’s fine book earlier—by now I could be rereading it—I’m glad that by the time I got to it I could fully respond to the author’s relationship with Charley, and to Charley himself.
In fact, Steinbeck was shrewd to bring Charley on his journey, apart from the company he provided. From a travel perspective, dogs open up conversations with strangers, the Americans whom Steinbeck wanted to meet. And from a literary perspective, they provide constant interest and diversion, however dull the spot where the traveler happens to land. Charley’s responses to the world around him enliven the book throughout.
Of course, there’s more to Travels with Charley than just Charley. But he is a strong presence throughout, whether he is helping to make friends with French-Canadian potato pickers in Maine (Charley, after all, was born in France), or becoming the butt of racist jokes in the South, which , in 1960, was enmeshed in the ugly battle for desegregation. Charley’s illness on the journey adds worrisome drama.
Travels with Charley holds up well after all these years. Steinbeck’s observations remain pertinent, his humor is still funny, and his reflections—on travel as well as on America—are still engaging. His prose is a pleasure to read. And Charley is timeless—I loved the dog.