Travels with Charley, In Search of America

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By John Steinbeck


I suppose our capacity for self-delusion is boundless. I knew very well that I rarely make notes, and if I do I either lose them or can't read them. I also knew from thirty years of my profession that I cannot write hot on an event. It has to ferment. I must do what a friend calls "mule it over" for a time before it goes down. And in spite of this self-knowledge I equipped Rocinante with enough writing material to take care of ten volumes.


And suddenly the United States became huge beyond belief and impossible ever to cross. I wondered how in hell I'd got myself mixed up in a project that couldn't be carried out. It was like starting to write a novel. When I face the desolate impossibility of writing five hundred pages a sick sense of failure falls on me and I know I can never do it. This happens every time. Then gradually I write one page and then another. One day's work is all I can permit myself to contemplate and I eliminate the possibility of ever finishing.


There's a gentility on the road. A direct or personal question is out of bounds. But this is simple good manners anywhere in the world. He did not ask my name nor I his, but I had seen his quick eyes go to the firearms in their rubber slings, to the fishing rods pinioned agains the wall.

I love the phrase "the first tempering of darkness with the dawn" in (p33)

He liked traveling so much he wanted to get started early, and early for Charley is the first tempering of darkness with the dawn.

Hint for travelling (page 33-4)

I soon discovered that if a wayfaring stranger wishes to eavesdrop on a local population the places for him to slip in and hold his peace are bars and churches. But some New England towns don't have bars, and church is only on Sunday. A good alternative is the roadside restaurant where men gather for breakfast before going to work or going hunting. To find these places inhabited, one must get up very early. And there is a drawback even to this. Early-rising men not only do not talk much to strangers, they barely talk to one another. Breakfast conversation is limited to a series of laconic grunts. The natural New England taciturnity reaches its glorious perfection at breakfast.

I love this description (on page 36.)

At intervals I drove Rocinante off the rroad and let Charley out to smell over the register of previous guests. Then I would heat my coffee and sit comfortably on my back step and contemplate wood and water and the quick-rising mountains with crowns of conifers and the fir trees high up, dusted with snow.

On page 39 Steinbeck describes himself. He motivates this by quoting from Addison who writes that many readers want to know what the author looks like, how old he is, etc. before they can engage with his prose. It's a great description: though it's much less than a thousand words it's worth a whole lot more than a picture.

Among the generality of men I am tall--six feet even--although among the males of my family I am considered a dwarf. They range from six feet two inches to six feet five, and I know that both my sons, when they stretch their full height, will overtop me. I am very wide of shoulder and, in the condition I now find myself, narrow of hip. My legs are long in proportion to my trunk and are said to be shapely. My hair is grizzled gray, my eyes blue and my cheeks ruddy, a complexion inherited from my Irish mother. My face has not ignored the passage of time, but recorded it with scars, lines, furrows, and erosions. I wear a beard and mustache but shave my cheeks; said beard, having a dark skunk strip up the middle and white edges, commemorates certain relatives. I cultivate this beard not for the usual given reasons of skin trouble or pain of shaving, nor for the secret purpose of covering a weak chin, but as pure unblushing decoration, much as a peacock finds pleasure in his tail. And finally, in our time a beard is the only thing a woman cannot do better than a man, or if she can her success is assured only in a circus.

Excersize: You are Steinbeck's editor; edit this passage (p94-5, reflections on daydreaming in the car) and add something of your own to it.

If one has driven a car over many years, as I have, nearly all reactions have become automatic. One does not think about what to do. Nearly all the driving technique is deeply buried in a machine-like unconscious. This being so, a large area of the conscious mind is left free for thinking. And what do people think of when they drive? On short trips perhaps of arrival at a destination or memory of events at the place of departure. But there is left, particularly on very long trips, a large area for daydreaming or even, God help us, for thought. No one can know what another does in that area. I myself have planned houses I will never build, have made gardens I will never plant, have designed a method for pumping the soft silt and decayed shells from the bottom of my bay up to my opint of land at Sag Harbor, of leeching out the salt thus making a rich and productive soil. I don't know whether or not I will do this, but driving along I have planned it in detail even to the kind of pump, the leeching bins, the tests to determine disappearance of salinity. Driving, I have created turtle traps in my mind, have written long, detailed letters never to be put to paper, much less sent. When the radio was on, music has stimulated memories of times and places, complete with characters and stage sets, memories so exact that every word of dialogue is recreated. And I have projected future scenes, just as complete and convincing--scenes that will never take place. I've written short stories in my mind, chuckling at my own humor, saddened or stimulated by structure or content. I can only suspect that the lonely man peoples his driving dreams with friends, that the loveless man surrounds himself with lovely loving women, and that children climb through the dreaming of? If only I had done so-and-so, or had not said such-and-such--my God, the damn thing might not have happened.

In the style of Kurt Vonnegut this would become:

Listen. Wilbur Carmichael had been a trucker for over 20 years. He was an expert at daydreaming. When he started on another trip his imagination usually took about an hour to boot, and then it kept on generating content until he arrived at his destination. On this particular trip he was transporting maple syrup from Wisconsin to Kentucky. When he wasn't listening to the radio his fantasies would fill in whatever gap there was in his life. Often his imagination would surround him with lovely loving women. Other times still he would think back to past events in his life. He would re-create and replay things that had happened with all the rich details in them.



  • Evoking a keen sense of sadness or regret.


  • A series of petitions for use in church services or processions, usually recited by the clergy and responded to in a recurring formula by the people.
  • A tedious recital or repetitive series.


  • Reserved or uncommunicative in speach; saying little.

He looked at me with the contained amusement that is considered taciturnity by non-Yankees. "Would you have any if I didn't?"


  • Showing a casual and cheerful indifference considered to be callous or improper

I soon learned that if I tried to inject life and gaiety into her job with a blithe remark she dropped her eyes and answered "Yep" or "Umph."


  • An intelectual or litterary woman.

Salinas is a city in California, presumably where Steinbeck grew up. Pilfered

  • To steal, typically things of relatively little value.

I seem to have had a fortunate childhood for a writer. My grandfather, Sam'l Hamilton, loved good writing, and he knew it too, and he had some bluestocking daughters, among them my mother. Thus it was that in Salinas, in the great dark walnut bookcase with the glass doors, there were strange and wonderful things to be found. My parents never offered them, and the glass door obviously guarded them, and so I pilfered from that case. It was neither forbidden nor discouraged. I think today if we forbade our illiterate children to touch the wonderful things of our literature, perhaps they might steal them and find secret joy.