Life Lessons From Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charley”

Our lives are dictated by a variety of proclivities that influence our decisions and choices and actions. For me, two that have greatly informed my life are my insatiable wanderlust and my boundless love for dogs. I’ve explored and traveled anywhere I can, finding equal joy in a quick jaunt to a nearby town and a long plane ride to far-off place. I’ve doted heavily on my own dogs, stopped to greet every dog I pass, and I’ve volunteered at animal shelters. It should be no surprise that one of my most enduring favorite books is John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley, the iconic author’s 1961 memoir that deftly fuses a lust for travel with the great mystery of the love between canines and humans.

I recently reread this book, and realize how much Steinbeck’s discoveries align with my own. Not simply about dogs, but about the nooks and crannies of our big, weird, beautiful country. As a native New Yorker, I once shared a common belief that New York, and the East Coast in general, were the center of all things. Steinbeck, who was living in New York at the time he was writing Travels With Charley, said, “New York is no more America than Paris is France or London is England.”

I came to the Midwest when I relocated to Chicago five years ago, and have now traveled extensively in the area. I’ve grown to see how right Steinbeck was. A recent blog post on Biographile discusses how, when placed in historical context, Travels With Charley documents an America on the precipice of interstate domination:–you could travel from coast to coast without ever truly seeing anything, and on Steinbeck’s efforts to capture the places that were America’s heart and soul. Steinbeck went on an epic American road trip and the resulting book reads as a snapshot of mid-century America in flux, its places and its spaces and its vibe, its racial and social and cultural tensions– all through the eyes of one of our greatest American writers.

However, the other great story told in Steinbeck’s memoir revolves around the spiritual nature of a relationship with a dog. Steinbeck’s traveling companion for his journey, his standard French Poodle Charley, figures prominently in the narrative. The poodle is suffused with complex human traits and emotions, many of which Steinbeck cheekily attributes to his French heritage. He is a proud dog, vain of his appearance. He fears abandonment and hates being left at the groomer. He is a handsome and stately purebred who was tragically “kept out of dog shows” because of his crooked front teeth.

Beneath the heartwarming humor of Steinbeck’s Charley lies the reality that both author and companion were aging during this journey, and neither were terribly well. Steinbeck mentions Charley’s increasing urinary troubles, causing them to interrupt the journey and visit a vet. Steinbeck himself was already suffering from the heart ailment that would eventually claim his life.

The “Search for America,” the subtitle of Steinbeck’s book, is an age-old desire, heavily romanticized in American culture–its literature, its art and its songwriting. Steinbeck’s motivation in penning this memoir, during the twilight of his career, reads as one of a man who is reflecting on the true meaning of it all after a long, well-lived life. Lamenting that he has traveled so much over the past several decades, he worries he’s lost touch with the country about which he’s written. He wants to reconnect, one final time, with his home. It is less America that Steinbeck is in search of than himself. Although the facts of Steinbeck’s journey have been called into question throughout the years, the love and respect between him and Charley is one thing that rings true. Essentially, confronting our own mortality lies at the very core of Steinbeck’s journey, and considering dogs’ lives are rapid fire versions of our own, Charley is a proxy for his own insecurities and fears, his own lamentations about aging, all of his concerns. To anyone who has loved a dog, it comes as no surprise that Steinbeck chose to take his canine companion on such a journey, immortalizing their relationship in print–and revisiting Travels With Charley time and again is a worthwhile trip.

Melissa D’Lando

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